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Category: Fee Clause

Fee Dispute Sent to Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause

March 31, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Atty-Client Spat Sent To Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause, reports that a Florida state appeals court ruled that a woman's suit against her former attorney for erroneously wiring funds to a hacker's account number is subject to an arbitration clause in their retention agreement, even though a fee-shifting provision in the agreement was deemed invalid.  Florida's Third District Court of Appeal said that the arbitration clause in the agreement between Valeria Sessa and Natalie Lemos of Leinoff & Lemos PA is valid, and that it unambiguously covers Sessa's tort claims against her former attorney for sending half of her divorce settlement to a hacker's bank account.

Sessa had argued that the disputes subject to the arbitration clause in the agreement are limited to claims of fee disputes and legal malpractice, not generalized tort claims like hers, but the appeals court disagreed.  "The duty Lemos owed to Sessa, and allegedly breached by Lemos, is simply not the type of duty generally owed to others besides the contracting parties," the appeals court said. "It is, rather, a duty 'created by the parties' unique contractual relationship.'"

The agreement also included a severability provision, which the appeals court said allowed it to divorce the enforceable arbitration clause from the invalid provisions that require the client to advance any arbitration costs in the event of a dispute and to pay for the firm's attorney fees and costs.  The appeals court said Florida lawyers are barred from agreements with clients that prospectively limit their liability for malpractice.

"While the subject provisions in the arbitration clause are certainly not the type of exculpatory clauses expressly prohibited by the rule, in practice the two provisions erect a significant barrier to a client seeking recourse against her lawyer," the Third District said.  Sessa hired Lemos in June 2018 to represent her in her divorce.  In 2019, Sessa and her ex-husband negotiated a settlement that required him to make two lump-sum payments to her, according to the opinion.

The first payment was made directly to Sessa's brokerage account, but the second was made to Lemos' trust account so that she could deduct any outstanding fees and costs before wiring the balance to Sessa, according to the opinion.  But someone hacked into either Sessa's or Lemos' email accounts, and Lemos received fraudulent wiring instructions. She wired the balance of the second payment to a phony bank account and the money was never recovered.  Sessa then filed a lawsuit and Lemos asked for the court to compel arbitration. The trial court denied that request after finding that the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable because of the invalid fee-shifting provisions in the agreement.

Judge Orders Attorney Fee Dispute to Arbitration

March 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Emma Whitford, “Atty Must Arbitrate Fee Dispute With Racehorse Trader,” reports that a California judge ordered an attorney to arbitrate her dispute with a U.K. racehorse auctioneer company, her former client, over fees allegedly due when she represented the company accusing a financier of failing to pay for a racehorse.  Attorney Diana Courteau of California claimed in her April complaint that Tattersalls Ltd., the racehorse company, failed to pay her $73,255.34 for the months of February and March 2020, after firing her that March.  The six-claim complaint also accused Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins LLP, the company's English counsel, of fraud and intentional misrepresentation.

But Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins pushed back with a motion to dismiss, pointing to an arbitration provision in their contract with Courteau and claiming that she failed to give them proper notice under the California Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act, which lays out rules for the handling of attorney-client fee disputes.  "Here, it is undisputed that [the] plaintiff did not provide the mandatory notice form to defendants," U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled, adding that the case will be stayed while arbitration goes forward.

"Moreover," Judge Gee added, "the agreement between plaintiff and Tattersalls contains a broad arbitration provision governing the very dispute at issue."  Specifically, a "dispute over legal bills that alleges breach of contract and related claims."  Courteau had argued that Bracher Rawlins could not compel her to arbitrate because the firm is not a signatory to her agreement with Tattersalls.  But Judge Gee disagreed, saying that Bracher Rawlins will be part of the arbitration as an "agent" of Tattersalls.

It is "well settled that a nonsignatory may compel a signatory to arbitrate based on agency principles," Judge Gee wrote, adding that Bracher Rawlins "was only in a position to direct or authorize plaintiff to perform legal work for Tattersalls in its capacity as Tattersalls' agent."  The order is just the latest development in the litigious fallout of Tattersalls' working relationship with Courteau, who represented the company in various matters from 2011 until March of last year.

Last June, in the case Courteau worked for Tattersalls until they fired her, U.S. District Judge Karen S. Crawford ordered Courteau to pay $31,772.62 in sanctions to defendants Gerald Wiener and his entity Finance California Inc., court records show.  The sanctions covered attorney fees for a two-day deposition last January in which the court found that Courteau coached the witness, as well as the cost of preparing the sanctions motion, court records show.

Wiener and Finance California had also sought termination sanctions, a serious sanction that would have ended the case, for Courteau's alleged "abusive" and "hardball" tactics.  But Judge Crawford denied that motion, saying the "worst of this conduct has been addressed" and "monetary sanctions have been imposed which should be enough to deter future misconduct."  Courteau has yet to pay the sanctions, court records show.  Attorneys for Wiener filed a notice of lien in the instant suit on Jan. 15.

In a Feb. 4 declaration to the court, Courteau urged Judge Gee to proceed with a trial for her fee dispute or, in the alternative, send the case to "global mediation" along with the Wiener case, which is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.  "Plaintiff is willing to stipulate (notwithstanding meritorious grounds for appeal) that ... the $31,772,62 (sanctions) can be paid from fees owed by defendants," Courteau wrote.

NJ Case Has Lessons on Arbitration Clauses in Attorney Retainers

February 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Hilary Gerzhoy, Deepika Ravi, and Amy Richardson, “NJ Case Has Lessons On Arbitration Clauses in Atty Retainers”, reports on arbitration clauses in attorney retainers in New Jersey.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Dec. 21, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Delaney v. Dickey, an opinion that severely limits the enforceability of arbitration provisions in law firm retainer agreements.  The court held that an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is only enforceable if an attorney provides "an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration" to a client before the client signs the retainer agreement.

The decision, which applies prospectively, tracks and builds on other jurisdictions' limitations on the enforceability of arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  Attorneys wishing to resolve client disputes via arbitration should take close note of these heightened disclosure obligations.

Delaney v. Dickey

Delaney v. Dickey addressed whether an arbitration provision contained within Sills Cummis & Gross PC's four-page retainer agreement was enforceable.  A Sills attorney provided the retainer agreement to client Brian Delaney during an in-person meeting.  The retainer agreement contained a provision stating that any disputes about the law firm's fees or legal services would be resolved by arbitration.

The arbitration provision stated that the result of any arbitration would not be subject to appeal, and that Delaney's agreement to arbitration waived his right to a trial by jury:

The decision of the Arbitrator will be final and binding and neither the Firm nor you will have the right to appeal such decision, whether in a court or in another arbitration proceeding.  You understand that, by agreeing to arbitrate disputes as provided in this retainer letter, you are waiving any and all statutory and other rights that you may have to a trial by jury in connection with any such dispute, claim, or controversy.

The retainer agreement included a one-page attachment that contained a hyperlink to the JAMS rules.  However, the Sills attorney did not provide Delaney with a hard copy of the JAMS rules at the meeting.  The attachment also stated that the arbitration would be conducted by one impartial arbitrator; that the parties waived any claim for punitive damages; that the arbitration would be binding, nonappealable and confidential; and that the parties would share the arbitrator's fees and expenses, except that the arbitrator could award costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable "[b]ecause Delaney was not given an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration."

The court recognized that the Sills attorney had disclosed, in the retainer agreement and attachment, several of the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum — but it found that disclosure insufficient.  Instead, the court required that the attorney provide an "explanation" of these differences — but it did not provide clear guidance on what is required for a sufficient explanation.  Importantly, the court held that an attorney must explain the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, even when the client is "a sophisticated businessman."

The mere recitation of these differences in the retainer agreement, and the Sills attorney's "[offer] to answer any questions" Delaney had about the retainer agreement was insufficient to meet the attorney's fiduciary obligations.  Instead, the court imposed an obligation to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an arbitration provision either orally or in writing.

Although the court did not explicitly so state, its opinion suggests that an attorney cannot merely list the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, but rather must explain how those differences might affect the client's interests in the event of a future dispute.

What Happens Outside of New Jersey?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pointed to a string of ethics opinions and case law from other states that support heightened disclosure obligations on an attorney where an arbitration provision is included in a retainer agreement.  The court also pointed to jurisdictions that require a lawyer to go even further and advise a client to seek independent counsel before agreeing to arbitrate future disputes.  Delaney closely tracks the American Bar Association's Formal Opinion 02-425, Retainer Agreement Requiring the Arbitration of Fee Disputes and Malpractice Claims, issued in 2002.

The opinion concluded that a binding arbitration provision requiring all "disputes concerning fees and malpractice claims" to be resolved via arbitration does not violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), "provided that the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has given her informed consent to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement" and the arbitration provision does not "insulate ... or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law."

Because a lawyer has a fiduciary "duty to explain matters to a client," she must "advise clients of the possible adverse consequences as well as the benefits that may arise from the execution of an agreement" that includes an arbitration provision.  Accordingly, compliance with Rule 1.4(b) requires that the lawyer "'explain' the implications of the proposed binding arbitration provision 'to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make [an] informed decision' about whether to agree to the [provision's] inclusion" in the retainer agreement.

Unlike the New Jersey opinion, the ABA concluded that just how extensie that disclosure must be will depend on "the sophistication of the client."  However, consistent with Delaney, the lawyer "should make clear that arbitration typically results in the client's waiver of significant rights, such as the waiver of the right to a jury trial, the possible waiver of broad discovery, and the loss of the right to appeal."

For these reasons, the Sills attorney's failure to explain these differences to Delaney would similarly fail under the ABA standard.  While ABA opinions are persuasive, not binding, authority on the states, they are an important road map for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical and practical obligations.

The District of Columbia takes a similar approach.  D.C. Ethics Opinion 376, published in November 2018, concludes that an agreement to arbitrate fee disputes and legal malpractice claims is otherwise permitted by the rules, provided that the lawyer has adequately informed the client about "material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to" the proposed arbitration clause such that the client is "fully informed."

That requires, at minimum, that the attorney inform the client about differences between a judicial and arbitral forum as to (1) the fees to be charged; (2) the scope of discovery; (3) a right to a jury; and (4) a right to an appeal.  Like ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the D.C. opinion also advises that the scope of the discussion depends on the level of sophistication of the client.

What Should an Attorney Explain to a Client, and How?

While the Delaney case is only controlling in New Jersey, it provides useful guidance for attorneys hoping to create binding arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  As the Delaney court noted, the differences between resolving an attorney-client dispute in arbitration or before a judicial forum can be communicated orally, in writing, or both.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division stated in Delaney that it did not hold that the "reasonable explanation" required of an attorney cannot be contained in the written retainer agreement.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion did not directly address that question, suggesting that an attorney can sufficiently explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral forum within the retainer agreement.

Rather, the court held that the disclosure in the case before it — which merely recited several of the differences between a judicial and arbitral forum, with no additional explanation provided orally or in writing about these or other differences — was insufficient.  Recognizing that not all arbitration provisions are alike, the court enumerated several differences between an arbitral and judicial forum about which a client might need to be advised including the following:

1.  An arbitration resolves a dispute before a single arbitrator and not a jury of one's peers.

2.  The arbitrator's decision is final and binding with no right of appeal.

3.  Unlike court proceedings, arbitration proceedings are conducted privately and the outcome will remain confidential.

4.  Unlike court proceedings, the arbitration process offers a more limited right to discovery.

5.  The client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator.

6.  A plaintiff prevailing in a judicial forum may be entitled to punitive damages, but that right may be waived in an arbitral forum.

7.  A judicial forum generally does not permit reasonable attorney fees to be imposed against a nonprevailing client in a nonfrivolous malpractice action, whereas an arbitral forum may permit an award that imposes costs, expenses and reasonable attorney fees against the nonprevailing party.

However, the court was silent as to how an attorney is to translate that list into a compliant explanation to a client.  Practically then, attorneys should, at a minimum, explain — not merely recite — these differences to a client prior to the client agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision.

The attorney's explanation should include, for example, that applicable arbitration procedures offer limited discovery — for instance, the JAMS procedures "limit each party to 'one deposition of an opposing [p]arty or of one individual under the control of the opposing [p]arty'" whereas judicial rules do not have a set limitation on the number of depositions available.

The attorney should also explain that, unlike a court proceeding where neither party pays for a judge's time, parties in arbitration often split the cost of the arbitrator's hourly rate, which can be costly.  And, at least in New Jersey, an attorney must provide a hard copy of the rules governing the arbitration — but note that neither D.C. Ethics Opinion 376 nor ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 imposes that requirement.  And, perhaps most importantly, an attorney must understand the relative benefits and disadvantages of arbitration so as to answer any client questions.

Conclusion

While agreements to arbitrate attorney-client disputes are routinely permitted, attorneys' ability to enforce such agreements will turn on the client's ultimate understanding of the implications of agreeing to arbitration.  Attorneys should, as always, consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and related guidance in their jurisdiction — and when in doubt, should err on the side of explaining, both orally and in writing, the benefits and disadvantages of an arbitral forum.

Hilary Gerzhoy is an associate, and Deepika Ravi and Amy Richardson are partners, at Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.

Illinois Court Weighs if Wage Law Provides for Attorney Fees

February 10, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “Court Must Weigh if Ill. Wage Law Provides For Atty Fees”, reports that an Illinois appellate court held that a former police officer isn't entitled to attorney fees under the settlement reached in his wage suit with a Chicago-area village, instructing the circuit court to consider on remand whether he can recover the fees under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.

Former officer David Graham contends he's entitled to attorney fees under the Illinois wage law, which provides workers can recoup fees in a successful civil action brought by "any employee not timely paid wages, final compensation, or wage supplements by his or her employer." Graham, who reached a settlement with the village of Dolton after a benefits dispute, argues that Employee Disability Act benefits constitute "wages," according to the appellate court.

The village had countered that Employee Disability Act benefits are not considered "wages" because they do not compensate employees for work "actually performed," according to the opinion.  The panel said the circuit court never addressed Graham's arguments that he is entitled to attorney fees under the Wage Payment and Collection Act, remanding with directions to consider whether he could recover attorney fees and costs pursuant to the statute.

In Illinois, each party is responsible for his own attorney fees, and the settlement agreement didn't contain a contractual fee-shifting provision that puts the village on the hook for more than $100,000 in fees and costs, the panel said.  Graham had argued that the entire agreement constituted a "contractual undertaking," and that the lower court had relied on a section of that agreement that states that the parties acknowledged he was "the prevailing party for purposes of his petition for [attorney] fees and costs," according to the opinion.

"Although this provision provides that plaintiff is the prevailing party for purposes of his fee petition, it does not expressly provide that the parties agreed that plaintiff, as the prevailing party, is entitled to recover attorney fees from defendant in the underlying action," the panel said.  But in the very next section of the agreement, the parties did expressly set forth which party was responsible for attorney fees if either side has to file suit for a breach of the settlement deal, the court said.

"If a party is forced to file a breach of contract action, the agreement provides that the prevailing party in that action would be entitled to reasonable attorney fees," the court said.  "Because this case is not an enforcement action, section six of the agreement does not apply."

Article: The Right Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?

February 7, 2021

A recent New York Law Journal article by Milton Williams and Christopher Dioguardi, “Retaining the ‘Right’ Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?,” reports on different retainer types in New York.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

This article evaluates which type of retainer agreement gives attorneys the best chance to preemptively shield their retainer fees before a client ends up in bankruptcy or the Department of Justice seizes and forfeits the client’s assets.

The scenario is this: A struggling business on the precipice of bankruptcy, or a criminal defendant whose property is subject to forfeiture, would like to hire you.  The prospective client has funds available to pay its legal fees, but what if you and/or the client expect that bankruptcy trustees or the Department of Justice will soon claim those funds for themselves?

At the outset of an engagement, an attorney can structure his or her retainer agreement to protect the retainer to the greatest extent possible in the event the client’s creditor comes knocking.  New York law recognizes three types of retainers: “classic,” “security,” and “advance payment.”  And under New York law, a retainer fee is shielded from attachment so long as the client does not retain an interest in the funds. See Gala Enterprises v. Hewlett Packard Co., 970 F. Supp. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).  For this reason, described in more detail below, it is the “advance payment” retainer agreement that will likely provide the most protection.

The ‘Classic’ Retainer

This type of retainer is typically a single, up-front payment to the lawyer simply for being available to the client—the attorney commits to future legal work for a specific period of time, regardless of inconvenience or workload constraints.  The classic retainer is not for legal services, and is therefore earned upon receipt, whether or not the attorney performs any services for the client (i.e., it is nonrefundable). See Agusta & Ross v. Trancamp Contr., 193 Misc.2d 781, 785-86 (N.Y. Civ. Ct. 2002) (general retainer compensates a lawyer for “agree[ing] implicitly to turn down other work opportunities that might interfere with his ability to perform the retainer-client’s needs” and “giv[ing] up the right to be retained by a host of clients whose interests might conflict with those of the retainer-client”).

Because the classic retainer is earned upon receipt and is nonrefundable, it without a doubt provides the most protection against would-be creditors.  However, the classic retainer is really only “classic” in the sense that it relates to antiquity.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in the modern practice of law where a client would want to pay a classic retainer.  And attorneys would be remiss to draw up a nonrefundable classic retainer agreement unless certain specific conditions are met.

In general, under New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(d)(4), “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge or collect … a nonrefundable retainer fee.” Further, under Rule 1.16(e), fees paid to a lawyer in advance for legal services are nonrefundable only to the extent they have been earned by the lawyer: “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall promptly refund any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned.” See also Matter of Cooperman, 83 N.Y.2d 465, 471 (1994) (holding that nonrefundable retainer fee agreements clash with public policy and transgress the rules of professional conduct; affirming lower court decision that the use of nonrefundable fee arrangements warranted two-year suspension.); Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219 (narrowly construing the holding in Cooperman, and holding that only retainers with express non-refundability language are invalid per se).

The Security Retainer

While the classic retainer might offer the attorney the most security, the security retainer offers little defense against a client’s future creditors.  Typically, payments pursuant to a security retainer are placed in an escrow or trust account to be drawn upon only as the fee is earned.  In other words, the security retainer remains the property of the client until the attorney applies it to charges for services rendered.

So long as the client retains an interest in escrowed funds, the escrow account is attachable.  Under New York law, a security retainer may be attached so long as it is subject to the client’s “present or future control,” or is required to be returned to the client if not used to pay for services rendered. See, e.g., Lang v. State of New York, 258 A.D.2d 165, 171 (1st Dept. 1999); Potter v. MacLean, 75 A.D.3d 686, 687 (3d Dept. 2010) (defendant owed more than $20,000 in arrears on child support obligations and subsequently paid law firm a $15,000 retainer fee; the court found that the retainer fee, which was held in escrow, was subject to restraining order); M.M. v. T.M., 17 N.Y.S.3d 588, 599 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015) (wife’s restraining notice against husband’s attorney’s security retainer was valid and enforceable); see also Pahlavi v. Laidlaw Holdings, 180 A.D.2d 595, 595-96 (1st Dept. 1992) (judgment debtor deposited $50,000 with his attorney after receipt of a restraining order and the court ordered his law firm to return them).

The Advance-Payment Retainer

Similar to the security retainer, the advance-payment retainer is a fee paid in advance for all or some of the services to be performed on a specific matter.  However, unlike a security retainer, ownership of the advance-payment retainer passes to the attorney immediately upon payment in exchange for the attorney’s promise to provide the legal services.  This type of retainer is likely the best way to ensure that the client has sufficient funds to pay for expected legal services.

Under an advance-payment retainer agreement, the law firm places the money into its operating account and may use the money as it chooses, subject only to the requirement that any unearned fee paid in advance be promptly refunded to the client upon termination of the relationship (recall Rule 1.16(e)).

A client’s contingent future interest in an advance-payment retainer, if any, that would be refunded if the firm’s services were prematurely terminated is not a sufficient basis for attachment. See Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219.  Therefore, the most secure option will likely be to require an advance payment for all services to be rendered, commonly referred to as a flat or fixed fee.  In other words, a creditor would not be able to seize such a retainer, even if part of the retainer may yet be refundable.  In Gala Enterprises, the court held that because a $150,000 flat fee as well as a $500,000 flat fee were subject to refund only if the legal services were prematurely terminated, the fees were therefore not attachable.

However, just because a client has paid an advance-payment retainer, does not mean that the retainer is untouchable.  Two specific possibilities come to mind.  First, Gala Enterprises illustrates that law firms might need to defend against fraudulent conveyance claims.  That being said, if the retainer is not excessive or unreasonable, the attorney is in a good position to defend against any such claims.  It goes without saying, when establishing a flat fee—or any fee for that matter—the fee must not be excessive. See Rule 1.5(a) (“[a] lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an excessive [] fee …”).

Second, attorneys of course must not accept funds that may have been obtained by fraud. See, e.g., S.E.C. v. Princeton Economic Intern. Ltd., 84 F. Supp. 2d 443 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (lawyer who blindly accepts fees from client under circumstances that would cause reasonable lawyer to question client’s intent in paying fees accepts fees at his peril.).

Conclusion

In sum, we offer this advice:

  1. Review the Rules of Professional Conduct and case law cited herein, as well as the relevant New York State Bar Association ethics opinions, specifically: Ethics Opinion 570, June 7, 1985; Ethics Opinion 816, Oct. 25, 2007; Ethics Opinion 983, Oct. 8, 2013; and Ethics Opinion 1202, Dec. 2, 2020.
  1. Be transparent and direct with prospective clients regarding retainer agreements.
  2. A reasonable advance-payment retainer for all services to be rendered will give attorneys the most protection against future unknown creditors.
  3. Make clear in the retainer agreement that the client acknowledges and agrees that the advance-payment will become the law firm’s property upon receipt and will be deposited into the law firm’s operating account, not into an escrow account or a segregated bank account.
  4. Acknowledge in the retainer agreement that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of advance payment based on the value of the legal services performed prior to termination.

Milton Williams is a partner and Christopher Dioguardi is an associate at Walden Macht & Haran LLP in New York.