A recent Law 360 story by James Mills, “Appeals Court Says Calif. Firm Must Share Fees With Ex-Atty,” reports that a California state appellate panel held that an attorney's fee sharing agreement with her former law firm was enforceable. The panel ruled the memorandum of understanding between Los Angeles litigator Ibiere Seck and The Cochran Firm in Los Angeles was enforceable since it clearly spelled out a fee sharing agreement about cases she had worked that would remain with the firm upon her departure. The firm had contended the MOU was not definitive enough to be enforced, despite the fact the firm had no issues with the fee sharing agreement regarding five other cases covered by the MOU.
"The material terms of the fee sharing agreement between the parties can be readily ascertained from the MOU. The Cochran Firm was required to pay Seck 25 percent of the net attorney fees for a specified list of cases," the three judges on the Second Appellate District wrote in their non-published opinion. "We are provided with no reasonable explanation why The Cochran Firm contends that the MOU was not sufficiently definite given that it performed under the terms of the agreement on five separate occasions without incident."
Seck worked at The Cochran Firm for 10 years, departing at the end of 2018 to start her own firm, Seck Law, in downtown Los Angeles, according to her LinkedIn profile. She represents plaintiffs in civil litigation, including catastrophic injury, wrongful death, traumatic brain injury and civil rights cases. The MOU included a list of specific cases that Seck had worked on that were remaining with The Cochran Firm for which she would receive 25% of the attorney fees. The court ruling detailed that in 2019, the firm paid her 25% of five cases covered by the MOU.
However, in October 2019, the John Reddick v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority personal injury case settled for $5 million. When Cochran did not share the money with Seck, she asserted a lien for 25% of the attorney fees. Seck had started with that case in 2017, and it was specifically covered by the MOU. The Cochran Firm filed a complaint against Seck regarding the Reddick case saying the MOU did not cover it as Reddick did not consent in writing to the fee agreement. The Cochran Firm also sought to have the court declare that Seck had no legal right to assert a lien on the firm. However, a trial court ruled in Seck's favor in July 2020.
After that ruling, Seck made a formal demand for payment in the Reddick case but The Cochran Firm rejected the demand. In October 2020, Seck filed a cross complaint for breach of contract for The Cochran Firm's refusal to pay her 25%. Seck moved for summary judgment on the breach of contract claim and in April 2022, the trial court granted the motion, finding the MOU created a valid fee sharing agreement between the two parties.
In May 2022, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of Seck and awarded her $500,000, which was her 25% share of the Reddick case attorney fees plus interest. The trial court also ruled she was entitled to receive court costs. At the same time, the court stated that The Cochran Firm's complaint against Seck was resolved and therefore moot. But The Cochran Firm appealed, contending that the MOU was unenforceable because it was not sufficiently definite.
In addition to ruling in Seck's favor regarding the enforceability of the MOU, the appellate court also dismissed The Cochran Firm's contention that the MOU was unenforceable because it violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, rule 1.5.1, which prohibits lawyers who are not in the same law firm from dividing a fee for legal services, unless certain conditions are met including written consent from the client. The court noted that Seck was still employed at The Cochran Firm when the MOU was enacted, thus the fee sharing agreement was not subject to rule 1.5.1. The appellate court further ruled the amount of time Seck spent working on any of the cases on the MOU, including the Reddick case, was irrelevant. If a specific case was listed on the MOU, she should be paid the 25% agreed to.