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.