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.