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ISBA Mutual Can’t Drop Defense of Law Firm in Fee Dispute

December 14, 2021 | Posted in : Attorney-Client Relationship, Coverage of Fees, Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Expenses / Costs, Fee Dispute, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fees & Insurance Policy, Fees in Transactional Matters, Legal Malpractice, Practice Area: Insurance Litigation

A recent Law360 story by Emily Lever, “Ill. Bar Insurer Can’t Ditch Law Firm Defense in Fees Fight,” reports that the Illinois State Bar Association Mutual Insurance Company can't avoid defending a law firm accused of wrongfully pocketing attorney fees for its handling of an estate case, an Illinois appellate court ruled, saying the suit is covered by the firm's malpractice insurance.  The insurer has a duty to cover lawyer Alan E. Sohn and his firm in a dispute with Randy Sly, the executor of an estate Sohn represented in probate court, over $280,000 in legal fees, according to a three-judge panel of the First Judicial District of the Appellate Court of Illinois.  The court held that the money at issue is not just for fees — it's also a loss incurred by Sohn's alleged malpractice, meaning it can be understood as damages.

"Sly's injury is not a consequence of the fees charged, but a consequence of Sohn's allegedly negligent advice," Justice Mary Ellen Coghlan wrote on behalf of the panel.  Justices Aurelia Pucinski and Carl A. Walker concurred.  The court rejected ISBA Mutual's 2019 appeal, which argued that the suit against Sohn seeks repayment of attorney fees rather than damages, and therefore the issue is a billing dispute and not about the practice of law, so Sohn's insurance shouldn't have to foot the bill.

Sly is suing Sohn, claiming his former attorney gave him faulty legal advice on executing the estate of Linda Loessy, who died in 2012.  The Circuit Court of Cook County ruled that Sohn's work "resulted in little benefit" to Loessy's estate, which was "not a complicated estate to administer."  The court ruled that he should have been paid no more than $135,000 for his services and should return the excess, which amounted to $185,000, plus more than $95,000 in court fees incurred by a court-appointed guardian for Loessy's children in his action against Sohn.

Sohn's insurance, which was active throughout the course of case, covers "wrongful acts" related to the "rendering of or failure to render professional services," but excludes attorney fees, which ISBA Mutual argued let it off the hook for the $280,000.  A straightforward billing dispute would be "purely ministerial" and not sufficiently related to the practice of law to qualify for coverage, according to the panel, but this dispute is both about the fees billing and about the alleged misbehavior by which Sohn obtained the fees, the panel held, noting that the court-appointed guardian's filings say the payouts to Sohn "substantially reduced" the estate.