March 31, 2009
Contract Language Controls Fee Dispute
In a dispute between lawyers over a $1.9 million award of attorneys' fees in a medical malpractice action, the New York Court of Appeals held that an attorney who had brought in co-counsel to try the case was entitled as a matter of contract to the agreed upon one-third of the entire fee.
Attorney Simal contacted attorney Samuel to serve as trial counsel. They agreed that Simal would get "one-third of the entire legal fee." The client was notified of the arrangement in writing and consented to the agreement. Samuel brought in another attorney to assist in the trial. After three weeks of trial, the matter settled for $6.7 million, resulting in a statutory attorneys' fee of over $800,000.
The two trial counsel moved for an enhanced fee and were awarded $1.9 million. Samuel then sent Simal a check for 1/3 of the fee his firm had received but nothing from the fee award to the firm of the second trial counsel. Simel rejected the amount, demanding one-third of the entire fee. Samuel then sought a declaratory judgment that Simal had violated fee-sharing ethics rules and should get nothing.
The Appellate Division concluded that Simal had complied with ethics rules (the court here agrees) but should only get paid from Samuel's share. The court here concludes that the lower court erred in disregarding the express language of the agreement between Simal and Samuel: "...it is of no moment that Simal did not contribute to that part of the work that resulted in the award of the enhanced fee. In the realm of fee-sharind disputes, 'courts will not inquire into the precise worth of the services performed by the parties.' " The court also noted that Samuel should not be heard to complain about the ethics of an agreement to which he had freely accepted. (Mike Frisch)
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