Saturday, March 7, 2009
In an action brought for unpaid legal fees, the New York Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department held that the attorney could not recover pursuant to the retainer agreement because that agreement was "susceptible of no interpretation" other than a prohibited contingent fee arrangement in a domestic relations matter. Any recovery must be on a quantum meruit basis:
"If the terms of a retainer agreement are not established, or if a client discharges an attorney without cause, the attorney may recover only in quantum meruit to the extent that the fair and reasonable value of legal services can be established" In order to make out a claim in quantum meruit, a claimant must establish (1) the performance of the services in good faith, (2) the acceptance of the services by the person to whom they are rendered, (3) an expectation of compensation therefor, and (4) the reasonable value of the services'". In support of its motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff established that it performed legal services on the defendant's behalf in good faith, and that the defendant accepted these services. However, the plaintiff failed, on this motion, to establish that it expected compensation for its services, at least insofar as the matrimonial matter was concerned, and failed to establish the reasonable value of its services. Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly denied that branch of the plaintiff's motion which was for summary judgment on the second cause of action, seeking recovery in quantum meruit. The court also properly denied that branch of the defendant's cross motion which was for summary judgment dismissing the second cause of action.
The court's decision does not address the ethical (as opposed to contractual) issue raised by the prohibited fee agreement. (Mike Frisch)