Friday, March 10, 2017

Unethical Agreement Enforceable Against Attorney In D.C.

A memorandum opinion issued by Judge John Bates of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia denies a defendant attorney's motion to dismiss and addresses an unresolved issue of D.C. law with respect to fee-sharing agreements with non-attorneys

Allan Gerson, the defendant and an attorney, contracted with Zvi Shtauber, the plaintiff, for Shtauber to provide services to assist Gerson in a lawsuit. Their contract specified a fee-sharing arrangement, where Gerson would share with Shtauber a portion of any contingency fee he earned from the lawsuit. Shtauber alleges that Gerson failed to pay, and now sues for enforcement of that contract, or alternatively for recovery in quantum meruit, and for a declaratory judgment that he is entitled to a portion of Gerson’s fees in the future. Gerson moves to dismiss, arguing that the contract is unenforceable as contrary to public policy because a fee-sharing contract between a lawyer and a non lawyer violates the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, and that Shtauber cannot pursue a claim for quantum meruit when there is a contract between the parties. The Court will deny Gerson’s motion.

The court notes that many facts were not in dispute

In 2004, Gerson explored the possibility of suing Arab Bank and other financial institutions “on behalf of victims of genocide and terrorism in Israel and in territories administered by the Palestinian Authority.” Id. Gerson hired Shtauber to assist in the lawsuit. Id. ¶ 6. Shtauber, a resident of Israel, has experience in relevant fields of national security and has served as both the Foreign Policy Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister and as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Id. Shtauber connected Gerson to an Israeli attorney, David Mena, to help litigate the case against Arab Bank, and provided additional “consulting services” in connection with Gerson’s suit. Id. ¶ 7. 

As to fee sharing

Gerson argues that the fee sharing arrangement is forbidden by the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct (“Rules”) in effect at the time, and therefore is unenforceable as against public policy. Shtauber responds that the Agreement is not contrary to the Rules, but even if it is, it’s still enforceable.

The Agreement was signed in 2005. At the time, Rule 5.4(a) of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct stated: “A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer” and then provided four exceptions.  See also D.C. Code § 11-2501 (attorneys admitted to the D.C. bar are subject to the Rules). The first two exceptions concern payments to an attorney’s estate after death. The third exception states a “lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit sharing arrangement.” Rule 5.4(a)(3). The fourth states that fee sharing “is permitted in a partnership or other form of organization” that meets specified requirements, as laid out in Rule 5.4(b), for a nonlawyer to exercise managerial authority over the firm or have a financial interest in the firm. Id. 5.4(a)(4)...

Rule 5.4(a) clearly prohibits the fee sharing arrangement described here. The Agreement between Shtauber and Gerson states that “Dr. Shtauber’s fees under this Agreement shall be 20% of any and all contingent legal fees” due to the Gerson Group for claimants referred to them by Mena. Agreement ¶ 4. In addition to this arrangement being forbidden by the plain language of Rule 5.4(a), the D.C. Bar has issued an ethics opinion explicitly stating that “[a] payment by a lawyer to another person for the referral of legal business, which is contingent on the lawyer’s receipt of fees from the referred legal business and is tied to the amount of those fees” constitutes fee sharing that is prohibited by Rule 5.4(a). See D.C. Legal Ethics Op. 286 (1998). This does not describe the exact situation here: Shtauber is not being paid directly for referring clients, rather he is being paid a contingent fee with respect to clients referred to Gerson by another attorney, Mena. Nonetheless, Shtauber is being paid “for the referral of legal business” (through an intermediary) that is “contingent on [Gerson’s] receipt of fees from the referred legal business and is tied to the amount of those fees.” Thus the Agreement is likely covered by Ethics Opinion 286, in addition to being forbidden by the plain language Rule 5.4(a).

But the agreement is enforceable

This case raises an open question of District of Columbia law. In light of existing D.C. Court of Appeals precedent, this Court believes that although the Agreement violates the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, it is nonetheless enforceable in this particular instance. Moreover Shtauber may seek recovery in quantum meruit as an alternative to damages on the contract. 

The Bar ethics opinion cited is linked here. (Mike Frisch)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2017/03/a-memorandum-opinion-issued-by-judge-john-bates-of-the-united-states-district-court-for-the-district-of-columbia-allan-gerso.html

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