Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Tennessee Court of Appeals held that a former client was not entitled to a partial fee refund, reversing the holding of the trial court and allowing the law firm to keep the full retainer.
Xingkui Guo signed a contract, structured as an engagement letter, with the Law Offices of Woods & Woods (“the Firm”), on June 15, 2014, for the Firm to represent him in an ongoing lawsuit against two of his former employees. Allen Woods, an attorney with the Firm, had primary responsibility for Mr. Guo’s case.
The client paid a flat fee of $7,000 and agreed to an additional fee of 1/3 of any amounts recovered in the litigation minus the retainer.
The agreement further provided
The contract further states: “[The Firm] may terminate this representation at any time, for good cause . . . .” Upon signing the engagement letter, Mr. Guo paid the Firm $7,000, and the Firm began its representation of Mr. Guo.
A disagreement arose between Mr. Woods and Mr. Guo beginning in early October 2014. After Mr. Woods conducted phone interviews with two third-party witnesses, he strongly advised Mr. Guo against taking their depositions because he thought their testimony would hurt Mr. Guo’s case and because he thought it would be unethical to depose the witnesses under the circumstances. When Mr. Guo insisted that Mr. Woods depose these two witnesses, Mr. Woods withdrew as Mr. Guo’s attorney
Mr. Guo sued for breach of contract.
The trial court
Defendant admits that it refused to take the depositions of these witnesses, but states that it refused to take the depositions because to do so would violate Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2(d) and would further the Plaintiff’s ulterior motive to take those depositions for a fraudulent purpose not related to the litigation. The Defendant requests that the Court rule it is entitled to the entirety of the $7,000.00 fee the Plaintiff previously paid it. In support of its argument, the Defendant offers evidence that its attorneys performed 20.4 hours of work on the Plaintiff’s lawsuit. Plaintiff requests $22,000.00 in damages for this alleged breach of contract. Based on the evidence presented at trial, the Court makes the following findings of fact:
The Defendant had justifiable reasons to refuse to take the depositions of the third party witnesses because the Defendant reasonably believed that to do so would violate Rules of Professional Conduct; and
The 20.4 hours of work the Defendant performed on the Plaintiff’s case is overblown.
Based on these findings of fact, the Court hereby rules that the Plaintiff is entitled to a judgment of $3,500 against the Defendant.
The court here
We next consider the Firm’s argument that the trial court erred in entering judgment in favor of Mr. Guo because it did not find that the Firm breached the contract. We agree. The trial court expressly found that Mr. Woods “had justifiable reasons to refuse to take the depositions of the third party witnesses because [Mr. Woods] reasonably believed that to do so would violate Rules of Professional Conduct.” The trial court’s order does not include a statement that the Firm breached the contract. Instead, the trial court’s finding that Mr. Woods had “justifiable reasons” for refusing to take the depositions suggests that the Firm did not breach the contract. Thus, the trial court erred in entering judgment in favor of Mr. Guo.
Rather, the winner is the law firm
We find that the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s finding that Mr. Woods’s hours spent on the case were “overblown.” Mr. Woods’s written summary and testimony support the hours he claims to have spent on the case. His set fee was reasonable in light of his qualifications and experience, Mr. Guo’s concerns about paying an hourly rate, the time and labor required, the likelihood of collecting on the judgment, and the fees typically charged in the local legal market for similar services.
We conclude that the trial court erred in awarding Mr. Guo $3,500 because he was not entitled to the return of any of the $7,000 he paid to the Firm.