Thursday, September 4, 2014
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has held that a suit initiated by a law firm for unpaid fees must be sent to the Bar's arbitration program on the former client's demand.
Judge Fisher noted that
BTP, a biotechnology firm, retained [Ludwig & Robinson] as counsel in March 2011 to help resolve a trade secret dispute. The dispute was settled in May 2012, L&R having billed BTP on a monthly basis during the course of its representation. By June 2012 L&R claimed that BTP owed approximately $1.7 million in outstanding legal fees, disbursements, and expenses. In January 2013 L&R brought suit to collect its fees.
Several weeks later, BTP responded to the complaint by filing a motion to stay the trial court proceedings and compel arbitration. In addition to claiming that L&R had expressly agreed to arbitrate the fee dispute, BTP argued that a binding agreement to arbitrate had been formed by operation of law. BTP cited Rule 8 of the D.C. Bar‟s Attorney/Client Arbitration Board ("ACAB"), which states that "if a client files a petition to arbitrate a fee dispute with a lawyer, the lawyer is deemed to have agreed to arbitrate."
Significantly, the court upheld the Bar's mandatory arbitration regime
L&R contends that this court lacked authority to promulgate Bar Rule XIII. Quite to the contrary, this court possesses broad authority to regulate the practice of law, deriving much of this power from the District of Columbia Court Reorganization Act of 1970. A portion of that Act, passed by Congress, provides that "[t]he District of Columbia Court of Appeals shall make such rules as it deems proper respecting the examination, qualification, and admission of persons to membership in its bar, and their censure, suspension, and expulsion." D.C. Code § 11-2501 (a) (2012 Repl.). Beyond this broad statutory grant of authority, the court possesses significant inherent authority as well. In Sitcov v. District of Columbia Bar, we relied upon the "almost universally accepted" proposition "that the highest court in the jurisdiction is imbued with the inherent authority to define, regulate, and control the practice of law in that jurisdiction." 885 A.2d 289, 297 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Brookens v. Comm. on Unauthorized Practice of Law, 538 A.2d 1120, 1125 (D.C. 1988)).
The court rejected the contention that arbitration violated the law firm's Seventh Amendment jury trial rights.
The trial court had erred in declining to enforce the valid arbitration agreement. (Mike Frisch)