Thursday, May 12, 2016
The Washington State Court of Appeals has held that a trial court exceeded its authority in reducing an award of wages to a former in-house counsel
Following a month-long jury trial, attorney Geoffrey Chism was awarded $750,000 for breach of two compensation contracts by his former employer, Tri-State Construction, Inc., and exemplary damages for unlawful wage withholding. The trial court then dramatically reduced Chism's recovery, premised on findings that Chism violated Washington's Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs) during his time as Tri-State's in-house general counsel. By ordering disgorgement of Chism's wages based on novel interpretations of several RPCs, the trial court exceeded the disciplinary authority delegated to it by our Supreme Court. Moreover, the trial court disregarded the strong legislative policy preference in favor of payment of earned wages by failing to even acknowledge that, unsupported by precedent, it was ordering disgorgement of an attorney's wages, as opposed to an attorney's fee. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's challenged rulings and remand the cause for entry of judgment consistent with the jury's verdict.
The question presented arises at the intersection of judicial power over the practice of law and legislative power over the conditions of employment. Our Supreme Court has offered some guidance about resolving such situations, stating, "While we should jealously protect our prerogatives, if the legislative power is not limited by the constitution, it should be unrestrained." Demopolis, 103 Wn.2d at 65. As previously stated, in the area of attorney wages, the Supreme Court has taken no action, but the legislature has enacted a broad policy in favor of the payment of employee wages. Given this stark contrast, we defer to the strong legislative policy in this area.
This conclusion is consequential for how we view the application of the disgorgement sanction to attorney wages. As has been described, disgorgement does not require proof of either causation or damage, only misconduct. This is unlike other, related claims, including breach of fiduciary duty and restitution, both of which require such proof. Because there is no standard measure for a disgorgement order, nor a requirement that it be imposed as a compensatory measure, it poses a significant threat to the legislative policy in favor of the consistent payment of employee wages.
This threat is illustrated by the trial court's order in this case. Herein, Tri-State chose to pursue only disgorgement from Chism, not a separate claim for damages or restitution. Accordingly, Tri-State was never required to prove that it suffered any injury as a result of Chism's alleged misconduct. Nevertheless, the trial court ordered Chism to disgorge $550,000 in wages (plus another $550,000 in exemplary damages for wage withholding).
The trial court exceeded its disciplinary authority by ordering Chism to disgorge a significant portion of the wages otherwise owed to him without either acknowledging that itwas disgorging wages, not fees, or accounting for the strong legislative preference in favor of employers paying earned employee wages. Therefore, the trial court's order was improper as a matter of law.
Thanks to Alan Kabat for sending this opinion to us. (Mike Frisch)