Tuesday, March 27, 2018
The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed a favorable decision for a law firm in a fee dispute.
The court concluded that the law firm's 15 minute minimum increments for charges to the client were not unreasonable under the circumstances
For more than sixteen years, Manigault retained Daly & Sorenson to represent her in ninety-seven separate legal matters ranging from land and oil and gas transactions to ranching, domestic relations, and criminal matters. She typically paid her bills and any accrued interest when proceeds from her oil and gas interests and cattle sales became available.
In late 2012, she retained the firm with respect to one of the matters that gave birth to the present case. Manigault’s mother sued her to collect on two separate promissory notes on which she owed nearly three million dollars, and to collect accumulated interest, late fees, and attorney fees.
The case ultimately settled when Manigault agreed to confess judgment in favor of her mother (notwithstanding her initial position that the money received from her mother was a gift), and in exchange her mother agreed to forgive the entire debt and write off the loss on her taxes. Manigault paid the law firm roughly thirty percent of what it billed in that case, leaving an unpaid balance of approximately $13,116.33.
Earlier in 2012, she retained Daly & Sorenson for what the parties call “the trust litigation.” It involved the large estate of Manigault’s father and its complex distribution through numerous family trusts and family partnerships and his will. Although she and her son were beneficiaries of those trusts, they were controlled by her stepmother, brother, and several attorneys and financial planners. Moreover, they were created and situated in several states and involved far-flung assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The trusts’ corpora included stock in publishing companies, holdings in various media outlets, plantations and historic pre-revolution homes in South Carolina, and ranchlands in Wyoming and Montana.
The bills accrued and the law firm sued. A hearing was conducted by the Wyoming State Bar Committee for Resolution of Fee Disputes
the panel found that the hourly rates charged by Daly & Sorenson were reasonable, and that since 1997 it had represented Manigault in many legal matters without a written agreement. The absence of such an agreement led the panel to deduct interest and fees for long distance phone calls from the amount it found due the firm. It also deducted charges for the preparation of two motions which benefited the law firm but not Manigault, as well as charges for clerical work it determined were improperly billed at paralegal rates. Finally, it also deducted for a single instance of accidental double billing, and it concluded that Manigault owed the firm $64,621.05 after all of these adjustments.
The client appealed and the court had remanded to the panel
On February 18, 2016, the panel determined in its second decision that Daly & Sorenson billed Manigault according to minimum increments of fifteen minutes, that such was its normal practice, and that this had been the practice it had employed with Manigault in ninety-seven separate matters over several years. It also determined that the firm’s use of those increments was not unreasonable.
With respect to billing for certain information exchanges between a firm attorney and another attorney or paralegal employed by the firm, the panel determined that this was likewise the law firm’s normal practice, that it had been employed throughout its long history of representing Manigault, and that it was not unreasonable. The panel’s consequent decision to deduct nothing further from the amount owed to the law firm led to a second petition for judicial review filed on March 25, 2016.
In this appeal
Manigault accuses the law firm of using fifteen-minute minimum billing intervals to routinely charge her for that interval when the specified work took far less time to accomplish, and of billing for unproductive casual conversations between attorneys and paralegals which did not advance her cases. The record indicates, however, that of the eight factors addressed in Rule 1.5(a), only one received more than a cursory mention by the parties, and only that factor seems to have survived as contested throughout the process of judicial review. That factor is the nature and length of the law firm’s professional relationship with Manigault, and the billing practices during that time. She did not rely on that factor to prove her accusations. Instead, she relied principally upon attorney expert testimony that unfavorable inferences could possibly be drawn from a number of billing entries. She did not account for the fact that other inferences were equally possible. On the other hand, members of the law firm testified about its longstanding billing practices, and the adherence to these practices during its relationship with Manigault.
The testimony of the attorneys supported to result
When we accord proper deference to the panel’s allocation of the weight and assessment of the credibility of the testimony presented to it, we are compelled to conclude that the testimony from the attorneys of Daly & Sorenson provided a sufficient and reasonable basis for the panel’s decision. Therefore, its conclusion that Manigault should receive no further reduction relating to the firm’s fifteen-minute minimum billing practice or billing for substantive and necessary intraoffice communications was supported by substantial evidence.