Saturday, January 26, 2019
The South Carolina Court of Appeals has enforced a fee arbitration provision of a retainer agreement
This is an appeal from a circuit court order compelling Lisa Moore (Client) to resolve a fee dispute through the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board of the South Carolina Bar (the Board). Client argues (1) Jean Derrick (Attorney) waived the right to compel her appearance before the Board by first filing an action in the circuit court, (2) the circuit court lacked authority to compel Client's appearance before the Board, and (3) Attorney's fee agreement is unenforceable under the South Carolina Uniform Arbitration Act. We affirm.
The client retained the attorney in a family law matter. The agreement
Client retained Attorney in April 2011 to represent her in a family court matter in Kershaw County. At the onset of the representation, Client and Attorney signed a fee agreement, which provided: "ANY DISPUTE CONCERNING THE FEE DUE PURSUANT TO THIS AGREEMENT SHALL BE SUBMITTED BY THE DISSATISFIED PARTY FOR A FULL, FINAL RESOLUTION TO [THE BOARD], PURSUANT TO RULE 416 OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA APPELLATE COURT RULES."
Client's last payment to Attorney was in May 2014; however, there still remained an outstanding balance of $10,484.40. Client did not object to the amount of the bill and repeatedly assured Attorney she would pay, although this evidently never happened. On October 6, 2014, Attorney commenced an action against Client in the circuit court to recover the unpaid fees.
Client answered, and by way of an affirmative defense, asserted Attorney had failed to comply with the provision of the fee agreement that required all fee disputes to be resolved by the Board. Client also submitted counterclaims for breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act, violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, abuse of process, and conversion. Attorney answered and moved for an order compelling Client to submit the fee dispute to the Board pursuant to the fee agreement and Rule 416, SCACR.
We find Client consented to the jurisdiction of the Board as required under Rule 9 of Rule 416, SCACR, by signing the fee agreement. The rule does not draw a distinction between a client who consents to jurisdiction prior to the representation and one who gives consent after a fee dispute arises...By signing the contract and agreeing to be bound by the terms of the fee agreement, the parties conferred exclusive jurisdiction to the Board over fee disputes. See Bailey v. Bailey, 312 S.C. 454, 459, 441 S.E.2d 325, 327 (1997) (noting exclusive jurisdiction over a fee dispute vests in the Board upon a client's consent to be bound). Accordingly, we find the circuit court was within its authority to enforce the contractual provision and send the fee dispute to the Board.
we find no error in the circuit court order compelling Client and Attorney to resolve their fee dispute before the Board. We further find the Uniform Arbitration Act is inapplicable to fee agreements entered into between an attorney and client.