Monday, February 18, 2019
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed the dismissal of a suit for legal fees on statute of limitations grounds.
An attorney had left the plaintiff law firm and taken the case with him
Grace, then an employee of HLO, performed most, if not all, of the legal work on the case, but neither he nor HLO recorded Grace's hours contemporaneously.
HLO terminated Grace on June 25, 2010, while Hicks's medical malpractice case was pending. Hicks, notified of Grace's departure, elected to have Grace continue to represent
him in the medical malpractice action. Grace and HLO were notified of Hicks's election in writing on July 1, 2010. On July 2, HLO transferred Hicks's file to Grace at his new firm, Denner Pellegrino, LLP (Pellegrino), and shortly thereafter Hicks entered into a second contingent fee agreement regarding his medical malpractice action with Pellegrino.
The retainer agreement with HLO allowed an hourly fee if discharged.
The pertinent discharge provision unmistakably provides that if the client discharges HLO, then the client will be liable to HLO for work performed by HLO at a prescribed rate. Therefore, whether we apply the usual rule restated in Jenney, 402 Mass. at 154, or confine our analysis to the plain language of HLO's fee agreement makes no meaningful difference -- HLO's cause of action against Hicks for legal services accrued no later than July 1, 2010, the date that HLO was notified that Hicks had elected to terminate HLO's services.
HLO's argument to extend the statute because Grace had not provided his hours failed.
Grace's refusal to cooperate with HLO has no bearing on when HLO's cause of action for legal fees against [client] Hicks accrued.
...If HLO had conditioned its entitlement to fees on Hicks's recovery in the underlying medical malpractice suit, then Halstrom's argument that the statute of limitations began to run when Hicks received his settlement check might be persuasive; but HLO did not do that. It is to the terms of that provision that HLO is now bound.
In short, in accordance G. L. c. 260, § 2, Halstrom had until July 1, 2016, to bring his contract action against Hicks. That Halstrom missed the deadline "by a few days" is inconsequential -- his claim is time barred nevertheless.
Equitable claims also failed. (Mike Frisch)