Friday, March 5, 2021
The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed and reversed in part a judgment in favor of an attorney in a suit brought by a former client
This appeal involves a fraud claim filed against an attorney by his former client. The attorney conceded that the client had been double-billed for some charges and repaid the client for those matters prior to trial. However, the client, now pro se, continued to pursue his claim for fraudulent billing, insisting that fraud extended to the entire invoice. He also claimed that the attorney had charged a higher hourly rate than agreed. After a bench trial, the trial court found that the client failed to demonstrate that the attorney intentionally misrepresented the amounts owed by the client and failed to present sufficient evidence of fraud. As such, the trial court dismissed the claim and granted the attorney’s request for discretionary costs. The client appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.
The attorney had represented the client in a divorce.
The client filed a bar complaint, which was dismissed.
The court had earlier remanded the case after the attorney was granted judgment based on res judicata of the dismissed bar complaint
We held that it did not, for two reasons. First, the Board was not a court of competent jurisdiction within the meaning of the res judicata analysis. Id. Secondly, the same claim was not asserted in both suits because the Board proceeding did not consider whether Vazeen should be awarded damages on his fraudulent billing claim...As such, this Court vacated the entry of summary judgment on the fraudulent billing claim and remanded for further proceedings.
Trial was held at which only the client and the attorney testified.
The trial court found the attorney credible and granted judgment in his favor.
Here, the court found that fraud had not been proven but as to allegation that the retainer agreement had been forged
Finally, Vazeen maintains that one of the ways he was defrauded was by Sir’s “scheme” to charge $100 more per hour than Vazeen had agreed to pay. As proof of this alleged scheme, Vazeen points to his own testimony about his understanding of the fee agreement, his handwritten note evidencing that he spoke with other attorneys who were charging $250 per hour, and the invoices showing that he was charged $250 per hour for the first two months. The trial court found that “[t]he contract between [Vazeen] and [Sir] set [Sir’s] compensation rate at $375 per hour and his associate’s compensation rate at $350 per hour.” The trial court noted Vazeen’s allegation of forgery but found that he had “no proof thereof.”
In our view, however, this case does not involve a simple allegation of forgery. It involves an allegation of fraud in connection with an attorney-client fee agreement. As a result, additional considerations come into play. “‘An attorney-client agreement  is subject to a higher level of scrutiny by the courts.’”
And so another remand
In light of the lack of findings and the lack of evidence regarding the relevant factors, we deem it necessary to remand this limited issue regarding the hourly rate to the trial court for further proceedings to include consideration of the Alexander criteria.
The Alexander criteria
In order to prove such good faith and fairness, an attorney seeking to enforce a contract for attorney’s fees must show:
(1) the client fully understood the contract’s meaning and effect,
(2) the attorney and client shared the same understanding of the contract, and
(3) the terms of the contract are just and reasonable
The court concluded that the factors must be considered even though the litigation did not involve a suit for legal fees. (Mike Frisch)