Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Get It In Writing

An attorney who had represented a now-deceased client in divorce and return of seized property matters failed to prove that he had a contingent fee agreement with the client.

On November 11, 2013, Patsy Glover Bonifield (“Decedent”) hired Appellant David W. Camp to represent her in a divorce action against her husband, Glenn R. Bonifield (“Husband”). Decedent filed for divorce on November 25, 2013. In April 2016, while the divorce action was pending, agents with the drug task force raided Husband’s pharmacy. As a result of the raid, on May 4, 2016, the State of Tennessee (the “State”) seized several of Decedent and Husband’s marital assets, including: (1) a coin collection; (2) silver bars; (3) $13,280.74 in currency; and (4) the full value of Husband’s VOYA retirement account. Thereafter, Decedent allegedly asked Appellant to represent her in challenging the State’s seizure of these marital assets.

His claim for legal fees against the client's estate based on the alleged agreement failed as a result, according to a decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in affirming a trial court decision

The May 6, 2016 letter bears Appellant’s signature only. On review, there is no document signed by Decedent that could form the basis of a contingency fee agreement between Appellant and Decedent. See Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 8, RPC 1.5(c). As such, we affirm the trial court’s finding that Appellant and Decedent never entered into a contingency fee agreement. Because Appellant and Decedent never entered into such agreement, there is no basis for Appellant to recover a 1/3 contingency fee from the Estate under Claim 1.

The attorney also sought review of a modest fee award 

In determining the reasonable value of Appellant’s services, it appears the trial court turned to the only proof in the record of Appellant’s legal fees, i.e., the invoice for $3,847.51 that was attached to Claim 2. The invoice is for legal services rendered from May 2017 through July 2018 and shows that Appellant billed 13.2 hours during this time period. The invoice also shows expenses (filing fees and postage) of $383.49 and appears to carry forward balances owed for previous invoices totaling $2,643.55. Although Claim 2 and the attached invoice may relate to Appellant’s representation as Decedent’s divorce attorney, it is the only proof of Appellant’s legal fees that he presented to the trial court. Accordingly, the record demonstrates that Appellant is entitled to no more than $3,847.51 for his services. Although Appellant argues that this amount is insufficient for the work performed, Appellant was provided the opportunity to prove the value of his services in the seizure challenge and, for the reasons outlined above, he failed to do so.


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