Friday, September 1, 2023
The Maryland Appellate Court has upheld the post-departure provisions of an employment agreement between a law firm and an attorney
This case principally involves a dispute between a law firm and an attorney who was formerly employed by the firm. At the outset of her employment, the attorney and the firm entered into an agreement about how they would divide a contingent fee if she left the firm, was engaged by a client of the firm, and earned the fee after leaving the firm.
The attorney contends that the agreement violates the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct and, thus, is unenforceable. On that premise, she withheld over $700,000.00 in fees that were due to the firm under the agreement. For the reasons stated below, we shall hold that the agreement is not unenforceable on its face or as applied in the circumstances of this particular case. Consequently, we shall largely affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, which upheld the agreement and ordered the attorney to pay the fees that she had withheld in violation of it. We shall, however, vacate the judgment insofar as the circuit court failed to award pre-judgment interest to the firm. We shall remand the case with instructions to amend the judgment to include the undisputed amount of $81,212.10 in pre-judgment interest.
The parties and the agreement
In 2011, after approximately 20 years as an Assistant United States Attorney, appellant and cross-appellee Jamie Bennett joined the law firm of Ashcraft & Gerel, LLP (“Ashcraft”). Ashcraft, the appellee and cross-appellant, is a regional law firm that primarily represents plaintiffs on a contingent-fee basis. Ashcraft hired Ms. Bennett to take over its False Claims Act practice.
Ms. Bennett began her employment with Ashcraft on April 1, 2011. On April 5, 2011, Ms. Bennett signed an agreement, to which the parties refer as the “Prenuptial Agreement.” Ashcraft requires its attorneys to sign the Prenuptial Agreement as a condition of their employment.
The Prenuptial Agreement is not an employment agreement; it is a departure agreement. It governs the division of fees between Ashcraft and an attorney if the attorney leaves the firm, is retained by any of the firm’s former clients, and settles the clients’ cases after leaving the firm.
In the absence of an agreement like the Prenuptial Agreement, the parties’ share of a contingent fee would be governed by principles of quantum meruit, under which the firm would have to show the extent to which it contributed to the client’s success.
The agreement set up a sliding scale formula for fee division if and when the attorney departs
The Prenuptial Agreement uses a sliding-scale formula to apportion the division of fees. The formula considers two factors: (1) the amount of time between when the client retained the firm and when the attorney departed, and (2) the amount of time between when the attorney departed and when a fee was generated.
In summary, if the client retained the firm more than two years before the attorney left, the firm’s share of the fee ranges from 75 percent to 65 percent, depending on whether the fee was generated within one year, two years, or three years of when the attorney left. If the client retained the firm between one and two years before the attorney left, the firm’s share of the fee ranges from 70 percent to 60 percent, depending, 4 again, on whether the fee was generated within one year, two years, or three years of when the attorney left. And if the client retained the firm less than a year before the attorney left, the firm’s share of the fee ranges from 65 percent to 55 percent, depending on whether the fee was generated within one year, two years, or three years of when the attorney left. The Prenuptial Agreement goes on to say that, when fees are generated more than three years after the attorney leaves the firm, Ashcraft receives 55 percent if the clients had been with the firm as long as they had been with the attorney; Ashcraft receives 50 percent if the clients had been with the attorney longer than they had been with the firm.
The attorney and law firm signed off
Ms. Bennett signed the Prenuptial Agreement, but about six months later she formed the opinion that the agreement was unethical and that it violated the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct. She expressed her opinion to Ashcraft’s managing partner.
She had initiated the litigation; the trial court upheld the agreement.
The court here agreed
we conclude that the Prenuptial Agreement is not unenforceable on its face—i.e., that it is not facially invalid. We are persuaded by the 1989 MSBA ethics opinion, which approved an agreement with a sliding-scale formula, much like Ashcraft’s—one in which the division of fees is “based upon a combination of the length of time that the case was in the law firm prior to the attorney’s termination and the period of time in which the fee is realized after the attorney has left the firm.” MSBA Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 1989-29. We are also persuaded by the 1991 District of Columbia ethics opinion, which approved an agreement that seems almost identical to Ashcraft’s—one in which the “[f]ees ultimately realized are divided on a percentage basis which varies according to the length of time the case was handled by the firm and the length of time it was handled separately by the departing lawyer.” D.C. Ethics Comm., Formal Op. 221. We are persuaded as well by the Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision in McCroskey, which upheld an agreement under which the attorney received “a ratable proportion of a given fee on the basis of the stage of the litigation at the time of departure.” McCroskey, Feldman, Cochrane & Brock, P.C. v. Waters, 494 N.W.2d at 828-29.
It is undisputed that for three years thereafter Ms. Bennett adhered to that agreement and paid the percentage of the fee dictated by the Prenuptial Agreement. It is also undisputed that Ms. Bennett ceased making payments in October of 2018, when she commenced this action (by filing a complaint that made no mention of the Barker cases). Finally, it is undisputed that, between October of 2018 and the entry of judgment, Ms. Bennett failed to remit $706,164.83 in fees, not including pre-judgment interest. It would seem, therefore, that Ashcraft has indisputably established all of the elements of its breach of contract claim.
Ms. Bennett had sought sanctions
In this case, the court made no findings, but findings were unnecessary because it is abundantly clear from the record that the motions for sanctions were patently groundless. The motions were based on Ms. Bennett’s disagreement with Ashcraft’s interpretation of the law and the facts. Ms. Bennett contended that Ashcraft had falsely represented that Ms. Bennett had waived the right to challenge the enforceability of the Prenuptial Agreement. Ashcraft denied that it had agreed never, under any circumstances, to assert that Ms. Bennett had waived that right. In dismissing most of Ms. Bennett’s second amended complaint, including all of the counts relating to the Barker settlement, the court concluded that her allegations failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. In these circumstances, Ashcraft could not have acted in bad faith or without substantial justification.
The court awarded the firm pre-judgment interest. (Mike Frisch)