by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
One of my favorite quotes from a judicial decision comes from the New Jersey Supreme Court in Atlantic Northern Airlines v. Schwimmer: "Litigation proceeding from the poverty of language is constant." I have never understood this to be a knock on the drafter. Rather, I understood it to mean that no matter how carefully you choose your words you can never make a contract, agreement, or other document litigation-proof. You see examples of this nearly every day in the daily decisions, including in the Appellate Division's recent decision in The Law Offices of Bruce E. Baldinger, LLC v. Rosen.
Baldinger involved a dispute between a law firm and its former client over attorney's fees. Defendant retained plaintiff to represent him in connection with a dispute with a contractor over work performed at defendant's home. Plaintiff and defendant entered into a retainer agreement that included an initial flat fee of $1,200 followed by hourly billing. The retainer agreement also dictated that interest at the rate of 1% per month would be charged on any unpaid balances after 30 days. The retainer agreement also contained the following provision, which is most important to our story: "If collection and enforcement efforts are required, you agree to pay counsel fees along with costs of suit." This would become important later on.
After about a month, defendant "became dissatisfied with plaintiff's representation and terminated plaintiff's services." Defendant had already paid the $1,200 flat fee, but plaintiff demanded that he also pay an addition $4,308 for work performed by plaintiff up to that point. Defendant refused to pay.
Continue reading “Words Matter: Language In Retainer Agreement Bars Recovery Of Fees Incurred In Fee Arbitration Proceeding”
by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
Under New Jersey law, lawyers can, in some instances, share fees with lawyers at a different firm to whom they refer a case. But what happens when Lawyer A refers a case to Lawyer B who then refers the case to Lawyer C? Can Lawyers A and B share in the recovery that Lawyer C achieves for the client? This was the question the Appellate Division faced in Weiner & Mazzei, P.C. v. The Sattiraju Law Firm, PC. The answer, in that case, was "no," but there are instances where this type of three-way sharing would be appropriate.
In Weiner & Mazzei, a lawyer was contacted by a family friend in need of advice on a possible workplace injury/change of employment case. The lawyer advised the family friend that he appeared to have a valid claim and referred the family friend to an attorney who specialized in that area of law. The first lawyer claimed that he told the family friend that the second lawyer would take the case on contingency and that the first lawyer would be paid a referral fee. The family friend denied ever being told about the referral fee.
After speaking with the first lawyer, however, the second lawyer also refused the case but agreed to refer it to defendant, a law firm with at least one certified civil trial attorney. The second lawyer had a standing referral agreement with defendant and defendant agreed to abide by the usual one-third referral fee contained in that agreement.
Defendant prosecuted the client's employment case and eventually reached a confidential settlement with the client's former employer. Plaintiffs — the first and second lawyers — sued, claiming they were jointly entitled to one-third of defendant's fee. Defendant moved for summary judgment, which was originally denied, but was later granted upon reconsideration. Plaintiffs appealed.
Continue reading “Refer(ral) Madness: Court Nixes Fee Sharing For Lawyer Who Referred Case To Lawyer Who Referred Case To Lawyer Who Handled Case”
by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)
I don't usually post about criminal law cases but the Appellate Division's recent opinion in State v. Martinez hit close enough to home that I thought it was worth a few words. (I apologize for the uncharacteristically long title. Professor Cole, one of my journalism professors from college, would not be proud.)
A few years back I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) as amicus curiae in a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court — State v. Miller — that involved a similar issue to the one addressed in Martinez. Miller involved a defendant who was represented by the public defender's office. In the weeks and months leading up to the trial, defendant had been dealing with one public defender, but on the morning of trial a different public defender showed up to represent him. The trial court denied defendant's request for an adjournment, and forced defendant to go to trial with a lawyer he met for the first time on the morning of trial. Defendant was convicted and appealed the trial court's denial of his adjournment request. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Over an impassioned dissent from Justice Albin, the Supreme Court held that "it would have been preferable for the trial judge to have postponed the commencement of the [trial]," but that the decision to not do so was not an abuse of the trial court's broad discretion to control its own calendar and did not violate the defendant's right to counsel.
In Martinez, the facts were slightly different. Most importantly, as it turns out, unlike Miller, the defendant in Martinez was not represented by a public defender but was instead represented by private counsel. In Martinez, defendant retained a law firm to represent him and expected a specific partner from that firm to represent him at trial. However, the partner was not available on the trial date because of a conflict with another matter. It appears that both the prosecution and defense expected and agreed that the trial date would be adjourned to accomodate the partner's schedule, but the trial court refused to do so. Over defendant's objection, the trial court forced defendant to go to trial, not with the partner that he expected would handle the case, but with an associate from the partner's firm. By all accounts, the associate was capable and experienced, but defendant nonetheless objected to having to go to trial with counsel that was not the counsel he chose.
Continue reading “Public or Private? Right To Counsel Of Your Choosing May Depend On Whether You Have Private Counsel Or Appointed Counsel”