Friday Florida Law Update- Contingency Fee Arrangements

Hope everyone is gearing up for a beautiful weekend!  We always love a good laugh at the blog, though we feel guilty for a millisecond when it’s at a fellow person’s expense.  Today we discuss the opinion from Santini v. Cleveland Clinic Florida, 2011 WL 1773561 (Fla. 4th DCA May 11, 2011), an early retirement gone very wrong for a former bar member.

It would take about 4,000 words to to do this opinion justice, so we will instead provide a quick overview:

-In 1996, Plaintiff hires an attorney to bring a sexual harassment claim.  Plaintiff signs a contingency fee arrangement with the attorney’s law firm(attorney is compensated a percentage of Plaintiff’s recovery and recovers nothing except his out-of-pocket costs if nothing is recovered in the suit).  Attorney switched firms twice during the representation without thinking to prepare amended contingency fee agreements.

-In 1997, attorney files an administrative charge of discrimination (a necessary first step in an employment action). 

-In 1998, after receiving a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC, Plaintiff’s attorney blew the 90-day deadline to file suit by about 20 days.  Suit is dismissed by federal court.  Attorney attempts to conceal time records and gets caught on it by the federal court, which imposed approximately $20,000 in sanctions. 

-Attorney then tried his luck in state court, filing a new action.  Shortly thereafter though, the Florida Bar gets wind of his actions in the federal court and suspends him for a year.   Attorney withdraws and arranges for new counsel to represent Plaintiff.  The two attorneys sign a fee sharing agreement.

-On the eve of trial, Plaintiff settled with her former employer for $500,000. 

-This is where it gets fun.  Plaintiff’s original attorney, who blew a deadline to sue in federal court, tried to lie his way out of it and got suspended by the Bar, negligently failed to prepare new fee agreements when he switched firms, attempts to claim that his written fee agreement is invalid because he switched firms, and sends Plaintiff an invoice for over $350,000 represented his hourly fees based on $325/hr.   The attorney even refused to give his former client a copy of their fee agreement, invoking the concept of a “charging lien,” which is a method by which former attorneys who are owed fees can withhold their file from a former client until payment is made. 

-Somehow, the trial court goes for all this, awarding the attorney all of his fees and even sanctioning the Plaintiff’s new attorney for (correctly) stating that the Plaintiff’s settlement was not final!

-Fortunately, in the opinion cited above, the Fourth District Court of Appeal cleaned up this Twilight Zone-level of a mess.  The appellate court held that the former attorney was entitled to $0 in fees because he withdrew from representation through no fault of the client before any portion of the “contingency” was arranged.  The court further reversed the sanction against Plaintiff’s attorney, and further sanctioned the former attorney to the tune of all of Plaintiff’s fees and costs incurred in the appeal.  So yeah, a $375,000+ positive turned into about a -$50,000 for our former member of the Bar. 

The appellate opinion is quite entertaining as the court is openly incredulous at the positions taken by the former attorney and, unfortunately, also at the lower court rulings by the trial judge.  If you are a non-lawyer without Westlaw access, send me a comment and I will be glad to forward you a copy. 

 

DISCLOSURE:

THE COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG DO NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE.  NOR DO THEY CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.  They are provided for informational purposes only.  Actual legal advice can only be provided after consultation with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. 
Explore posts in the same categories: Florida Law Updates

3 Comments on “Friday Florida Law Update- Contingency Fee Arrangements”

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