An Improper Contingent Fee

I’ve used the past few Tuesdays to post on trust accounting.  I’m going off script today to call attention to a disciplinary case that strikes me as important.

Alberto Bernabe is a professor of law at the John Marshall Law School. Regular readers will recognize Professor Bernabe as a frequent member of this blog’s #fiveforfriday Honor Roll.  His Professional Responsibility Blog is a fantastic source of information on legal ethics & professional responsibility.

Yesterday, Professor Bernabe posted Tennessee Supreme Court imposes sanctions for improper contingency fee.  The opinion issued on May 13 and is here. The issue: whether a lawyer violated the rules by attempting to collect a fee that was based on a percentage of a settlement offer that the client rejected.

Before I get into the details, let’s review the rules that would apply if the issue arose in Vermont.

  • Rule 1.2(a) requires a lawyer to “abide by a client’s decision to settle a matter.”
  • Rule 1.5(a) prohibits a lawyer from agreeing to, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee;
  • Rule 1.5(c) allows a fee that is contingent upon the outcome of a matter; and,
  • Rule 1.8(i) prohibits a lawyer from acquiring a proprietary interest in a client’s cause of action but allows (1) liens authorized by law to secure fees & expenses; and (2) contracts for reasonable contingent fees.

The facts of the Tennessee case:

Client filed a pro se complaint alleging that she’d been injured by the defendant’s negligence. Soon thereafter, Client retained Law Firm.  Client & Law Firm entered into a written fee agreement. Per the agreement, Client would pay Law Firm a contingent fee, plus expenses.  The amount: 40% if recovery were made before an appeal, 45% if recovery made after an appeal.  The fee agreement did not include any language that provided for an hourly fee.  It did, however, include this provision:

  • “Should [Client] refuse to make any settlement which my attorneys advise me is reasonable and should be taken, then I understand that I am responsible for their fee on the basis of that offer, unless they waive this provision.”

Following discovery, the defendant offered $12,500.  Attorney and another at Law Firm advised Client to accept. Client did not.

Attorney moved to withdraw.  In the motion, Attorney also requested a lien in the amount of $13,605 for fees, plus $2,4528.52 for expenses.  The motion asserted that Law Firm had put in 45.35 hours of work at $300 per hour.  The court granted the motion to withdraw but did not rule on the request for a lien.

Eventually, Client filed a disciplinary complaint.  By then, Attorney had filed two additional motions requesting a lien on any recovery.  The final request referenced the fee agreement and sought 40% of the settlement offer that Client had rejected.

At the trial level, a court concluded that Attorney violated Tennessee Rules 1.5(a), 1.5(c), 1.8(i).  The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed and publicly reprimanded Attorney.

Some key points from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion:

  • the “Settlement Offer Provision” created a fee that was contingent on Attorney recommending that Client accept a settlement offer, but not, as required by the rule, on the outcome of the matter;
  • the so-called “Settlement Offer Provision” was unreasonable in that had an impermissible “chilling effect” on Client’s decision whether to settle;
  • The “Settlement Offer Provision” impermissibly provided Attorney with a proprietary interest in any settlement offer that Attorney recommended Client accept; and,
  • The “Settlement Offer Provision” was unreasonable in that it by recommending that Client accept an offer, “Attorney thereby became entitled to a fee, regardless of whether [Client] accepted the offer and regardless of whether she obtained any recovery whatsoever.”

As noted by Professor Bernabe, Faughnan on Ethics blogged on the opinion here.  Like Bernabe, Faughnan is a terrific resources on professional responsibility.  The post notes:

  • “At its core, this case explains the limits on the ability of a plaintiff’s attorney to try to guard against what happens if their client rejects the attorney’s advice on whether to accept a settlement offer. There do, in fact, have to be limits on the ability to hedge against that because the ethics rules establish explicitly that the decision whether to settle a civil case or not is the client’s decision.”

The post goes on to remind us that, generally, the rules allow lawyers who withdraw “to assert a lien as authorized by statute and pursuant to either the terms of their contract or, perhaps, depending on how things turn out for payment in the form of quantum meruit.”

Again, this is a Tennessee opinion.  It’s worth noting, however, that the rules involved are identical to Vermont’s.

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