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By: Erin Lamb
A three-judge panel of the New Jersey appellate division has ruled that a trial judge, having presided over a successful legal malpractice trial, had no jurisdiction to award fees in a dispute between a law firm and its client that was unrelated to the shifting of Plaintiff’s fees from her to the negligent counsel, as required under the Saffer decision.
Plaintiff hired a firm to represent her in a malpractice suit against an attorney who had advised her on the purchase of a home in Mantoloking, Ocean County, New Jersey. She claimed the attorney failed to inform her that the property contained a storm water easement. She also brought suit against the New Jersey Department of Transportation for negligence over its installation of a storm water pipe under the foundation of her home. The suit named other Defendants who were not involved in the trial.
In 2016, a jury found her previous attorney liable and ordered her previous attorney to pay $980,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also found the NJDOT, the only other remaining defendant, was not liable.
In New Jersey, negligent attorneys are responsible for the reasonable legal expenses and attorney fees incurred by a former client in prosecuting the legal malpractice action. Saffer v. Willoughby, 143 N.J. 256, 272 (1996). The Saffer court determined such costs were “consequential damages that are proximately related to the malpractice.” Plaintiff was therefore eligible for an award of counsel fees and costs. The trial judge held a bench trial and awarded Plaintiff $99,506.10 in consequential damages.
There were, however, two outstanding issues pertaining to the costs and fees – 1) her previous attorney likely was not liable for all of Plaintiff’s consequential damages, because the Action had included other parties and causes of action, and 2) the firm representing her in the malpractice action had remaining, unpaid, legal bills, which exceeded the awards of the compensatory and consequential damages. The trial court ordered limited discovery into these issues of apportionment, focusing on the apportionment of the costs and fees to be paid by the negligent previous counsel.
Plaintiff reached a settlement with her previous counsel on the costs and fees claim and informed the court of that development. The only remaining issue was the unpaid bills of the firm that represented her in the malpractice action. Plaintiff had already paid the firm $400,000. The firm claimed $1.7 million remained unpaid.
The trial judge informed both parties that he would issue a resolution if they could not resolve the dispute. Both the firm and Plaintiff objected to the trial court’s desire to determine the reasonableness of the costs and fees. The firm asserted the retainer agreement listed Cook County, Illinois, as the forum for any disputes arising from the attorney-client relationship. The firm duly informed the trial court that they objected to any further determinations from the judge as New Jersey had no jurisdiction to determine the reasonableness of the costs and fees. Plaintiff informed the court she intended to dispute the reasonableness of Freeborn’s fees separately. However, she never pursued any action.
Despite the objections, the trial judge proceeded with a plenary hearing on the reasonableness of the firm’s fees. It entered an order reducing the $1.7 million bill to $359,000. The trial court claimed jurisdiction was proper under a 2005 Appellate Division case, Levine v. Levine, 381 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2005).
The appellate division disagreed with the trial court’s reasoning and found it should not have relied on Levine, which involved the right of an attorney in a matrimonial action to petition for a lien on a client’s assts, and protecting substantive and procedural due process rights regarding attorney-client fee disputes under the New Jersey Attorney’s Lien Act.
The appellate court noted that the firm had not taken any steps to involve the trial court in their fee dispute with their client; no petition had been filed seeking a lien and determination under the Attorney’s Lien Act; and the court proceeded under the objection of the firm. Plaintiff also had not taken any steps to involve the trial court. There was no subject matter jurisdiction. The firm was never named as a party in any action related to the claim.
The trial court had no legal authority to assert jurisdiction, rendering any relief granted a legal nullity. The Appellate Division ruled that the firm must file a separate cause of action to adjudicate its claim for fees against its client and expressly rendered no opinion as to the enforceability of the forum selection clause in the retainer agreement.
The case is Lucas v. 1 on 1 Title Agency, et al. No. A-2217-16T2 (App. Div. 2019).
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Erin Lamb at [email protected].