Bud Newman of the Daily Business Review reported in Attorney Unlicensed in Florida Still Awarded $1 Million in Fees in Messy Probate Case on a case I first wrote about last year [click here]. Here’s an excerpt:
A Palm Beach Circuit judge has awarded a North Carolina attorney $1 million in fees for representing a wealthy Palm Beach, Fla., widow in a messy probate case even though the attorney was not licensed to practice law in Florida.
Judge Jeffrey Winikoff ruled Winston-Salem, N.C., solo practitioner William West was entitled to the fee for his work protecting and improving the financial interests of Palm Beach resident Carla Morrison in a complex probate case in 2004 and 2005.
Morrison is the widow of Pedro Morrison, who died of a heart attack in 2003 at 49 shortly after filing for a divorce, leaving an estimated $100 million estate, according to court documents. His three beneficiaries were his widow, his brother Carlos Morrison and Carlos’ son Tommy.
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Winikoff also ruled West should get his fee despite the fact the paperwork he submitted to practice law in Florida had not yet been approved. The judge said West’s failure to get his paperwork certified on time made him an unlicensed practitioner on the date the financial settlement was signed.
Even though West "engaged in the unlicensed practice of law" throughout his representation of Morrison, "the public policy of the state of Florida would not be compromised by allowing West recovery" of his fee, the judge wrote.
Four months after the probate settlement was approved in 2005, Winikoff noted the Florida Supreme Court changed the rules on appearances by out-of-state lawyers in disputes in Florida. The Florida Bar had already recommended the change, and "the American Bar Association had authorized conduct similar to West’s since 2002," the judge wrote.
For those reasons, the judge ruled "there was no public policy violation that would justify" denying the fee to West.
The complicated case has another potentially bizarre twist that could have two big-name law firms battling each other over who should pay West.
West Palm Beach attorney Gerald Richman of Richman Greer Weil Brumbaugh Mirabito & Christensen, who represented West, said the total award with interest would be about $1.15 million after deducting the $41,000 he has already received. However, Richman said he may sue the Edwards Angell firm to collect some or all of West’s $1 million award.
Morrison authorized $1 million to be set aside for West and held in an Edwards Angell trust account until the fee dispute with West was resolved, Richman said. Instead, he claimed the law firm returned the money to Morrison before the dispute was resolved and she spent at least $250,000 of it on a diamond bracelet and may have spent all of it.
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Karen Martin, who presided over the probate settlement, ordered Morrison in 2006 to return the money to the Edwards Angell trust account. Richman said she has not yet done so. Richman said he will first try to get West’s money from Morrison, but if her assets — including a $90,000 monthly payment from her late husband’s estate — are legally protected from being attached, "obviously we’re going to look at the Edwards Angell firm" to try and collect the money.
"They made a mistake here," Richman said of Edwards Angell.
There are two sets of lawyers sweating bullets in this case.
First, I was surprised to learn that an otherwise very astute out-of-state attorney (he apparently was instrumental in crafting a settlement agreement involving a complex $100 million estate) put his own $1 million fee at risk by apparently failing to file a timely pro hac vice motion. Although these motions "should" be perfunctory in nature, as another out-of-state attorney recently learned, even something as simple as a pro hac vice motion can trip you up when you least expect it [click here].
I think everyone involved in this case probably assumes the fee-order reported on above will be appealed, so Mr. West’s $1 million pay day remains uncertain. This poor guy is probably kicking himself for not getting that darn pro hac vice motion filed when he first stepped into the case.
Second, the Edwards Angell attorneys are probably wishing someone in accounting had stood up and said "are you kidding me??!!" before they released the $1 million in estate funds they were supposed to retain in their escrow account pending final resolution of the fee dispute. You can just imagine how upset the trial-court judge must have been when he learned these funds had been released to the client and she in turn testified that she blew $250,000 of those funds on a diamond bracelet and "may have spent all of it." Oops!!
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