Morrison v. West, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 532792 (Fla. 4th DCA Feb 17, 2010)

The linked-to opinion above is the last gasp of bitter litigation swirling around the $100 million estate of Palm Beach socialite Pedro Morrison, who died in 2003 [click here, here].  This time around the issue was whether North Carolina sole practitioner William E. West could keep his million dollar legal fee. His former client, the decedent’s widow – Carla Morrison, fired him the day after he settled her case in mediation.

At first things looked good for West. Here’s how the Palm Beach Post reported on his trial-court win in Morrison widow miffed:

The Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge says Morrison “behaved despicably” toward her former lawyer, North Carolina attorney William E. West, and must pay his $1 million legal fee.

Ouch! What would prompt [Judge] Winikoff to call Morrison’s testimony and demeanor “outrageous?”

How about Morrison firing her lawyer the morning a mediation settlement he hammered out was to be filed with the court. Or Morrison’s refusal to pay West his $1 million legal fee, as she had agreed. Or Morrison’s claim she needed the $1 mil for living expenses – then later admitting she spent the cash on a a bracelet worth between $140,000 and $250,000.

That was then, this is now. On appeal West lost it all. And all because he didn’t want to spend a few bucks on associating with a Florida lawyer and getting admitted pro hac vice.

The supreme court explained its holding in [Chandris, S.A. v. Yanakakis, 668 So.2d 180 (Fla.1995)], as supporting policy concerns related to protection of the public. The prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law in Florida derives not only from the Rules of Professional Conduct, but also from statutory law. The court in Chandris noted that section 454.23, Florida Statutes (1983), provided that “[a]ny person not licensed or otherwise authorized by the Supreme Court of Florida who shall practice law … shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.” FN2 Relying on long established precedent requiring admission to the bar, the court said:

Florida has a unified bar, and all persons engaged in the practice of law here must be members of that bar. Petition of Florida State Bar Ass’n, 40 So.2d 902 (Fla.1949). More than thirty years ago, we enunciated why we prohibit those who are not members of The Florida Bar from engaging in professional activities in Florida which are within the boundaries of the practice of law. This Court noted in State ex rel. Florida Bar v. Sperry, 140 So.2d 587, 595 (Fla.1962), rev’d on other grounds, 373 U.S. 379, 83 S.Ct. 1322, 10 L.Ed.2d 428 (1963), that:

The reason for prohibiting the practice of law by those who have not been examined and found qualified to practice is frequently misunderstood. It is not done to aid or protect the members of the legal profession either in creating or maintaining a monopoly or closed shop. It is done to protect the public from being advised and represented in legal matters by unqualified persons over whom the judicial department can exercise little, if any, control in the matter of infractions of the code of conduct which, in the public interest, lawyers are bound to observe.

Chandris, 668 So.2d at 184. Despite the experience and qualifications of the unlicensed lawyer in Chandris, the court held that he could not recover under a contingent fee contract.

In a footnote, the court conceded that while a member of The Florida Bar may not claim attorney’s fees under a void contingent fee agreement, a Florida Bar member may still be entitled to the reasonable value of his or her services in quantum meruit. Id. at 186 n. 4. While West seeks to expand this footnote to claim entitlement to his quantum meruit fee, his interpretation is clearly wrong. While a contract between a Florida Bar member and a client might be illegal, the Bar member’s provision of legal services in Florida is not illegal. In contrast, the provision of legal services by a non-Florida Bar member is illegal. See § 454.23, Fla. Stat. To award fees for illegal activities is contrary to public policy. See Spence, Payne, Masington & Grossman, P.A. v. Philip M. Gerson, P.A., 483 So.2d 775 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986).

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West argues that he anticipated securing a Florida attorney but simply did not do so before the matter settled in mediation. Although in September 2004 West drafted a motion for appearance pro hac vice and forwarded it, and a proposed order for admission, to McDonald & Crawford, that Fort Lauderdale firm was never actually retained by Morrison. After an e-mail from the firm to West discussing its fee, the Florida firm did not have further conversations with West until well after the mediation. In fact, West did not even seek pro hac vice admission to present the settlement agreement to the probate court for approval.FN4 This can hardly be deemed a technical error when he was admitted pro hac vice in another case involving Morrison and the trust right before he was terminated by Morrison. He knew that such admission was necessary. We can only assume that [West] chose to ignore [getting admitted pro hac vice] to avoid the payment of a fee to McDonald & Crawford.