Guy Bennett Rubin, P.A. v. Guettler, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 4577670 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 05, 2011)

Other than in divorce and criminal-defense cases, contingent fees are acceptable in any form of litigation, including contested probate and trust proceedings.

The Florida Bar ethics rules governing contingent fee agreements are found in Rule 4-1.5(f). Other than in divorce and criminal-defense cases [Rule 4-1.5(f)(3)], contingent fees are acceptable in any form of litigation, including contested probate and trust proceedings.

There’s not a lot of Florida case law out there addressing contingent fees in probate cases. So the linked-to opinion above should be of special interest to any probate litigator taking cases on a contingency fee basis. What this case makes painfully clear is that Florida law shifts 100% of the risk of NOT getting paid in contingency cases to lawyers who are prematurely discharged by their clients, even if the discharge is without cause and the fee agreement contains a fallback hourly-fee payment clause (a “discharge clause”).

Case Study:

In the linked-to case above the law firm took this probate case on a contingency fee basis. The firm was then fired without cause and the litigation apparently abandoned by the client before any recovery was obtained. The law firm asked the trial court for an order compelling payment for work done prior to the discharge under the following discharge clause contained in its fee agreement.

[“Discharge Clause”]

In the event I discharge the firm prior to resolution by judgment or settlement, or if I elect to no longer pursue the Anticipated Claims as identified herein-below, I agree to immediately thereafter pay LAW FIRM accrued hourly legal fees based upon the hourly rates as follows:

Services of Guy Bennett Rubin $500/hr., all other attorneys $400/hr., all paralegals $150/hr., all legal assistants $100/hr. listed in paragraph 4 immediately above.

[Nature of Claims]

ANTICIPATED CLAIMS: Dispute and contest the last will and testament of Leo Guettler Jr. and/or revocable trust of Leo Guettler Jr.; defense of claims b y Edna L. Guettler, Inc. and dissolution or liquidation of my interest in Edna L. Guettler, Inc.

Trial court said NO, concluding that the discharge clause constituted a penalty provision in violation of ethics rule 4–1.5, and was thus NOT enforceable as a matter of law. The 4th DCA agreed:

“An attorney shall not enter into an agreement for, charge, or collect an illegal, prohibited, or clearly excessive fee or cost….” Rule 4–1.5(a), Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. A termination-of-services clause in a contingency-fee agreement, which provides for the client to pay the discharged law firm for all services rendered up through the date of termination at the prevailing hourly rate for firm members, if the client abandons or dismisses the claim, violates rule 4–1.5 on its face. The Fla. Bar v. Hollander, 607 So.2d 412, 414 (Fla.1992).

In The Florida Bar v. Doe, 550 So.2d 1111 (Fla.1989), the contingency-fee contract included a “discharge clause” which permitted the client to discharge Doe only after paying him the greater of $350 per hour for all the time spent on the case or forty percent of the greatest gross amount offered in settlement. At the disciplinary hearing, the referee found that while the contingent fee contract violated rule 4–1.5 on its face, there was no testimony offered that Doe’s actions were ever in violation of the rules; consequently, the referee found that Doe was not guilty of any ethical violation warranting disciplinary proceedings. Id. at 1112. However, on review, the supreme court disagreed because “the contract itself shows an ethical violation.” Id. The court found that the discharge provision had the effect of intimidating the client into not exercising her right of discharge and penalized the client for exercising this right. Id. at 1113. The court concluded that “[a]n attorney cannot exact a penalty for a right of discharge. To do so is contrary to our statement of policy in Rosenberg ….” Id. See also The Fla. Bar v. Spann, 682 So.2d 1070, 1072–73 (Fla.1996) (finding that a contingency-fee agreement that provided for payment based on a specified hourly rate upon termination by the client constitutes a penalty clause in violation of rule 4–1.5 because the client would be forced to pay the attorney upon discharge even where the contingency had never been met).

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Even if the Agreement is unenforceable as a matter of law, Rubin argues that he should have been permitted to proceed on the theory of quantum meruit as pled in Count III of his complaint. “A Florida Bar member who has entered into an improper fee agreement is nonetheless entitled to receive the reasonable value of his or her services on the equitable basis of quantum meruit.” Patterson v. Law Office of Lauri J. Goldstein, P.A., 980 So.2d 1234, 1236, n. 1 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008) (citing Chandris, S.A. v. Yanakakis, 668 So.2d 180, 186, n. 4 (Fla.1995)). However, an action for quantum meruit “arises only upon the successful occurrence of the contingency. If the client fails in his recovery, the discharged attorney will similarly fail and recover nothing.” Rosenberg, 409 So.2d at 1022. Here, the trial court found that there was no evidence that the plaintiffs received anything as a result of the litigation. Instead, the Guettlers dismissed their claims against the estate and recovered nothing. Therefore, because the contingency did not occur, Rubin is not entitled to any quantum meruit recovery.

Lesson learned?

In Florida, if you agree to take a probate case on a contingency fee basis, you assume 100% of the risk of NOT getting paid for your work if your client decides to fire you and/or abandon the claim before the case is over, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. This risk may be worth taking, but Florida probate lawyers (who don’t do contingency cases on a regular basis) need to know it exists. Adding insult to injury, not only might you not get paid, you might end up getting sanctioned by the Florida Bar if you include a discharge clause in your contingency fee agreement. It’s telling that the 4th DCA cited to two such cases in its opinion (see above).