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Talkin' about money

piggie.jpgThe defendant's son came in to see me.  His father had been convicted of a third degree felony, and sentenced to three years in prison, and they needed an appellate lawyer.  They were going to hire the attorney who tried the case, and in fact they'd paid him for it already, but decided they wanted a fresh set of eyes on the case.  I agreed, charged them a mid-four figure fee, and said I'd take the case over.  The transcript was due in about a week.

"Can we get our money back from the other lawyer?" the son asked me.

"Well, he did file the notice of appeal, and might have done some other stuff.  How much he charge you?"

"$25,000."

When I finished coughing, I said, "Yeah, you should be able to get that back."

A week later he called me.  The lawyer said he understood, and was willing to give some of the money back.  Five thousand dollars, to be exact.

I told him to file a complaint with Disciplinary Counsel.  Their office called me about the case a few months later, just to ask some questions.  I had one of my own:  "They getting their money back?"

"Oh, yeah," the guy laughed.  "Believe it."

So a couple weeks later I get a call from my friend Shi.  He'd referred me a case several years ago, where his client had been the victim of a $326,000 default judgment.  There was a serious question of service -- as demonstrated by the fact that the plaintiff amended the complaint to include my client's actual name nine days after the default judgment was given. 

I filed a motion to vacate, the judge overruled it exactly fourteen minutes after the plaintiff's response was recorded on the docket.  We had a settlement conference, the plaintiff's said they'd take ten thousand.  I offered them five hundred.  They laughed, I got it reversed, and ten days later they dismissed the case.

So this time Shi wanted me to handle another appeal.  Seems my new client Taishawn and her mother Barbara had retained a lawyer -- we'll call him Joseph Bolek -- to handle some post-decree visitation motions filed by Taishawn's ex.  Taishawn made $7.50 an hour as an STNA, so Bolek had Barbara sign as a guarantor.  He charged them $300 an hour.

The case dragged on for a while, nothing unusual for domestic relations court.  After eleven months, the ex killed himself, so that was that.  During that time, Taishawn and Barbara paid Bolek $16,900.  Seems like an awful lot for a post-decree visitation motion that didn't involve any briefs or evidentiary hearings, but what the hell, they'd paid the money.

Then two years later, he sued them for an additional $39,000 for his representation.

The case wasn't defended well, and the judge granted summary judgment for the $39,000.  I immediately noticed the problem.  Bolek's lawyer handled mostly collection cases, and he approached this as a normal contract case.  But a claim for attorney fees involves more than normal contract principles.  The lawyer also has to show that the fees are reasonable and necessary, and in his motion for summary judgment, Bolek hadn't even mentioned that, let alone presented any evidence of it.

I appealed that, too, and after an oral argument in which one of the judges agreed with me that we were in the wrong line of work, the panel reversed.

So we're back in the trial court, and Bolek offers to settle the case for ten grand.  That's a no.  At this point, I'm handling the case for free, because I figure cross-examining this guy about his $56,000 bill is going to be the most fun I've had with my pants on in some time.

One of the problems with me handling civil cases is that I think like a criminal lawyer, and forget that I don't have to rely on what the prosecutor gives me; I can be pro-active in discovery.  My buddy Paul suggested I do a request for production of Bolek's tax records.  He filed a motion for protective order, but the standard for civil discovery is exceedingly broad:  as I pointed out in my response, production is required even if the evidence would be inadmissible, as long as it would possibly lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  And if this guy is claiming that he's such a heavyweight that he commands $300 an hour, well, there should be a whole bunch more people paying him that, which would be reflected in his returns.

That did the trick.  A week before trial, the lawyer calls me and asks if we can settle.  I'm trying to write three briefs at this time, and spending two days in trial, as much fun as that would be, would seriously mess with my timing on other stuff. 

I offer him $500.  He emails me a counter for $2,500 a few days later.  Five hundred is it, I tell him, and five hundred it is; we settle two days before trial.

So if you need a domestic relations lawyer, I've got a name for you, but he's kinda pricey.

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