Supreme Court Should Have Held a Hearing to Determine Whether Attorneys Were Entitled to the Fees Sought by Them—Plaintiff Had Already Paid the Attorneys Nearly the Amount the Case Ultimately Settled For—the Attorneys, Who Had Been Discharged Without Cause, Sought 40% of the Settlement Pursuant to a Contingency Agreement Which Was Entered In Anticipation of Trial
The Second Department reversed Supreme Court and ordered a hearing to determine whether respondents-attorneys had received all the fees they were entitled to. The attorneys had been paid nearly $54,000 by the plaintiff. Then plaintiff then entered a 40% contingency arrangement prior to trial. The case ultimately settled for $57,500 and plaintiff discharged the attorneys:
An attorney of record who is discharged without cause possesses a charging lien pursuant to Judiciary Law § 475 which constitutes an equitable ownership of the cause of action an attaches to any recovery … . Additionally, “[i]f a client discharges an attorney without cause, the attorney possesses a common-law retaining lien on the client’s file in his or her possession and is entitled to recover compensation from the client measured by the fair and reasonable value of the services rendered, regardless of whether that amount is more or less than the amount provided in the contract or retainer agreement” … . The retaining lien “is extinguished only when the court, which controls the functioning of the lien, orders turnover of the file in exchange for payment of the lawyer’s fee or the posting of an adequate security therefor following a hearing” … . “Absent exigent circumstances, the attorney may generally not be compelled to surrender the papers and files until an expedited hearing has been held to ascertain the amount of the fees or reimbursement to which he or she may be entitled” … . A court may summarily determine that an attorney is charging excessive fees, limit those fees, and discharge the attorney’s liens … .
Here, the Supreme Court erred in denying the plaintiff’s cross motion without holding a hearing to ascertain the amount of fees or reimbursement to which the respondents may be entitled … . The gravamen of the plaintiff’s cross motion was that the charging lien and retaining lien should be vacated because he had already paid the respondents a total of $53,763.99 in legal fees and he did not owe the respondents any additional legal fees. In contrast, the respondents sought to collect a contingency fee of $23,000, which was the full 40% of the $57,500 recovery, without crediting the plaintiff with the $5,000 which should have been credited against the contingency fee pursuant to their agreement. Thus, it appears that the respondents were seeking excessive fees.
Under these circumstances, we reverse the order insofar as appealed from and remit the matter to the Supreme Court, Westchester County, for a hearing on the issue of whether the respondents have received all of the fees owed to them for the reasonable value of their services … . D’Ambrosio v Racanelli, 2015 NY Slip Op 05149, 2nd Dept 6-17-15