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NY: Reasonable Fees, Big Time

Lawrence v. Miller 48 A.D.3d 1, 853 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dept., 2007)

Student Contributor: Maninder (Meena) Saini

NY Underlying Estate Litigation-Attorney fees

Facts: A husband passed away and left the estate to respondent-wife and their three children. The will was admitted to probate in January 1982. The respondent (Lawrence) retained the Graubard law firm on an hourly basis to represent her in connection with the estate. Respondent was billed over $18 million in legal fees over a 22-year lengthy dispute over the estate. Throughout the years, more than $350 million in distributions were made to the beneficiaries. To conclude the litigation, a $60 million settlement was offered but the respondent declined. The respondent then renegotiated the existing agreement with the law firm. The law firm would continue to get an hourly rate, but there was an annual cap of 1.2 million. In addition, the agreement contained a 40% contingency fee provision for any additional monies that were distributed to the beneficiaries. Months later, the law firm reached a settlement agreement for approximately $104.8 million. The respondent refused to pay the law firm the 40% of the additional $40 million it obtained. The law firm filed a petition to compel payment. The respondent then brought a lawsuit for, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duty.

Issue: Whether the revised contract that contained a contingency fee of 40% of any future monies distributed to the beneficiaries is unconscionable on its face.

Ruling: The court found that a 40% contingent legal fee of $40 million for five months work was not unconscionable on its face, especially following years of litigation. Thus, the law firm did not breach any fiduciary duties.

 “Any determination of unconscionability generally requires a showing of both procedural and substantive unconscionability, requiring an examination of the contract formation process and the alleged lack of meaningful choice.”

Lesson: Should it be unconscionable for an attorney to place high contingency fees in the retainer agreement when the attorney is investing his time and risking collecting nothing in the event of a loss? The attorney must demonstrate that he did not exploit the situation and that the client understood the terms of the agreement. Even though it may seem excessive at first blush, the circumstances underlying the agreement must be fully evaluated. Agreements are to be enforced when no deception is involved in making the contract between competent adults. 

Editor’s Note: The "bottom line" is given all the circumstances, the fee must be reasonable. RPC 1.5 (a). 

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Posted in: Attorneys Fees, Fiduciary Duty, New York, Wills Trusts & Estates