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NJ: Expert Opinion Necessary to Dispute Reasonableness of Attorney's Fees

Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein, Blader & Lehman v. Parise, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, February 24, 2010

Facts:  Defendants retained Plaintiff attorneys in an underlying residential construction matter.  Upon the submission of summary judgment motions in the underlying matter, defendants instructed their attorneys to cease all legal work.  The attorneys advised of the need to prepare for upcoming court events and trial. 

Prior to trial, however, the underlying litigation was dismissed upon entry of a mutual release, which included the parties’ agreement to satisfy their respective counsel fees and costs.  Despite this agreement, defendants paid only half of the outstanding legal fees and costs.  In response to Plaintiff’s efforts to collect the remainder of their fees, Defendants filed an action for malpractice.  Specifically, Defendants disputed the reasonableness of certain time entries, cited to alleged billing irregularities, and asserted that the fees charged were excessive for the work performed. 

The lower court dismissed the malpractice claim for failure to obtain an expert report.  Defendants appealed.

Issue:  Is the reasonableness of attorney’s fees an issue of  "common knowledge," or is an expert opinion necessary? 

Ruling:  An expert opinion is necessary: 

Expert testimony is required in cases of professional malpractice where the matter to be addressed is so esoteric that the average juror could not form a valid judgment as to whether the conduct of the professional was reasonable.  This is because the duties a lawyer owes to his client are not known by the average juror.

The Court concluded that Defendants’ alleged dissatisfaction with the amount of legal fees charged, supported only by their personal experience in paying other attorneys was not a sufficient factual basis for their malpractice claim.  The Court also rejected Defendants’ argument that the jury ought to disallow all contested charges, unless Plaintiff provides sufficient justification.

Lesson:  An expert opinion is necessary to successfully dispute the reasonableness of attorney’s fees.

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Posted in: Attorneys Fees, Expert Witnesses, New Jersey