New York State Court of Appeals – Attorney’s Fees – Contingent Fees – Unconscionable – Continuous Representation
Lawrence, et al. v. Miller, et al.
Background: The defendant represented the decedent’s wife and three children in litigation arising from the death of the decedent, a real estate developer. The decedent’s brother and business partner was executor of the estate. His distribution of the assets caused the underlying lawsuit. Following settlement, there was a dispute over the appropriate attorney’s fee and the validity of certain gifts made by decedent’s wife to the defendant.
Ruling: The Court of Appeals held that the parties’ revised retainer agreement was neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable and is therefore enforceable. Further, the estate’s claim for the return of the gifts is time-barred. The court noted that a hindsight analysis of contingent fee agreements not unconscionable when made is a “dangerous business,” especially when a determination of unconscionability is made solely on the basis that the size of the fee seems too high to be fair. Additionally, the decedent’s wife is a shrewd and competent business woman who made a judgment that turned out to be disadvantageous. Finally, the Court of Appeals declined to expand the continuous representation rule to encompass a financial dispute between a professional and his client.
Brian J. Shoot and Mark C. Zauderer for the appellant Gaubard Miller; Michael A. Carvin for the appellants C. Daniel Chill, et al.; Daniel J. Kornstein for the respondents and intervenors-respondents