MUCH ADO ABOUT SOMETHING

March 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Forbes v. St. Martin, et al., decided March 5, 2013, by the COA, is a tour de force on contingent fee contracts and their enforceability. If you do any contingent-fee work, this is a must-read for you. Actually, it’s a good opinion to read and examine as a case study in ethics. 

The 41-page majority opinion was penned by Judge Griffis. The rest of the court went this way: “ISHEE, ROBERTS, CARLTON AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. BARNES, J., CONCURS IN PART AND THE IN RESULT WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. MAXWELL, J., CONCURS IN PART AND IN THE RESULT WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED IN PART BY ROBERTS, J. IRVING, P.J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED BY LEE, C.J. JAMES, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.”

James Forbes had suffered catastrophic injuries in a gas-station explosion in Biloxi. Through a series of events he came to be represented in his personal injury claim by St. Martin, a Louisiana lawyer. Rather than qualifying to proceed pro hac vice, St. Martin instead associated a Mississippi lawyer and kept a rather low profile in the case, advising Forbes and his wife in the background and letting Mississippi counsel, with whom he corresponded regularly, take the lead in the record of the litigation.

The PI case was settled eventually for $13.6 million, and St. Martin’s fees, which were to be divided with Mississippi counsel, were $4.6 million.

Forbes filed suit against St. Martin and the Mississippi lawyer, and their respective firms, seeking to void the contingent-fee contract. The complaint asserted claims for breach of fiduciary duty, professional negligence, fraud and misrepresentation, conversion, rescission, imposition of a constructive trust, quantum merit, attorney’s fees, and actual and punitive damages. The Mississippi lawyer and his firm were dismissed, and St. Martin’s malpractice carrier was added as a defendant.

Both Forbes and St. Martin filed motions for summary judgment, and the chancellor ruled in favor of St. Martin.

The COA reversed and remanded. The ruling is too involved to go into detail here, but the court ruled that Forbes had presented enough evidence that there did exist a genuine issue of material fact so that summary judgment should not have been granted. Some of the findings of the COA:

  1. St. Martin made over $100,000 in “cash advances” to the Forbes, which they spent on a Bahamian vacation, a Caribbean cruise, a car, a cell phone, and “other personal expenses,” in violation of Rule 1.8(e) of the Rules of Professional Coduct;
  2. Unauthorized practice of law by St. Martin in Mississippi;
  3. The first contingent-fee contract was made while Forbes was under influence of narcotics;
  4. The second contract may have been the product of misleading or even fraudulent advice;
  5. Portions of the contract pertaining to ability to settle without counsel and ability to terminate counsel were in violation of Mississippi’s professional conduct rules.

So St. Martin returns to trial in chancery unless he can convince the MSSC to take the case on cert. That could happen if the MSSC wants to clarify the law in this area. Or, the high court could let the case finish its run through the trial court and then entertain it later. With millions at stake, it’s inconceivable that a later appeal would not result no matter what the ultimate trial outcome.

An interesting aspect of this case is that it is in essence a malpractice claim based on breach of fiduciary duties, which is not the usual and customary avenue that plaintiffs pursue in these cases.

The question at the heart of this appeal is whether an out-of-state lawyer may enter into an agreement with a Mississippi lawyer for joint representation of Mississippi litigants in a way that the out-of-state lawyer may avoid coming within the restrictions of the Mississippi rules of professional conduct and the scrutiny of our courts. The answer of the COA is “no.”

A subsidiary question is raised in Judge Maxwell’s partially concurring opinion, which challenges the majority’s definition of the practice of law. Judge Maxwell would not define it as expansively as did the majority. In my opinion, if the supreme court decides this phase of the case merits a look, this will be the battleground issue.

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