Priority of the Attorney’s Charging Lien

May 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

It is an ancient principle of the common law, and has long been recognized in Mississippi law, that attorneys have a lien on judgments and decrees obtained through the attorney’s successful representation. Where that lien falls in order of priority was the issue in a recent case.

Bar-Til, Inc. won a judgment for more than $205,000 against Superior Asphalt in chancery court. Instead of appealing, Superior interpled the money into the registry of the court while Bar-Til appealed the trial court’s denial of punitive damages. The chancellor granted the interpleader and entered a judgment declaring the judgment satisfied in full.

After the COA affirmed the denial of punitive damages, a scramble ensued among several creditors of Bar-Til, all of whom claimed a right to some of the funds. Some were judgment creditors. One was the McRae law Firm, which had successfully represented Bar-Til.

The interpled funds were insufficient to satisfy all of the claimants in full, so the chancellor apportioned the funds among them, including McRae, in a way that he deemed equitable.

Bar-Til appealed, arguing that McRae’s fees had priority, and that the chancellor erred by not recognizing the priority, and by not recognizing priorities or not of the other liens.

In Bar-Til, Inc. v. Superior Asphalt, et al., handed down May 9, 2017, the COA reversed and remanded. On the issue of priority of liens, Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶10. Mississippi has long recognized an attorney’s right to have a lien on judgments and decrees procured through an attorney’s efforts on behalf of his client. An attorney has a “paramount lien on the money decree which he [has] obtained.” Collins v. Schneider, 187 Miss. 1, 192 So. 20, 23 (1939). “[A]n attorney’s lien on judgments and decrees obtained by [him] for fees on account of services rendered, belongs to the family of implied common law liens, and is firmly engrafted on the common law.” Id. A charging lien attaches when the attorney does “successfully pursue the [lawsuit] to conclusion and obtain a final judgment from which there [is] no appeal.” Tyson v. Moore, 613 So. 2d 817, 826 (Miss. 1992). At that point, “[the attorney’s] entitlement to a fee is vested.” In Collins, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that the attorney had a priority lien on funds held in the lower court’s register where “[t]he evidence conclusively show[ed] that nothing would have been recovered on the original cause of action . . . had it not been for [the attorney’s] labor, zeal[,] and skill in the investigation and vigorous prosecution of that suit to a successful conclusion.” Collins, 192 So. at 22.

¶11. In Indianola Tractor Co. v. Tankesley, 337 So. 2d 705, 706 (Miss. 1976), the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s acknowledgment of a plaintiff’s attorney’s lien on the proceeds of a successful garnishment action. In ordering disbursement of the judgment, the law firm was listed first in priority. Id. The court cited to Chattanooga Sewer Pipe Works v. Dumler, 153 Miss. 276, 120 So. 2d 450, 453 (1929), in which the Supreme Court reiterated that “[i]t has been uniformly held by this [C]ourt that an attorney has a lien on the funds of his client for the services rendered in the proceeding by which the money was collected.”

¶12. Our appellate courts have noted since 1939 the absence in Mississippi of a “statute fixing or regulating the lien of an attorney, or the enforcement thereof.” Collins, 192 So. at 22. Consistent with common-law principles, multiple states statutorily mandate the priority of attorney’s fees, including Oregon, New York, California, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Alabama, and Georgia. For example, Alabama’s statute provides:

Upon actions and judgments for money, [attorneys] shall have a lien superior to all liens but tax liens, and no person shall be at liberty to satisfy the action or judgment, until the lien or claim of the attorney for his or her fees is fully satisfied; and attorneys-at-law shall have the same right and power over action or judgment to enforce their liens as their clients had or may have for the amount due thereon to them.

Ala. Code § 34-3-61(b). These statutes codify the equitable principle long recognized at common law that attorneys deserve payment for their successful services. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, applying Mississippi law, held in American Fidelity that one of the rationales for not granting a law firm priority to retainage funds was that the law firm’s services had not been the cause of the release of the funds, therefore resulting in no injustice in not giving the law firm priority. We have the opposite situation at hand. Here, the services of the law firm—including seven years’ representation and over $16,000 in expenses—directly resulted in the judgment against Superior Asphalt.

¶13. Garnishees have the statutory right to compel interpleader. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-35-41 (Rev. 2004). This right protects the garnishee from double liability on the same judgment. The charging lien, protecting the attorney’s right to the fruits of his labor, and the right to interplead, protecting the garnishee from double liability, should not intersect with each other in such a way that frustrates one or the other right. If we were to adopt the approach that the contingency is not triggered in this circumstance, then practically—or rather, impractically—a plaintiff’s attorney working for a contingency fee would need to research standing garnishment claims in all eighty-two Mississippi counties prior to determining whether to accept a case. Any case that may result in an interpleader may be too risky to pursue. As the Mississippi Supreme Court explained in 1939, “it would be most inequitable and unjust for [the other claimants to the judgment] to be allowed to ‘ride free’ on the facts of this case.” Collins, 192 So. at 23.

¶14. We also note that the third-party creditors can continue to pursue collection of any remaining funds owed them pursuant to their respective judgments against Bar-Til. But as to the law firm, if the charging lien has not attached and does not have priority, the law firm will only receive for its successful services what—if anything—is left after all of the garnishors have taken the first bite at the interpled funds.

¶15. Here, the monies would not be available for distribution to the garnishors had not Bar-Til’s right to the judgment first vested. Superior Asphalt surrendered the money in satisfaction of the judgment against it, with no further right of appeal. We find that Superior Asphalt’s deposit of the funds into the registry of the court, consistent with its right to protect itself from double liability, did not prevent the law firm’s charging lien from attaching to the interpled funds. The law firm is first in priority.

¶16. As to priority between H&E Equipment and MMC Materials, MMC Materials properly concedes that H&E Equipment has priority. Even though MMC Materials’ judgment against Bar-Til was obtained first in 2008, priority here is governed by our garnishment statutes. Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-35-24(1) (Rev. 2004) provides in part that “[w]here more than one garnishment has been issued against an employee of a garnishee, such garnishee shall comply with the garnishment with which he was first served.” H&E Equipment was first to serve Superior Asphalt with a writ of garnishment related to any funds owed by Superior Asphalt to Bar-Til.

To make a longish story shortish: (a) the lien of an attorney who has been successful in obtaining the judgment that resulted in the interpled funds has first priority among creditors; and (b) garnishors stand in order of filing after the first priority.

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