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Judges uphold contingent fees award

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The contingent fee contract a law firm entered into with a city regarding a sewer fee dispute, which ultimately led to the firm collecting nearly 10 times more than the city anticipated, was valid and reasonable, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed today.

In The City of New Albany v. K. Lee Cotner, Richard R. Fox, Steve Gustafson, and Law Offices of Fox & Cotner, No. 22A01-0904-CV-175, New Albany hired Fox & Cotner on a contingency fee basis in regards to its sewer fee dispute with the Town of Georgetown. The terms of the agreement with the firm said Fox & Cotner would get one third of whatever they ultimately collected from Georgetown in the dispute. The city later retained another attorney to help with regards to sewer litigation seeking back sewer fees and penalties from Georgetown.

Around this time, Fox & Cotner proposed a new fee contract because it thought it had lost the original one and wanted to ensure payment, as well as to avoid any argument related to the fee since the city was also paying the other attorney. The city rejected the new contract, which including recouping a one-tenth contingent fee on capital improvements, leaving the old one in place; the original contract was eventually located.

Georgetown ultimately settled with New Albany and agreed to pay $100,000 as payment for back sewer fees and $800,000 as payment for its remaining payment obligations. Over the city's objections, Fox & Cotner sought a third of the total amount, not just the $100,000 for back sewer fees. The trial court granted summary judgment for the firm and ordered the city to pay $300,000 plus interest.

New Albany argued the scope of the fee contract, whether estoppel applies, and the reasonableness of the fee were genuine issues of material fact, but the appellate judges disagreed.

The term "sewer fee dispute" in the original contract is ambiguous, but all of the designated evidence points to the fact that it generally involved the collection of back sewer fees, unpaid connection fees, and penalties for excess flow under the terms of the contract between the municipalities, wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.

"The 'sewer fee dispute' encompassed the issue of penalties for excess flow and thus, in accordance with the sewage contract, also encompassed its alternative of monetary contributions toward capital improvements," she wrote.

The judges also rejected New Albany's argument that Fox & Cotner had a duty to tell the city at mediation that it was going to assert a claim for a third of the total amount of the settlement fees, not just the back sewer fees. But the city knew of the firm's claim for contingent fees on the capital improvement claims because the firm attempted to renegotiate its fees, including on capital improvements, but the city rejected the proposed contract.

Examining the contingent fee contract at the time it was entered into, the Court of Appeals ruled it was reasonable. The city claimed it was reasonable when it was entered into, but that the $300,000 the firm tried to recoup was unreasonable because it didn't expend enough effort to justify such a high fee. But the city's evidence doesn't address the dispositive issue of whether the contingent fee was unreasonable at the time the contract was entered in to, so "without more, 20/20 hindsight is simply not enough to overcome the presumption that the contingent fee is reasonable," wrote Judge Vaidik.

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  1. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  5. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

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