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. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.