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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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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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