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Law firm can’t collect attorney fees from insurer

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Relying on caselaw from 1892, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided that Ken Nunn Law Office may not collect attorney fees it says are owed by a former client from a third-party insurance company following a settlement.

Kenneth Henderson hired the Nunn Law Office in May 2009 on a contingency fee basis after he was involved in an accident with another driver, Joshua Beal. Beal was insured by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. The law firm filed a lawsuit against Beal in March 2010; two weeks later, Henderson fired the law firm because he was unhappy with how his case had been handled.

The law firm then sent a notice of lien for attorney fees to the court, Henderson and State Farm. In late April 2010, Henderson and State Farm settled for more than $12,000. State Farm paid Nunn Law Office the $541 in costs it requested in its lien, but no attorney fees.

The law office sued Henderson and the insurer, and the trial court ordered Henderson pay nearly $4,000 to the law firm after granting default judgment against him. In doing so, the judge also denied State Farm’s summary judgment motion. Nunn Law Office claimed that State Farm and Henderson had a duty and failed to protect the “quantum meriut attorney’s fee lien” of the firm. State Farm argued that it was not liable for attorney fees for services rendered to Henderson.

On interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the Nunn Law Office has no claim for attorney fees through either an equitable lien or quantum meruit. The judges cited Hanna v. Island Coal Co., 5 Ind. App. 163, 31 N.E. 846, 847 (1892), which held that no lien can be acquired before judgment that would prevent the client from compromising and releasing his claim without the attorney’s consent, including in personal injury actions.

“We decline to expand upon this State’s previous articulations of the boundaries of the reach of an equitable lien for the protection of attorney fees where the proceeds of the compromise have been transferred to the attorney’s former client and thus decline to hold that a charging or equitable lien may be enforced against a party other than Nunn’s former client under these circumstances where prior to settlement Nunn was no longer counsel for Henderson and was paid its expenses,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote.

The law firm may not recover from State Farm under the theory of quantum meruit because State Farm was not a party to the fee agreement between Henderson and Nunn Law Office, any work done by the law firm was for the benefit of Henderson, not the insurer, and State Farm was not unjustly enriched by the legal services provided by the firm to Henderson, the judges held.

The case, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Ken Nunn Law Office, 49A02-1202-CT-68, goes back to Marion Superior Court for further proceedings.

 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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