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Oral findings allowed in attorney fee case

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A Marion Superior Court didn't err when it failed to issue written findings and conclusions pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 52 in a dispute over attorney fees, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court's award of fees based on quantum meruit rather than a contingency fee agreement with the client.
 
The Nunn Law Office had originally represented Joseph Carpenter in a personal injury action and had an agreement that Nunn would represent him for any of his claims arising out of the motorcycle accident for "40 percent of all amounts recovered or offered." An insurance company attempted to settle, but Carpenter rejected it. Nunn initiated a lawsuit on Carpenter's behalf, but two months later, Carpenter discharged the law firm and hired Peter H. Rosenthal to represent him. Carpenter settled his case for $42,500.

After learning of the settlement, Nunn moved to determine the proper division of attorney fees. The trial court orally calculated a judgment in favor of Nunn for $1,462.88 based upon quantum meruit for Nunn's work on the case.

Ruling on a motion for special findings of fact and conclusions of law filed by Nunn, the trial court entered a judgment for the same amount in favor of Nunn without entering written findings and conclusions.

The issues in Nunn Law Office v. Peter H. Rosenthal, No. 49A05-0809-CV-523, were whether the trial court erred as a matter of law by not issuing written findings and conclusions, and whether quantum meruit or the contingency agreement in Carpenter's contract with Nunn should determine the amount of attorney fees owed to Nunn.

An Indiana Supreme Court ruling suggested that the preferred format for findings and conclusions is in the written form, but the trial court's failure to issue written findings and conclusions doesn't constitute reversible error, wrote Judge Cale Bradford. The plain language of T.R. 52(A) doesn't require the findings and conclusions to be in writing and the purpose of the rule is to provide parties and reviewing courts with the theory upon which the trial judge decided the case.

The Court of Appeals concluded oral findings and conclusions can achieve this purpose as long as they are thoroughly detailed in the record. It also ruled the basis for the $1,462.88 judgment was apparent from the trial court's oral explanation in the record. In addition, any error in the trial court's failure to justify its use of quantum meruit as the proper measure for calculating the attorney fees was a harmless one given the appellate court's conclusion it was the only proper measure for fee determination in the instant case.

Carpenter's fee agreement with Nunn expressly provided for compensation upon discharge, but was silent regarding Nunn's compensation upon pre-contingency discharge. While the 40 percent provision arguably permits payment of fees based upon settlements offered, recovered or not, a latter "no recovery, no fee" provision expressly states to the contrary that fees are not payable unless a recovery is obtained, wrote Judge Bradford.

In the absence of an applicable contractual provision, an attorney employed under a contingent fee contract and discharged before the occurrence of the contingency is limited to quantum meruit recovery for the reasonable value of services rendered, wrote the judge.

Finally, the appellate court affirmed the amount of attorney fees to Nunn based on Nunn's relatively minimal investment of time in Carpenter's case and Rosenthal's success in getting a larger settlement.

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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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