Law firm entitled to $36k in unpaid legal fees, court rules, but not all it sought

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A Vincennes firm scored a partial victory in the Indiana Court of Appeals on Wednesday after the court upheld the award of more than $36,000 in unpaid legal fees for guardianship and estate work. The appeals court remanded the case for reconsideration of other collection costs and prejudgment interest awarded.

Clara Briggs contracted with Jeffrey Kolb, a partner at Kolb Roellgen & Kirchoff LLP, in March 2013 to represent her in guardianship proceedings involving her mother, Anna Mae Strange. More than a year later, the firm billed Briggs for nearly $34,000. When Strange passed away, the firm helped Briggs close the estate and billed her for that work, which totaled around $28,000.

The Davies Circuit Court ordered the estate to pay nearly $24,000 in attorney fees regarding the guardianship work. By December 2015, the firm sued Briggs in Knox County to collect the rest it believed it was owed – nearly $11,000 not awarded in the guardianship case and more than $25,000 for services rendered in closing Strange’s estate. The firm also sought prejudgment interest and collection costs.

The trial court ruled in favor of the firm in September, awarding $36,188.41 in unpaid legal fees, $7,675.91 in collection costs, and $5,602.86 in prejudgment interest.

Briggs raised several issues on appeal, including that the firm’s claim for unpaid legal fees was barred by the doctrine of res judicata, but the appellate court rejected her arguments.

The Court of Appeals, did, however, find that because the firm did not render the estate services for Briggs pursuant to a fee agreement, Kolb Roellgen & Kirchoff is entitled for reasonable fees for that work under a theory of quantum meruit. Based on the record, which indicates the firm submitted evidence of its hourly rate and the number of hours dedicated to Briggs’ estate work, as well as specific work performed, the trial court had enough evidence to award the $25,000 under the parties’ quasi-contract.

Judge Margret Robb noted Briggs did not designate any evidence claiming these fees were unreasonable.

But the appellate court reversed the collection costs and prejudgment interest awarded to the firm. The firm should not have been able to receive collection costs stemming from the quasi-contract, Robb wrote.

There is also a genuine issue of material fact as to when the prejudgment interest on the nearly $11,000 owed by Briggs for the guardianship began to accrue under the fee agreement. There is also a question as to how much of the interest was awarded based on the quasi-contract services.

The judges remanded the matter for further proceedings on the collection costs and prejudgment interest.

The case is Clara Briggs v. Kolb Roellgen & Kirchoff, LLP (mem. dec.), 42A01-1610-CC-2235.

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