Terre Haute firm loses fees appeal against former Illinois Congressman

A Terre Haute law firm is owed no additional money from one of its former clients, the Indiana Court of Appeals  ruled Monday in an attorney fees lawsuit involving former Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock and his campaign committee.

The Bopp Law Firm, P.C. appealed a Vigo Superior Court order ruling in favor of former Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock and his campaign committee, Schock for Congress, on the law firm’s complaint for unpaid legal bills totaling $159,946.37, plus interest.

Schock – who was indicted for using campaign funds to pay personal expenses and ultimately resigned from Congress on March 31, 2015 – had hired the Bopp attorneys after the congressman was given a subpoena to testify before a grand jury and was ordered to produce a variety of financial records.

The firm’s engagement letter defined the client as “Schock for Congress” and stated the client would pay the “usual and customary hourly rates” for the firm’s attorneys, which included $790 an hour for James Bopp Jr. and $550 per hour for Randy Elf. The law firm was to represent the campaign committee in investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission and was intended to primarily respond to a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to act as the trustee of the committee’s finances.

A September trial court ruling found Schock and SFC paid $94,262.38 for legal services that carried a “reasonable value” of $30,000. The firm then unsuccessfully appealed.

In its Monday ruling, the appellate court first pointed out that although the law firm spent 14 pages of its argument discussing a claim for account stated, the firm’s complaint did not include such a claim.

“Furthermore, at no point during the litigation of the complaint, including the trial itself, did the Law Firm inject this issue into the proceedings such that it could be fairly litigated. The Law Firm directs our attention to its post-trial brief, which — for the first time in the litigation — includes authority related to an account stated claim. We can only find that an issue that was not raised during the litigation of a case cannot be snuck in via a post-trial brief,” now-Senior Judge John Baker wrote for the appellate court.

“Waiver aside, we note that it is uncertain whether the law of account stated even applies to agreements between lawyers and their clients,” Baker wrote in a footnote. “… At oral argument, counsel for the Law Firm expressed disagreement at the argument that account stated does not apply to legal services agreements, because that would require attorneys to prove the reasonableness and veracity of each item on their bills. We, in turn, express our concern that an attorney would expect a rubber stamp of his bills when those bills are questioned by a client.”

Next, the panel determined the law firm did not meet its burden as plaintiff to prove that it was entitled to recover all fees.

“Because SFC did not have to pay the Law Firm for its work for the other entities and individuals and the bills are so ambiguous that it is impossible to separate that work from the SFC work, and because SFC does not have to pay for the problematic work performed by Elf, the trial court did not err by determining that the only fees that the Law Firm may recover are those related to the document review and production performed solely for SFC,” the appellate court wrote.

Further, the panel found no error in the trial court’s conclusion that the reasonable value of the law firm’s legal services performed in the matter is $30,000, not $90,000.

Finally, the COA concluded it was unable to review the reasonableness of the law firm’s demand for costs totaling $14,370.99, regardless of the valuation of its legal services.

The case is The Bopp Law Firm, PC v. Schock for Congress and Aaron Schock, 19A-CC-2421.

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