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Prolonged Fees Fight Offers Lessons and Concerns

Cases about legal fees are always curious, and who pays whose legal fees is almost always an issue in probate litigation.  This new unpublished Court of Appeals opinion is the second appeal in the same matter.  The facts are complicated and somewhat hard to follow – but for those of us who handle these issues, I think the case is sufficiently interesting to make the exercise worthwhile.

Click here to read: In Re Estate of Charlotte Westman.

Basically it seems an attorney was appointed PR of his mother’s estate. He hired a large metro-Detroit firm to represent him as PR. In that capacity he was involved in extensive litigation.  As a result of the litigation the trial court found that over $100,000 of legal fees charged to the estate did not benefit the estate and that he was personally responsible for those fees.  The law firm he hired then brought an action against him to have their fees secured against his share of his mother’s trust.  He contested that action – but lost in the trial court. In the first appeal, the COA held that the law firm could not secure their fees against the trust because they only represented him in the estate, but that the client/son could potentially be sanctioned for the pleadings he filed without representation in which he opposed the law firm’s efforts to collect.  That issue was remanded. On remand, the trial court decided that he would be sanctioned and coincidentally that the amount of the sanction would be the same amount as the law firm’s claim – $20,000+.   So, to be clear, a law firm that represented a former PR was able to file an action in the estate proceeding to recover legal fees it incurred in its own efforts to secure fees from a former client, and even though the law firm was unsuccessful in its efforts to obtain that secured position, the probate court could nonetheless require the former client to pay the law firm for its costs based on sanctions imposed under MCR 2.114, leaving the former client still responsible for the $100,000+ obligation incurred by him while PR, and an additional $20,000+ imposed upon him as a sanction.  This sanction is the subject of this second COA decision.

The client makes a number of seemingly reasonable arguments as to why this process and outcome may not be appropriate under Michigan law. Among other things, the client argues that:

  • He engaged the firm as PR and did not contractually agree to be personally responsible for the disallowed fees.
  • This is basically an action in contract between himself and the law firm, which law firm is not an interested party or creditor in the estate proceeding, and therefore is using an improper forum.
  • That, even if this were a proper forum, the fact that he was not allowed to engage in discovery to defend himself would make the trial court’s decision void.

None of these arguments prevail and the COA affirms the decision of the trial court.

The legal analysis and conclusions of the COA are far more detailed than I have time or inclination to present.  Sure, the law firm is entitled to be paid.  And I understand (and often appreciate) that trial courts tend to do what they can to make sure that the lawyers who advocate in front of them get paid. But, I have to say that I am left with the feeling that if I wasn’t a lawyer, I might think the system was rigged.