On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Pressler, Shebell and Skillman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Defendants, Myron Hollander and Ceceile Hollander, appeal the Law Division's dismissal on summary judgment of their counterclaims against their former attorney, Robert A. Vort.*fn1 We affirm.
The Hollanders purchased a townhouse in Wayne on March 22, 1979. A homeowner's association governed the townhouses through by-laws. In 1981, the Hollanders sued the developer and the association's architectural committee to compel specific performance of an alleged oral agreement to build a deck on the rear of their townhouse. A trial was held on March 30, 1982, in the Chancery Division. The Judge dismissed the Hollanders' claim against the developer but ordered that the architectural committee conduct a hearing.
After a hearing on April 20, 1982, defendants' application for a deck was denied and they were ordered to remove a patio they had constructed in violation of the by-laws. The Hollanders promptly commenced another action asserting that the ruling of the architectural committee constituted an abuse of discretion. On August 19, 1982, the court ordered the Hollanders to remove certain improvements which they had installed, specifically the patio, gas barbecue grill, and certain shrubs. The defendants unsuccessfully appealed this judgment.
In September, 1984, Myron Hollander consulted an attorney about the various claims and litigation that he had against the association. The attorney recommended that Hollander consult with Robert Vort, Esq. Vort and Myron Hollander met, and after reviewing the matters, Vort agreed to represent the Hollanders.
It is not disputed that Vort agreed to charge the Hollanders $50 per hour, plus 20% of any compensatory damages, and one-third of any punitive damage award. However, defendants claim that they had an oral agreement that there would be a $15,000 cap on billed legal fees. They contend they never signed the retainer agreement Vort sent them because he failed to include the provision about the cap. Nonetheless, Vort filed a lengthy civil complaint against the association. Defendants claim that when the fees began to reach the cap level, they sought reassurance from Vort about the cap, and were assured that Vort was continuing to bill only for the purpose of recovering attorney's fees from the association.
In April, 1986, Vort asked to be released from representing the Hollanders, claiming health problems. He requested that Dennis Cipriano, Esq., take over the case. The Hollanders and Cipriano agreed to the same arrangement that Vort had with the Hollanders; however, no one mentioned a cap to Cipriano and no retainer agreement was prepared.
In October, 1987, a meeting was held at Cipriano's office. Cipriano and an attorney representing the ...