On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.
Before Judges Petrella, Havey and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by PETRELLA, P.J.A.D.
On this appeal we decide what is in essence a fee dispute between successive trial attorneys, arising from an order of the trial court allocating fees following Disposition of a negligence case. After a no cause of action in the first trial, and a reversal and remand following an appeal, the second trial attorney settled the underlying negligence action. The trial Judge, over objection awarded intervenor-respondent Bertram Siegel and his law firm of Siegel & Siegel a $45,000 quantum meruit fee, and $7,656.68 as reimbursement of costs and disbursements made by the Siegel firm prior to and during the trial on behalf of plaintiffs Riki and Elliott Dinter.
This appeal has its origins in a slip and fall negligence case which Siegel tried to a no cause of action before a jury in 1990.*fn1 The Dinters desired to appeal but Siegel would not proceed unless they forwarded the costs for appeal, particularly transcript costs, despite Siegel's previous practice under the parties' contingent fee agreement of advancing costs at the trial level. The Dinters retained alternate counsel, appealed, and we reversed and remanded the case for another trial.*fn2 The Dinters thereafter retained Bennett J. Wasserman as their trial attorney under a new contingent fee agreement with him. Sears settled with the Dinters for $850,000 before trial. Siegel then claimed entitlement to a portion of the $218,226.79 due Wasserman as fees under his contingent fee agreement with the Dinters.*fn3
The Dinters argue the Siegel firm is not entitled to a fee or any portion of Wasserman's fee. They assert that their contingent fee agreement with Siegel ended upon entry of the adverse judgment or by mutual agreement when the Siegel firm refused to advance the funds for transcripts for an appeal and instructed the Dinters to obtain new attorneys. The Dinters essentially argue that a quantum meruit award cannot be sustained here, particularly when there was a valid contingent fee agreement in effect. In the alternative, they argue that the Siegel firm breached the retainer agreement and terminated it by refusing to proceed with the appeal, except on new terms, and by refusing to file a notice of appeal. Finally, they argue that the award of quantum meruit fees is contrary to public policy and New Jersey Court Rules.
The Dinters retained the Siegel firm in connection with Riki Dinter's slip and fall on November 30, 1987. Riki Dinter and Siegel signed a pre-printed form contingent fee agreement*fn4 containing the following language:
2. Legal Services. The Law Firm will protect your legal rights and do all necessary legal work to properly represent you in this matter.
3. Cost and Expenses. In addition to legal fees, you may be required to pay for expenses in connection with the institution and prosecution of your claim. Such expenses may include, among other things, experts' fees and expenses for other testimony or evidence, court costs, accountants' fees, appraisers' fees, service fees, investigators' fees, deposition costs, costs of briefs, transcripts on appeal and extraordinary photocopying, long-distance telephone and postage expenses. You will not be required to pay for usual and customary law office overhead expenses, such as local telephone charges, routine photocopying and postage costs and expenses associated with legal research.
4. Legal Fees. If the Law Firm recovers money for you, which is greater than your costs and expenses (see paragraph 3), you will pay the Law Firm a legal fee. The fee will be based on a percentage of the net recovery. Net recovery is the total recovered on your behalf, minus your costs and expenses, and minus any interest included in a judgment pursuant to R. 4:42-11(b). The fee will be as follows:
33 1/3% of the first $250,000 net recovery;
25% of the next $250,000 net recovery;
20% of the next $500,000 net recovery.
Fees on net recoveries exceeding $1,000,000.00 will be ...