Before Judges Carchman, Lefelt and Lintner.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lefelt, J.S.C., (temporarily assigned).
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County.
Plaintiff Jules Ladenheim ("Ladenheim"), a neurosurgeon, appeals from the trial court's determination that defendant Stephen Klein ("Klein"), an attorney, had no liability to Ladenheim for medical services rendered to Klein's client, Albert Cassanello. The trial judge concluded that a "letter of protection" from Klein to Ladenheim did not create an equitable lien in favor of Ladenheim for his medical treatment fees. We reverse.
On December 29, 1991, Ladenheim performed surgery on Albert Cassanello who had been struck on the head by an axe during a North Bergen tavern incident. Ladenheim charged Cassanello $3,750 for the neurological consultation and skull fracture treatment he rendered. Ladenheim provided Cassanello with some follow-up treatment, and by March 2, 1992, Cassanello owed Ladenheim $3,800.
Cassanello retained Klein to represent him in the North Bergen axe incident. Therefore, on January 31, 1992, Klein requested Cassanello's medical report and bill from Ladenheim. In this letter, Klein stated, "[a]t the conclusion of your medical treatment, I would appreciate your forwarding to my attention a medical report and bill. Please indicate to me the cost for this service and I will forward a check to your attention."
Then, on March 6, 1992, Klein wrote Ladenheim, in pertinent part, as follows:
Regarding the [Cassanello] matter, I enclose my check payable to your order in the estimated sum of $250.00 covering a preliminary report regarding medical and surgical treatment rendered to date regarding my client Mr. Albert Cassanello together with an authorization signed by him.
This letter further confirms that your outstanding bill for $3,750.00 is protected from any settlement of this claim. (emphasis added).
Pursuant to Klein's March 6, 1992 letter, Ladenheim submitted Cassanello's medical report on or about March 24, 1992. The report detailed Cassanello's injuries and the surgical procedures and other medical services that Ladenheim had provided. This was the only written medical report Ladenheim prepared in connection with Cassanello's case.
After some procedural difficulties that are not relevant to this appeal, Cassanello's case eventually settled in January 1998. On April 9, 1998, Klein informed Ladenheim that he was not going to "abide by [the] letter of protection" and refused to pay Ladenheim's medical service fees. During trial, Klein explained his justification for refusing to honor the letter of protection:
Let me explain to you what happened. Number one, the client was being very . . . unreasonable. And he was making demands far greater than what the case should reasonably settle for. He didn't want any of the bills paid. I reduced my legal fee so that he would accept the settlement.
During this period of time, I had forgotten about the Letter of Protection. . . . I was not going to change the settlement agreement that I had between Mr. Cassanello and myself and I don't believe that it would have made any difference as far as Mr. Cassanello because he wanted x amount of dollars just to try the case. . . . Dr. Ladenheim decided ...