On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, ESX-L-53- 98.
Before Judges Petrella, Steinberg and Alley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alley, J.A.D.
As amended November 29, 2001.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 17, 2001
This matter had its inception in January 1998, when plaintiff, the Brach Eichler law firm, sued defendant, its former client, Ifeoma Ezekwo, for unpaid legal fees she allegedly incurred in connection with its representation of her. Defendant appeals from the award of judgment against her in the amount of $15,205 for those fees. She also appeals from an award of attorney's fees to the plaintiff law firm, as attorneys acting pro se, which the trial judge predicated on R. 4:58-2, the offer of judgment rule. We affirm.
In July 1992, defendant retained plaintiff to represent her in a number of unsuccessful attempts to obtain board certification and in disputes with several insurance companies. Plaintiff memorialized the hourly fee arrangement for its services to defendant in a letter dated July 23, 1992. The controversies were with Met Life Health Plan, Bronx Health Plan, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Montefiore Hospital, Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital, and two medical certification boards, American Board of Ophthalmology and American Board of Internal Medicine.
Briefly described, defendant's alleged claims against the various parties, and the services allegedly rendered by the plaintiff on her behalf, were these:
Defendant sought privileges in internal medicine and in her specialty of ophthalmology at Beth Israel Hospital and retained plaintiff on July 22, 1992, to help her obtain these privileges. Plaintiff met with officials of the hospital and attended hearings for defendant. Defendant dismissed plaintiff as her attorney on August 20, 1993.
After defendant applied for medical staff privileges in internal medicine at Montefiore Hospital, the hospital suggested that she had not given them all of the information they needed to process her request. When she retained plaintiff, defendant requested that a complaint be filed against the hospital and later sent plaintiff a letter dated June 1, 1993, asking that suit be filed immediately. Plaintiff consulted with defendant and corresponded with counsel for the hospital, but defendant dismissed plaintiff on August 20, 1993, and at that time plaintiff had filed no complaint against Montefiore Hospital. The hospital did not accept defendant.
Our Lady of Mercy Hospital
Defendant had privileges at a hospital named Pelham Bay that Our Lady of Mercy purchased. Our Lady of Mercy had granted defendant provisional privileges, but defendant was having difficulty exercising her privileges. At the time she retained plaintiff, defendant requested that a lawsuit be filed. Plaintiff did not file a lawsuit but prepared a letter on behalf of defendant. Defendant dismissed plaintiff on August 20, 1993.
Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital
Defendant sought admitting privileges for her patients at MEETH but was granted only provisional privileges. Defendant retained plaintiff on November 30, 1992, to help defendant gain full admitting privileges for defendant's patients.
Plaintiff wrote a letter for defendant to the Public Health Council complaining about the way defendant had been treated, and it also prepared and filed a lawsuit on defendant's behalf. The case was still pending at the time she dismissed plaintiff.
After MetLife had not paid various claims for services rendered by defendant to patients covered by MetLife, she retained plaintiff to initiate a debt collection action against MetLife. Plaintiff corresponded with MetLife regarding the outstanding bills and termination. Despite many requests by defendant to initiate a lawsuit, plaintiff did not. MetLife canceled defendant as of May 6, 1993, based on the termination clause in the contract. MetLife also supplied plaintiff with a list of reasons why it had not paid certain bills of defendant. Plaintiff never filed suit as instructed, and defendant discharged plaintiff from representing her interests regarding MetLife on August 20, 1993.
Defendant applied for admission as a medical provider in the field of internal medicine and ophthalmology in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield health plan. When her application was denied, she retained plaintiff to challenge the denial. Defendant further instructed plaintiff to initiate a debt collection action. Plaintiff prepared letters, reviewed denial letters and made telephone calls to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and later consulted with plaintiff, but as of the date of its discharge by defendants on August 20, 1993, it had filed no lawsuit as defendant had requested.
Defendant applied for admission as a health care provider in the Bronx Health Plan. After her application was denied, she instructed plaintiff to initiate legal action against Bronx Health Plan challenging the denial. Plaintiff consulted with defendant and sent letters to Bronx Health Plan, but when defendant dismissed ...