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Mescall & Acosta v. James J. Dunn


August 23, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Docket No. L-1849-09.

Per curiam.


Argued August 9, 2011

Before Judges Waugh and Koblitz.

Plaintiff Mescall & Acosta (M&A), a law firm, appeals the order of the Law Division awarding it $900 in legal fees arising out of its representation of a client subsequently represented by defendants James J. Dunn and Levinson Axelrod, P.A. We remand to the Law Division for supplementation of the judge's reasons for her decision.

In July 2005, M&A was retained by Nancy Cullinan to represent her in connection with a work-related injury she sustained in June 2004. M&A took over responsibility for a workers' compensation claim filed by Cullinan's prior attorney, and also explored the viability of a personal injury claim against a third party. In April or May 2006, Cullinan retained defendants to represent her in connection with both the pending compensation action and the proposed personal injury action. M&A duly transferred the file to defendants.

Defendants filed the personal injury action, which subsequently settled for $700,000. Defendants received a fee of $158,000 as a result of the settlement. After the parties were unable to agree on the amount of legal fees due to M&A, it commenced the present action. Following agreement at a case management conference that the issue could be determined on motion, M&A filed a motion for summary judgment.

M&A argued in its motion that it was entitled to receive $300 per hour for the twenty-four to thirty hours of work performed with respect to the personal-injury aspect of the case. Defendants maintained that most of the hours claimed related to the compensation matter, and that M&A did little to advance the personal injury action.

Following oral argument on October 29, 2010, the judge delivered a very brief oral decision in which she determined that M&A was entitled to compensation for only three hours of work, for a total of $900 in fees.*fn1 An implementing order was entered on November 3, 2010. This appeal followed.

On appeal, M&A argues, in part, that the motion judge's reasons were not sufficiently articulated for meaningful appellate review and that she erred in finding that it was only entitled to compensation for three hours of work.

"Appellate review of a trial court's attorney fee determination is deferential. We will only disturb the trial court's determination on a showing of 'clear abuse of discretion' based on the record presented on the fee application." In re Estate of F.W., 398 N.J. Super. 344, 355 (App. Div.) (citation omitted), certif. denied, 196 N.J. 347 (2008). We owe no deference, however, to the legal conclusions of the motion judge. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

The rule for allocating fees among law firms who have provided services to the client pursuant to contingent fee retainer agreements was articulated in La Mantia v. Durst, 234 N.J. Super. 534, 537-44 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 118 N.J. 181 (1989), in which we held that the principles of quantum meruit govern. The considerations that inform this analysis include: the quantity and quality of time expended on the case by each firm, the viability of the claim when the file was transferred, and the amount of the recovery. Id. at 540-41.

We agree with M&A that the motion judge's oral decision before us is not sufficient for a meaningful review of her determination. Consequently, we remand to the motion judge for a fuller explanation of her decision, including an articulation of her analysis under La Mantia.

The remand shall be completed within forty-five days. The judge's supplemental opinion shall be forwarded to the Clerk of the Appellate Division and counsel for the parties. Counsel may supplement their briefs within twenty days of receipt of the supplemental opinion. We retain jurisdiction.


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