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Attorney Fee Dispute - Jurisdiction - Attorney Lien Statute, § 34-3-61(b), Ala. Code 1975

Harris v. Capell & Howard, P.C., [Ms. 2170973, Jan. 11, 2019] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. Civ. App. 2019). This unanimous per curiam decision affirms the Lee Circuit Court’s award of $54,000 in attorney’s fees from proceeds paid to settle a will contest.

Attorney Meadows and the law firm Capell & Howard, P.C., represented the plaintiffs in the will contest in Lee Circuit Court. The contest was resolved by the estate’s payment of $170,000 to the contestants. Ms. *2. Following the settlement, the case was dismissed in a judgment in which the circuit court “retained jurisdiction to issue any additional orders needed for the finalization of this matter.” Ms. *3. When the contestants and their counsel could not agree on the payment of a fee from settlement proceeds, Meadows filed a motion to determine a reasonable attorney’s fee and to disburse the settlement proceeds among the contestants. Ms. *2.

The court first rejected the attorney’s contention that his motion was properly before the circuit court as a result of the retention of jurisdiction or pursuant to Rule 60. As to Rule 60, the court held that since the attorney and his firm were not parties to the litigation, they could not invoke Rule 60. Ms. *5. The court also held that the retention of jurisdiction did not support the court’s jurisdiction over the fee dispute because that dispute was not directly related to the issues in the will contest. Ms. *5-6.

However, the court ultimately held that the fee dispute was properly adjudicated by the Lee Circuit Court in the will contest. The court held “the will contest produced, through settlement, a monetary judgment in favor of [plaintiffs]. Because [an attorney’s lien] arose, § 34-3-61 did not require the law firm to institute an independent action to collect attorney fees.” Ms. *14.

On the merits, the court held that although the order on appeal did not delineate and discuss the applicable Peebles v. Miley factors for determining the reasonableness of the fee award, the record supported the award. The court also noted that “[w]e defer to the trial court in an attorney-fee case because we recognize that the trial court, which has presided over the entire litigation, has a superior understanding of the factual questions that must be resolved in an attorney-fee determination.” Ms. *20, quoting Pharmacia Corp. v. McGowan, 915 So. 2d 549, 553 (Ala. 2004).

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