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Williams v. Hirsch

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 25, 2018

LESA C. WILLIAMS ET AL.
v.
RENARD A. HIRSCH, SR.

          Session May 23, 2017

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 09-425-III Don R. Ash, Senior Judge

         This is the third appeal in this declaratory judgment action. The action seeks a determination of whether a discharged attorney is entitled to compensation for his services in connection with a tort action that settled after his discharge. After a bench trial, the trial court determined that the discharged attorney's right to compensation was governed by a retainer agreement with the client, as modified by a subsequent letter agreement. The retainer agreement entitled the attorney, upon discharge, to compensation calculated at a reasonable hourly rate or one third of any offer made to settle the case, whichever was greater, plus expenses. Because no bona fide settlement offer was made before the attorney was discharged and the attorney provided insufficient evidence of the time he spent on the case, the trial court declared that the discharged attorney was not entitled to compensation. The trial court also awarded sanctions against the attorney for discovery abuse. Upon review, we discern no reversible error. So we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          Gary M. Kellar and Robert L. Smith, Sr., Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Renard A. Hirsch, Sr.

          Winston S. Evans, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Lesa C. Williams, Lesly J. Williams, Alana Williams, and the Estate of Lesly Williams, Sr.

          James W. Price, Jr., Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Aundreas Smith.

          Jon D. Ross and Elizabeth S. Tipping, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Neal & Harwell, PLC.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S. and Andy J. Bennett, J., joined.

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE

         I.

         A.

         In the first appeal in this case, we described the background facts as follows:

On October 1, 2005, Lesa C. Williams and her family were involved in a tragic motor vehicle accident. Following the accident, Ms. Williams, through her conservators, contacted attorney Aundreas Smith, a family friend with whom Ms. Williams shares a common sister-in-law, concerning the possibility of filing a personal injury lawsuit. Ms. Smith was employed at the time by Smith, Hirsch, Blackshear and Harris, PLC, and Ms. Williams eventually retained both Ms. Smith and Renard Hirsch, a partner at Smith, Hirsch, Blackshear and Harris, to represent her. The retainer agreement entered into by the parties provided that Ms. Williams would pay Ms. Smith and Mr. Hirsch a one-third contingency fee. Ms. Smith and Mr. Hirsch filed suit on behalf of Ms. Williams and her family on December 30, 2005.
Ms. Smith left Smith, Hirsch, Blackshear and Harris, PLC in April of 2006. In October of 2006, the parties decided to associate Phil Elbert of Neal and Harwell, PLC to serve as lead counsel in the case. The agreement, signed by all three counsel and Ms. Williams, states that Neal and Harwell would receive 50% of the one third contingency fee.
During the course of the litigation, Ms. Williams grew closer with Ms. Smith. At the same time, however, Ms. Williams became dissatisfied with Mr. Hirsch's representation. On January 3, 2008, Ms. Williams requested that Mr. Hirsch withdraw as counsel of record. Mr. Hirsch complied and, in March of 2008, filed a Notice of Attorney's Lien claiming "an undivided fifty percent of one-third of the total recovery." On May 22, 2009, the trial court approved a settlement awarding Ms. Williams a substantial recovery.

Williams v. Hirsch (Williams I), No. M2010-02407-COA-R9-CV, 2011 WL 303257, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2011).

         On March 5, 2009, Ms. Williams, relying on the original retainer agreement, filed this action in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee, asking for a declaration either that Mr. Hirsch was not entitled to any compensation or that his compensation was limited to a reasonable hourly rate. In his answer, Mr. Hirsch denied that he was a party to the retainer agreement and asserted that the 2006 letter agreement with Neal & Harwell replaced the original agreement. He also moved for summary judgment claiming that Ms. Williams lacked standing. Id.

         On January 27, 2010, the trial court granted Ms. Smith permission to intervene. The court also granted Mr. Hirsch's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Ms. Williams's complaint, but allowed Ms. Williams to file an interlocutory appeal. Id. Upon review, we held that Ms. Williams had standing, reversed the trial court's decision, and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at *2.

         After remand, discovery ensued, and the court granted Neal & Harwell permission to intervene. Williams v. Hirsch (Williams II), No. M2012-01996-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 5230745, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 13, 2013). Ms. Smith, Ms. Williams, and Mr. Hirsch also renewed their previously filed motions for summary judgment. Id. at *3. The trial court awarded summary judgment to "both sides" and divided the fee award among the three attorneys. Id. at *4. In the second appeal, we determined that the trial court's award of partial summary judgment was inappropriate in light of disputed material facts. So we reversed the court's judgment and again remanded for further proceedings. Id. at *8-9.

         B.

         Following the second remand and the assignment of a new judge, the trial court conducted a six-day bench trial. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court found that Ms. Williams, Ms. Smith, and Mr. Elbert were credible witnesses, but Mr. Hirsch was not.

         Ms. Smith is related to the Williams family by marriage. In late October 2005, along with other family members, she rushed to the hospital after learning about the motor vehicle accident. Lesa Williams was in a coma. Her husband and daughter had died, and her minor son was in critical condition. Ms. Smith drafted a petition to appoint two family members, Mary Rougier and Vernae Coffee, as conservators for Ms. Williams.

         The conservators asked Ms. Smith to represent the family in a personal injury and wrongful death action. Ms. Smith drafted a written agreement reflecting that she was being retained to provide all services related to the tort claim in exchange for a 33 1/3% contingency fee. Among other provisions, the retainer agreement included a discharge or withdrawal clause:

Client may, if unsatisfied with the services for any reason, discharge the attorney at any time; however, it is understood that client will pay attorney at time of discharge all fees and expenses then due, calculated at hourly rate set forth; or if contingent fee, a reasonable hourly rate or one third of any offer made to settle the case whichever is greater, plus expenses for the time expended. Attorney may withdraw at any time if attorney believes claim/cause of action lacks merit or is not fiscally practical to pursue. Discharge or withdrawal requires written notice mailed to last known address of attorney/client using Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested.

         When Ms. Smith and the conservators signed the agreement, the only attorney named in the agreement was Aundreas Smith.

         At that time, Ms. Smith was associated with the law firm of Smith, Hirsch, Blackshear and Harris, PLC, and her practice focused on workers' compensation cases. Renard Hirsch, a member of the firm, practiced mostly in the commercial litigation and bankruptcy fields, but he had experience with personal injury actions. Ms. Smith and Mr. ...


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