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Harris v. Steward

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 13, 2019

JOHN W. HARRIS JR
v.
ROBIN L. STEWARD

          Session November 12, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby CountyNo. CT-000538-17 James F. Russell, Judge

         This appeal arises from Appellant's lawsuit against his former attorney, Appellee, for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and double billing. The trial court dismissed Appellant's lawsuit on its finding that his claims were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed and Remanded

          John W. Harris, Jr., Oakland, Tennessee, appellant, pro se.

          Robin L. Steward, Memphis, Tennessee, appellee, pro se.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE

         I. Background

         Appellant John Harris hired Appellee Robin Steward, a licensed Tennessee attorney, to represent him in a quiet title and partition action. On or about June 10, 2013, the parties entered into a contract, which provided, inter alia, that Mr. Harris would pay an initial retainer of $3, 500 to be used against Ms. Steward's hourly rate of $210 plus expenses. By letter of July 25, 2013, Ms. Steward outlined and clarified the parties' agreement, including payment of attorney's fees from the common fund in the probate matter. The specifics of that letter are discussed in greater detail below. It is undisputed that, during the pendency of the probate matter, Mr. Harris paid Ms. Steward $14, 653.00 in fees and $2, 500.00 in expenses.

         Following the sale of the property that was the subject of the partition action, the attorneys, who represented the various heirs, filed to collect their respective fees from the common fund established from the proceeds of the sale. In Ms. Steward's case, she requested fees and expenses totaling $49, 245.00. The probate court considered the attorneys' respective requests for fees. In its order of June 3, 2016, the probate court noted that it had received fee requests totaling $120, 725.00 and that it had a total of $124, 000.00 in the common fund (and over 100 heirs). Accordingly, the probate court awarded each attorney approximately one-half of his or her requested fees. Ms. Steward was awarded $23, 408.37. The probate court further addressed the reasonableness of the fees requested by the various attorneys. As to Ms. Steward's fees, the probate court held that

There is no question that . . . Robin L. Steward is entitled to a fee based on the common fund theory. Her work to bring this matter forward benefited all of the heirs of the property. . . . This Court does not dispute the hours these attorneys have recorded in this case . . . .

         Neither Mr. Harris nor Ms. Steward appealed the June 3, 2016 order.

         Thereafter, Ms. Steward petitioned the probate court for an attorney's lien, seeking to collect the portion of her $49, 245.00 in fees and expenses that was not paid from the common fund or from Mr. Harris. As discussed in detail below, Mr. Harris opposed Ms. Steward's lien and filed a "Motion to Withhold Attorney Fees" in the probate court. Therein, Mr. Harris averred that he had paid Ms. Steward $14, 653.00 in fees and $2, 500 in expenses and sought reimbursement of these payments. On September 29, 2016, the probate court issued an order denying Ms. Steward's petition for attorney's lien. Although it denied her lien, the trial court did not disturb its previous judgment for $23, 408.37 in attorney's fees from the common fund, nor did the trial court disturb the $17, 153.00 that Mr. Harris paid Ms. Steward during the pendency of the probate matter. In its order, the probate court reiterated its previous finding (in the June 3, 2016 order) that the attorney fees requested in the partition action were, in fact, reasonable. Specifically, the probate court stated that:

In considering the respective attorney fee petitions, the Court was guided by Supreme Court Rule 8, RPC 1.5 as to the determination of a reasonable attorney fee for each attorney and in this respect the Court, among other things, reviewed the manner in which the case was litigated, the complexity of the case, and the ultimate benefit inuring to the clients . . . .
After having reviewed the attorney fee petition requests, pursuant to RPC 1.5 the Court determined the reasonable fee due each attorney for legal work performed on this matter . . . .

         Neither party appealed the September 29, 2016 order.

         On December 18, 2016, Mr. Harris filed suit against Ms. Steward in the General Sessions Court of Shelby County alleging "breach of contract, unjust enrichment, double billing, in the amount of $21, 720.00 cash dollars." By order of January 19, 2017, the general sessions court dismissed the case "due to res judicata and collateral estoppel." Mr. Harris filed a timely appeal to the Shelby County Circuit Court ("trial court").

         On January 2, 2018, Ms. Steward filed an answer in the trial court. On January 10, 2018, Ms. Steward filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Following a hearing, the trial court granted Ms. Steward's motion to dismiss by order of January 17, 2019. Mr. Harris appeals.

         II. Issues

         Mr. Harris raises two issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred in dismissing Appellant's claims against Appellee, for a refund of attorney fees and litigation expenses (arising from Steward's representation of Appellant in a probate matter), on the ground that these claims are ...

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