JOHN W. HARRIS JR
ROBIN L. STEWARD
Session November 12, 2019
from the Circuit Court for Shelby CountyNo. CT-000538-17
James F. Russell, Judge
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.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
Court Affirmed and Remanded
W. Harris, Jr., Oakland, Tennessee, appellant, pro se.
L. Steward, Memphis, Tennessee, appellee, pro se.
Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S.,
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.
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
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 . . . .
Mr. Harris nor Ms. Steward appealed the June 3, 2016 order.
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
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 . .
party appealed the September 29, 2016 order.
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").
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.
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 ...