Post-Execution Intent Evidence Deemed Irrelevant.
The next decision, Martinez v. Contreras, Case No. B231471 (2d Dist., Div. 4 Aug. 23, 2012) (unpublished), is a sobering reminder for all practitioners--not just criminal practitioners--of clearly defining the scope of services and payment arrangements at each step of the way. Criminal defense attorneys, we are sure, were very unhappy about having to disgorge fees and also pay $21,102 in fees/costs back to criminal defendant (as well as being hit up for fees/costs for losing their appeal).
In a nutshell, criminal defense attorneys thought they had agreed to represent a criminal defendant only through the preliminary hearing for $40,000, plus certain investigation expenses, with any additional work through a trial being the subject of a separate agreement. Criminal defendant (actually through his mother) believed the criminal defense attorneys had decided to take the case all the way for $40,000. The criminal defense attorneys were paid in full and took the case through preliminary hearing (where the defendant was bound over for trial), but then abandoned any further representation. Defendant hired a new attorney who was able to negotiate a subsequent plea deal. Mother then sued to recoup money for the abandonment and failure to take the case through trial, also seeking a fee/costs award based on a retention agreement having a fees clause.
The trial court, after a bench trial, agreed with mother. The retention agreement was ambiguous: the scope of services section indicated completion of attorney services “upon conclusion of the aforementioned criminal procedure,” with an attempt in a later section to carve-out representation for a trial, but with yet another provision indicating that new arrangements would have to be agreed to for the carve-outs. The trial judge concluded that criminal defense attorneys had agreed to representation for the entire case, but that the client must pay extra fees for the carved-out services, which mother did because of her understanding that $20,000 was paid for the preliminary hearing and $20,000 for post-hearing services. The lower court awarded mother disgorgement damages of $13,333 (one-third of fees paid to criminal defense attorneys) based on time necessary to pay the subsequent defense attorney for the plea bargain plus fees/costs of $21,102 based on a fees clause in the retention agreement.
The judgment was affirmed. The appellate court gave special credence to the criminal defense attorneys’ concession that the carve-out provisions were “inartfully drafted” and that mother had a basis to believe that the second $20,000 payment was for post-preliminary hearing services. Lawyers’ post-execution intent proof was irrelevant, and no demand for performance by mother was necessary based on attorneys’ abandonment of the client in very clear terms.