A Blow by Blow Description of Overbilling and Padding by an Attorney
What happens when a non-English speaking, novice litigant goes to an attorney for a simple issue to be resolved, and ends up, years later, paying $ 90,000? What usually happens is that the client goes off unhappy. Here in Law Off. of Thaniel J. Beinert v Litinskaya 2014 NY Slip Op 50504(U)
Decided on March 31, 2014 Civil Court Of The City Of New York, Kings County Thompson, J. we see just the opposite. Attorney is told that no fees are due, and that he has to refund money. The decision is very long, and very descriptive. It's worth reading through.
"On October 17, 2003, the Hon. Ellen L. Koblitz, the presiding judge over the above action, dismissed the Defendant's answer and his supporting defenses, and granted LITINSKAYA a Final Judgment of Divorce. The Final Judgment of Divorce, subsequently subsumed by an Amended Final Judgment of Divorce, in addition to the resolution of issues of equitable distribution, child support, and visitation, provides, in relevant part, as follows: "Plaintiff shall receive all title and interest in the condominium located at 4050 Nostrand Avenue, Apartment PH-C, Brooklyn, New York and Judgment is (sic) hereby entered in her favor " (See Exhibit "A" in the BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR CERTIFICATION UNDER CPLR §2105-Court Exhibit "1"). The Superior Court appointed Richard Weiner, Esq., attorney-in-fact, to execute and file the New York State Deed and the other recording documents mandated by NY law to complete the transfer of the property to LITINSKAYA. It is irrefutable and undeniable that the deficiency in the aforementioned legal description of the property in the decree is the catalyst for the controversy in this case. "
"In this action, the first course of action for the Plaintiff law firm should have been to communicate with the attorney that handled the divorce action in New Jersey. Although Plaintiff did testify that he spoke to her and obtained her file, he never made any inquiry about the exclusion of the lease agreement or leasehold interest in the divorce decree. Any real estate attorney would have made a determination of any and all liens, tenancies, leases, encumbrances, claims, actions and exceptions to title that were subject to the transfer of the condominium to the Defendant. It is this court's opinion that the divorce attorney assumed responsibility for all rights, title and interest that the Defendant may have had in the subject property including any leases that may have been made subject of the transfer. But for the neglectful exclusion of such qualifying language in the transfer of this real estate located in Brooklyn, New York, the entire course of litigation undertaken by the Plaintiff's attorney would have been different or even non-existent.
Of equal importance, it is the opinion of this court that the course of action in the prosecution of the Defendant's right in the New Jersey Circuit Court was unreasonable and not in conformity with the Rule 1.1 of the Professional Rules. This court finds that the course of action in attempting to modify and/or declare the alleged lease agreement null and void was improper as a matter of fact and law.
The proper course of action would have been to commence a summary proceeding to recover possession of the subject apartment. The Housing Part of the Civil Court of the City of New York has been clearly granted statutory authority pursuant to RPAPL §235-c to declare the alleged twelve (12) year lease agreement at a monthly rent of $590.00 for the duplex Penthouse in Brooklyn unconscionable. RPAPL §235-c provides, in relevant part, as follows: "If the court, as a matter of law, finds a lease or any clause of the lease to have been unconscionable at the time it was made, the court may refuse to enforce the lease, or it may enforce the remainder of the lease without the [*14]unconscionable clause, or it may so limit the application of any unconscionable clause as to avoid any unconscionable result". As compelling, Section 2 of the statute provides that when it is claimed or appears to the court that the lease or any clause thereof may be unconscionable, the parties shall be afforded a reasonable opportunity to present evidence as to its setting, purpose and effect to aid the court in making the determination. This is not a new statute. It is well known to those attorneys that practice Landlord and Tenant law. The statute was enacted in 1976, effective July 26, 1976, and is applicable to all leases regardless of when executed in this state. No evidence, testimonial or otherwise, was introduced to show that BEINERT retained or consulted a Landlord and Tenant attorney notwithstanding the fact that he stated he was a veteran in the Landlord and Tenant Court. Even those that are experts consult with others in decision-making particularly in the legal profession.
This court is in accord with the Defendant's claims that the proper venue to remove the tenants from possession was the Brooklyn Housing Part of the Civil Court of the City of New York and not the Superior Court in New Jersey. The Hon. Ellen L. Koblitz correctly instructed the Plaintiff law firm that the appropriate venue was New York based upon the fact that the property was located in New York, the occupants were residents of New York and were not parties to the divorce action. The judge was explicit that the tenants, in light of the evidence presented by both parties, may have some rights to occupancy.
Under New York law, both parties would have been given an opportunity to participate in an evidentiary hearing to determine the validity of the lease. LITINSKAYA could have presented expert testimony of a real estate broker and/or real estate appraiser to substantiate that the rental amount was a "sweetheart deal" and well below the fair market value for a comparable apartment of that size, condition and location. Of equal importance, LITINSKAYA would have been offered the opportunity to present evidence to prove that the sum of $590.00 did not reflect the fair market rent for the subject premises and that such a low rental was due to the prior ownership of the subject premises by the Defendant's former spouse. Evidence should have also been adduced to substantiate, as alleged by the Plaintiff law firm in the New Jersey Order to Show Cause, that the lease was intended to defeat LITINSKAYA's rights of possession contrary to the divorce decree. On the other side, the occupants would have been granted the statutory right to defend the lease, including but not limited to, the memorandum of lease dated March 25, 2003 that was sent to the title company for recordation, the lease itself and any other admissible evidence, testimonial or documentary, to substantiate its authenticity and its enforceability."
"In addition to all of the above, this court finds it a deviation from traditional and customary legal practices for BEINERT to have his junior associate act as trial counsel in this case. As the presiding judge in many legal fee cases and trial counsel in many more cases of like substance, it is customary in the legal community for the Plaintiff to retain outside counsel in cases such as this one. In many instances, those outside counselors have an ongoing relationship with the law firm; many act, of counsel, on behalf of the firm as trial counsel or specialize in areas unfamiliar to the law firm. The trial transcript in this case speaks volumes of imprudence, inexperience and developing trial skills. It is apparent that no one, not even the managing partner, consulted with outside counsel to discern the requisite elements to prove a legal fee dispute case. Had such action been taken, maybe this action would have been avoided altogether. This court was remorseful that a young associate was obligated to act as trial counsel for his employer in this legal fee case. This court would discourage such uncustomary and irresponsible practice.
Based on the above analysis, the legal fees are reduced as stated in the annexed Schedule "A" and are based on these grounds. Any and all teleconference bills with "ALEX" are disallowed. According to the testimony of the principal of the law office, ALEX was a former client who introduced the parties, however, the Defendant retained the law firm. Since ALEX is not the party that retained the law firm and no evidence was produced that he had a Power of Attorney to act on behalf of the Defendant or any testimony that the Defendant authorized him to act on her behalf, all bills to the Defendant which state "teleconference with Alex" or the like are denied.
In addition, any and all bills that lacked specificity and were too generalized to disclose the nature and scope of the legal services rendered, are likewise disallowed. The bills, as described in Schedule "A" that are disallowed is replicated verbatim from the BEINERT legal fee bills. BEINERT also did not annexed to the bills or present to the court for review, any schedule of the names of the different employees that worked on the case. At the very least the Defendant should have known the name(s) and rank of the individual that billed for services.
After a careful review and complete analysis of the trial transcript and documentary evidence admitted at trial, the Plaintiff law firm failed to substantiate entitlement to the legal fees billed the Defendant. "