Two prominent civil rights firms in New York are accused by a three-lawyer Washington, D.C., firm of cheating it out of a significant fee as part of a $3.75 million settlement in a wrongful death case.
Catalano & Plache claims that Neufeld Scheck & Brustin and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady submitted court documents on settlement terms without naming Catalano as a participating firm
“The defendants engaged in a pattern of conduct to defraud and deceive plaintiff,” Catalano argues in the Manhattan Supreme Court suit, Law Offices of Catalano & Plache v. Brustin, 157248/2012. “Defendants are scheming and attempting to avoid their legal, moral and ethical obligations.”
Andrew Celli, a founding partner at Emery Celli, called the suit “meritless.”
“We look forward to the opportunity of defending it and we’re confident we’re going to prevail.” Celli said in an interview, speaking on behalf of both firms.
The Catalano firm said it was asked to represent the estate of Emil Mann in a civil rights, negligence and wrongful death claim on behalf of his estate. Mann, a member of the Ramapough Mountain Indians, was fatally shot by New Jersey Park Police Officer Chad Walder in April 2006 in Mahwah, N.J. Mann’s family was pursuing a wrongful death civil case against Walder.
Catalano said at the time of the shooting that it had an ongoing relationships with the Ramapough Tribe, which has a presence in Bergen County, N.J., and Rockland County, N.Y., and had represented the tribe’s interests for more than 17 years.
The complaint said Cochran Neufeld & Scheck, a predecessor firm to Neufeld Scheck, agreed to jointly represent Mann’s estate in a New Jersey court. The Cochran firm then asked Neufeld if Emery Celli could assist.
The three firms signed a joint retainer letter, along with Mann’s son, who was executor of his estate, according to the complaint.
A retainer letter attached to the complaint, dated May 23, 2006, provides that the client agrees “that any attorneys’ fees will be divided among the Firms,” which it named as Cochran Neufeld, Emery Celli and Catalano & Plache.
Specifically, the retainer agreement, on Emery Celli’s letterhead, provides that Catalano & Plache would receive 16.65 percent of the 33.3 percent attorney fees on the first $500,000 recovered; 15 percent of 30 percent of fees on the next $500,000; 12.5 percent of the 25 percent of fees on the next $500,000; and 10 percent of 20 percent of fees recovered in the next $500,000.
Should the claim result in a more than $2 million recovery, the Catalano firm’s “share of the fees on such excess amount shall be determined pursuant to the same formula (i.e., Catalano & Plache’s percentage share shall be half of the percentage that the attorneys’ fees are with respect to the recovery.)”
The remaining fees would be divided between Cochran Neufeld and Emery Celli based on those firms’ share of attorney hours, according to the agreement.
In the wrongful death case, the parties agreed to about $2.37 million for compensatory damages; $1.19 million for legal fees; and $185,359 for attorney disbursements, for a total settlement of $3.75 million, according to court documents.
But the Catalano firm alleges the New York firms claimed it was not entitled to a share of fees. Neufeld Scheck and Emery Celli filed documents in support of the settlement in Orange County, N.Y., Surrogate’s Court, and in the New Jersey court “that failed to name Catalano & Plache LLC as counsel to the estate,” Catalano argues.
“The Defendants made material omissions, false statements, deceptive and misleading representations to the plaintiff and the courts,” the Catalano firm alleges, adding Catalano is “not the first firm with which defendant have tried to avoid honoring their legal agreements.”
Catalano said its damages are $594,106, which is half of the $1.19 million in attorney fees. The firm said it is also entitled to $1.78 million in treble damages plus interest. Catalano argues that the defendants’ conduct violates §487 of New York Judiciary Law, which provides that an attorney who is deceitful forfeits to the injured party treble damages.
According to court exhibits, Nick Brustin of the Neufield firm wrote to New Jersey Superior Court Judge Charles Powers, who presided over the Mann case, to request the court convene a conference over the fee dispute.
In the Aug. 10 letter to the judge, Brustin wrote that at the onset of this case, “we were mistakenly under the impression that referral fees were permissible” under the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct, and the three firms made an agreement “contemplating the payment of a referral fee” to the Catalano firm.
But Brustin wrote that his firm and Emery now realize the state’s rules generally prohibit referral fees.
“Accordingly the written agreement is unenforceable,” Brustin wrote.
He told the judge that payment for Catalano’s work would be at best limited to quantum meruit basis, but said the Catalano firm didn’t perform substantial compensable work, and it has refused to provide time sheets.
He said in the letter that lawyers from Neufeld Scheck and Emery Celli spent nearly six years and thousands of hours on this case while the third firm “never appeared.”
Brustin noted that Catalano attorneys are not licensed to practice in New Jersey and didn’t seek pro hac vice admission, so any work they purportedly performed in the state would constitute unauthorized practice of law.
But in a July 27 letter to Brustin, attorney Albert Catalano wrote that his firm doesn’t seek a fee on the basis it “referred” a matter. Catalano said New Jersey’s Rule 1.5(e) allows fee sharing when there is a written agreement and each firm assumed joint responsibility for representation, the client was notified of fee division and consented to participation of all attorneys, and the fee is reasonable.
Catalano said his firm was involved in the gathering of witnesses, witness statements, the notice of claim, the complaint and “continually monitored the case.” Brustin’s latest correspondence “is the latest in a series of disturbing events, which include specious claims and libelous emails,” Catalano said.
Powers, in an Aug. 22 letter to the three firms, said he did not believe the Superior Court has jurisdiction to act on the matter and suggested “counsel pursue whatever steps they deem necessary to preserve their fee claims.”
Lawrence Wilson of Wilson Grochow Druker, is representing the Catalano firm. Neither Wilson nor Catalano returned messages seeking comment.
@|Christine Simmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.