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Two years ago, attorney John Reiner was convicted of attempting to extort more than $300,000 out of famed legal assistant Erin Brockovich and her boss, Edward Masry. Today, he’s celebrating an appeal court victory that lets criminal defendants — even those found guilty, like himself — sue their defense lawyers for breach of contract. “This is the first good news in three years for my wife and I,” Reiner said Thursday. On Wednesday, Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal, ruling in a fee-dispute case filed by Reiner against his own attorneys in the extortion matter, held that criminal defendants need not allege actual innocence to state a cause of action for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty or fraud. The ruling, however, does not change state law prohibiting legal malpractice suits by criminal defendants unless they can allege actual innocence. “The allegations defendants billed Reiner for services not ‘reasonably required’ and charged him an ‘unconscionable fee’ are not directed at the quality of the work defendants performed, but rather to its quantity,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote. “We fail to see how proof defendants padded costs and billed for work they never performed would involve evidence bearing on the quality and necessity of the work defendants did perform.” Justices Dennis Perluss and Fred Woods concurred. Reiner was convicted in 2001 on two counts of attempted extortion and one count of conspiracy to commit extortion against Masry and Brockovich, who were made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” The film chronicled the twosome’s $333 million settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in 1996, after they accused the utility of contaminating the water supply of the small desert town of Hinkley. Reiner, who said he’s now on suspension and not practicing law, was charged, along with Brockovich’s former husband and ex-boyfriend, with trying to get a share of the movie’s story rights by extorting $310,000. Reiner allegedly threatened to tell the tabloids that Brockovich was a bad mother and was having sex with Masry. In Thursday’s case, Reiner, a civil litigator for 23 years, had sued L.A.’s Bird, Marella, Boxer & Wolpert, whose lawyers represented him in the extortion case up until about six months before trial. Reiner, 55, doesn’t allege actual innocence or claim the firm was negligent in its representation, but claims, in a laundry list of complaints, that the firm over-billed him and didn’t exercise the utmost “care, integrity, honesty, loyalty, good faith and candor” in its dealings. He’s seeking not only a reimbursement of his fees, which he said amounted to about $360,000, but also general and punitive damages. “Even if Bird, Marella had represented me at trial and won,” Reiner said, “the fact they won does not mean they can over-bill me.” The appeal court agreed. “If only ‘actually innocent’ clients can challenge their defense counsel’s excessive or unlawful fees, then ‘actually guilty’ clients could never seek redress against even the most unscrupulous attorneys,” Justice Johnson wrote. “Moreover, even clients acquitted of the charges against them could not seek redress unless they could prove they were actually innocent of the charges.” The court also said it didn’t want to provide criminal defense lawyers “a virtually impregnable shield” against suits for excessive fees. “Nor can we find,” it added, “any rational basis for affording civil litigants, no matter how morally blameworthy they may be, a remedy for exactly the same unlawful conduct, double-billing, inflating hours, etc., for which most criminal litigants are denied a remedy.” The ruling defies a 2002 decision by San Diego’s Fourth District. That opinion, Lynch v. Warwick, 95 Cal.App.4th 267, rejected the criminal defendant’s attempt to avoid the actual innocence standard, saying that no matter what he called it, he was seeking recovery for legal malpractice. Mary Bohen, a partner in L.A.’s Musick, Peeler & Garrett who represents Bird, Marella, said Thursday that she might seek review with the California Supreme Court. “I do think the court has, in effect, created an exception that will swallow the rule,” she said. “Every disgruntled criminal defendant is going to turn around and try to get [his] fees back.” She added that Bird, Marella denies Reiner’s allegations. Joseph Lange, the partner at L.A.’s Lange & Koncius who represents Reiner, couldn’t be reached for comment. But Reiner, whose criminal conviction is on appeal, had plenty to say. “For the last three years, I’ve been pretty much picked apart by lawyers, and it’s nice to see some rationality has come back to the picture,” he said by telephone from his L.A. home. “Whatever my status is, as the allegations state in the complaint, I should be given an opportunity to prove the allegations are true, irrespective of what position I might be in.” Reiner also mentioned that he has filed a suit against Nasatir, Hirsch, Podberesky & Genego, the Santa Monica firm that represented him in the extortion trial. “I am suing for legal malpractice,” he said. “I am saying that, but for their conduct, I would not have been convicted.” The case is Bird, Marella, Boxer & Wolpert v. Superior Court (Reiner) , 03 C.D.O.S. 1491.

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