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Lawyers’ billing invoices are not privileged attorney-client communications and must be produced when subpoenaed in a civil contempt hearing, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled Monday in a dispute over a guardian ad litem’s fee request. “The subpoenaed invoices are not privileged documents to the extent that they do not disclose confidential communications” between the attorneys and their client, Senior Judge Zoran Popovich wrote in Slusaw v. Hoffman. If an invoice does refer to confidential communications, those references may be redacted, the three-judge panel concluded. This way, privileged communications between attorney and client are not disclosed, and the trial court can determine the merits of the dispute. The dispute in Slusaw centers on the reasonableness of fees charged by Susan Maurer, an Allentown, Pa., family lawyer who served as the guardian ad litem in the case. Maurer was appointed by the Lehigh County Common Pleas Court in 2000 to act as guardian ad litem in a custody dispute between the parents of a young boy — at the request of his father, Brian Slusaw. Slusaw said yesterday that he requested the appointment because he wanted to ensure that someone was watching out for his son’s interests after the court had issued a custody order in the case. Under the trial court’s direction, Slusaw was supposed to pay 80 percent of Maurer’s fees and his wife was to pay 20 percent, according to the opinion. Maurer billed Slusaw at a rate of $150 an hour over the two-and-a-half years she served as guardian ad litem. However, he stopped paying her bills after about 18 months, both Slusaw and Maurer said. Slusaw and his wife settled their custody dispute in April of last year. The next day Maurer filed a petition for contempt against Slusaw for not complying with the court order for him to pay his share of her fees, according to the opinion. At a contempt hearing held the following month, Slusaw called Maurer’s fees unreasonable, according to the opinion. Slusaw told The Legal Intelligencer he believed that Maurer was overcharging him and did not perform sufficient work to justify the amount of her bill. During the litigation he learned the going rate for guardians ad litem in the county was $50 an hour, he said. But Maurer said her fee was established during conversations she had with Slusaw’s lawyer and with the judge handling the case at the time she was appointed. “It was agreed [$150 an hour] was to be my going rate,” she said. Also, she said, the fact that Slusaw paid that rate for more than a year indicated he knew that rate was what had been agreed to. Both Slusaw and Maurer said there was never a written fee agreement for her guardian ad litem services. The trial court told Maurer that she had to prove the reasonableness of her fees. The court allowed her to amend her petition for contempt by including a description of the guardian ad litem services she performed, the amount she charged, and a request for an order directing Slusaw to pay her, according to the opinion. In an attempt to build her case, Maurer subpoenaed the two attorneys who had previously represented Slusaw in the custody fight. She wanted them to testify at the contempt hearing and produce copies of their invoices for the hours they had billed Slusaw for their work on the case, according to the opinion. Slusaw moved to quash the subpoenas, arguing that the information they requested was protected by the attorney-client privilege and not relevant to the matter, he said. “What would the invoices do for her?” Slusaw said yesterday. Maurer said that her request for the other attorneys’ invoices would prove the validity of the list of “contacts” she had made with them and had listed line-by-line on her invoices to Slusaw. She said she believed her bills would match up with those prepared by other lawyers and prove that she had made those contacts. Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas Judge Alan M. Black denied Slusaw’s motion to quash the subpoenas, according to the opinion. Slusaw appealed, but the trial court went ahead and held the contempt hearing in August 2003 but left the matter open until Slusaw’s appeal to the Superior Court was decided, Slusaw and Maurer said. Because of the way things went at the hearing, Maurer said Tuesday that she doesn’t need the invoices or the other attorneys’ testimony anymore. “I’m satisfied the judge can make the decision as to whether the fees are reasonable,” she said. “I’m prepared to rest my case.” In its opinion, the Superior Court said it was not persuaded by Slusaw’s argument that the information Maurer requested in the subpoenas was irrelevant. “Because [Slusaw's prior attorneys] represented Slusaw at some point during the dispute, their testimony and documents produced would relate to the nature and amount of hours attorney Maurer served as guardian ad litem,” Popovich wrote. “Therefore, the subpoenaed information is relevant, and the trial court did not err in denying Slusaw’s motion to quash the subpoenas.” The panel affirmed the trial court’s order. It did not mention arguments made by Maurer on appeal. Eugene A. Wrona, Slusaw’s appellate counsel, said this is because she did not respond to the appeal, never arguing orally before the court in March nor submitting a brief to the court. Wrona and Slusaw, who is now representing himself in the custody matter before the trial court, said yesterday that the court ignored their main argument — that Maurer was seeking privileged information. Wrona said his client is considering seeking reargument, Wrona said. Judges Seamus P. McCaffery and Mary Jane Bowes also participated in the decision.

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