4th DCA (Melanie Bell)
A dispute over attorney fees in a Palm Beach County divorce led a state appellate court Wednesday to reverse an order requiring the ex-husband’s attorney to pay the ex-wife’s attorney.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal said Circuit Judge John Phillips failed to provide proper notice and response when he ordered attorney Joel M. Weissman of West Palm Beach to pay $155,954 directly to the ex-wife’s attorney, Martin Haines III of Lake Park, as temporary fees and costs.
Just before hiring Weissman, William Braman of Palm Beach Gardens became a 45 percent owner of an overseas food brokerage and distribution company.
Writing for the court, Judge Burton Conner said: “The trial court may have become concerned and even alarmed from the evidence presented. Indeed, the trial court may have quite reasonably suspected that the husband had engaged in tactics to minimize his ability to pay the wife’s attorney’s fees and costs.
“And although it is not clear from the record, the trial court may also have been concerned that the firm either intentionally or unknowingly participated in the scheme,” Conner stated.
Nevertheless, the fee payment order came without sufficient notice, and Weissman had no reason to believe the court’s proceedings on temporary fees could result in a disgorgement of funds, the judge said.
On Dec. 10, 2012, Phillips held an evidentiary hearing and noted Weissman billed for 351 hours in seven weeks at up to $500 per hour, 195 hours of paralegal time at $175 per hour, plus $11,121 in costs. Phillips said this wasn’t credible as the fees were “exorbitantly high.”
“The evidence is clear that the husband’s attorney is holding $311,908 of marital funds on the husband’s behalf, ostensibly for past or future professional services,” Phillips said.
Phillips also noted the terms of Braman’s investment agreement in the new business venture barred him from receiving money from the company until 2014. After making the investment, $300,000 in marital funds were left, but the husband did not pay Weissman from those funds. He borrowed the money to pay Weissman from his father.
Since ex-wife Eliane Braman needed competent counsel, Phillips ordered half that sum be paid to her lawyer. In a footnote, Haines noted a math error in Phillips’ findings and said Weissman was actually holding only $206,447.
Weissman said he was pleased with the opinion, adding he was satisfied justice prevailed.
The Fourth District remanded the case to allow Weissman to present any evidence supporting his side. Judges Martha Warner and Cory Ciklin concurred.
Conner closed by saying Weissman was wrong in his appeal to argue Phillips didn’t have jurisdiction to disgorge funds.
“Where misappropriation of escrowed funds by attorneys of record is proven, the trial court may exercise its inherent power to sanction,” Conner said.
Haines did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.