Law firms tend to shy away from publicly airing grievances with clients, but that can be tough if a dispute lands in court. Last week, Patton Boggs unsuccessfully tried to keep a fee fight under seal in District of Columbia Superior Court.
The firm filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against a former client, Keystone Global Co. Ltd., on June 24. Patton Boggs accused Keystone, a South Korea-based energy and mineral resources company, of failing to pay more than $925,000 in legal fees and other costs.
At the same time the firm filed its complaint, it asked the judge to seal not only the allegations, but the entire case record as well.
Patton Boggs, according to its sealing request, wanted to protect against the "inadvertent disclosure of any perceived client confidences, secrets, or other confidential information." That information, the firm argued in court papers, could include the type of legal services the lawyers provided, the identity of the firm's client or the "very fact of the representation."
Senior Judge Curtis von Kann, who also works as a mediator and arbitrator for JAMS, rejected the motion. In a handwritten order entered the same day Patton Boggs made its request, von Kann said it would not be appropriate to seal the case.
"Court proceedings are generally public for important reasons," he wrote. "Sealing of records is an exceptional procedure to be used in only the most compelling circumstances."
Patton Boggs, he said, "has not demonstrated good cause for sealing the entire record herein." The judge added that the firm could try again later "with respect to particular items."
Patton Boggs partner and general counsel Charles Talisman, who is representing the firm, declined to comment. Keystone didn't have an attorney entered in the case as of late last week and a company representative could not be reached for comment.
Bernard DiMuro, managing partner at DiMuroGinsberg in Alexandria, Va., who litigates fee disputes, said it would be unusual for the judge to grant a motion to seal like the one filed by Patton Boggs. "There may come a time when a protective order may be prudent or reasonable for isolated bits of information," he said, "but short of that, there's really no reason to seal the record."
In fee disputes, DiMuro said, firms are not only concerned about making confidential information public, but also about revealing too much detail about their billing practices or exposing themselves to public accusations of wrongdoing by the former client.
"A law firm of any prestige like Patton Boggs would rather keep those allegations out of the limelight," he said.
Patton Boggs didn't disclose the details of its work for Keystone in its court filings. According to the four-page complaint, Keystone hired the firm "to provide legal services" in April 2012. Under the contract, Patton Boggs would be paid hourly rates and receive reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses. If any of the firm's monthly invoices went unpaid for 30 days, the firm could charge interest at a rate of 1 percent per month.
The firm claimed it did its work for Keystone on an "expedited basis," and finished the bulk of it in early October 2012, doing some minimal related work through January.
In the complaint, Patton Boggs alleged that Keystone never said it was dissatisfied with the firm's work or questioned invoices, "and in fact, was complimentary." However, the firm alleged that, except for an initial retainer and one partial payments — the amounts weren't specified — Keystone failed to pay the invoices.
"After promising to pay Patton Boggs on several occasions," the firm complained, "Keystone eventually stopped responding to Patton Boggs' requests for payment."
The firm seeks approximately $914,000 in legal fees and $11,500 in costs, plus interest and attorney fees. The case is before Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz. A scheduling conference is set for September 27.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.