A New Jersey appeals court has voided a retainer agreement between a lawyer and his longtime friend, saying he did not properly disclose hourly fees he would be charging for representing her in a discrimination case.
The three-judge Appellate Division panel, in a published ruling on Aug. 30, said Somerville solo Brian Cige did not adequately explain the arrangement, which provided for an hourly billing rate and litigation costs, to his client, Lisa Balducci.
The panel said lawyers who wish to charge hourly fees for work on discrimination or other fee-shifting cases must explain to their clients that there are other competent counsel who will accept those cases on a contingency basis, and who also will advance any litigation costs.
“Ethically then, must an attorney whose fee for undertaking an LAD case that includes an hourly rate component explain both the consequences on a recovery and the ability of other competent counsel likely willing to undertake the same representation based on a fee without an hourly component? We conclude the answer is yes,” Appellate Division Judge William Nugent said.
The lawsuit filed by Balducci claimed she never fully reviewed the retainer agreement offered by Cige but was shocked when she began receiving bills for hourly services and costs, which included a $1 fee for reviewing incoming emails and sending responses, the court said.
Balducci eventually fired Cige and hired another attorney to represent her and her son in a Law Against Discrimination claim. The decision didn’t reveal the details of that matter,
Nugent, writing for the court, said a Somerset County Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone properly found that Cige violated his professional responsibility to explain the agreement’s material terms to Balducci so that she could reach an informed decision as to whether to retain him. Thus the retainer agreement was void.
“The hearing recording in this case includes adequate, substantial, credible evidence support the court’s decision,” said Nugent. Judges Carmen Alvarez and Richard Geiger joined in the ruling. “There is no dearth of competent counsel attorneys willing to litigate LAD and other fee-shifting cases that do not include an hourly component.
Balducci retained Cige in September 2012 to represent her and her child in the LAD case. Cige presented her with what he said was a standard retainer agreement stating he could charge up to $7,500 up front, plus $450 an hour. Balducci signed the agreement despite having “concerns,” according to the decision.
Balducci began complaining when she began receiving bills from Cige for hourly services plus expenses. He told Balducci to not worry about the bills, because he was using them for purposes of a future fee petition he would demand at the conclusion of what he believed was a successful case.
“We are friends,” Balducci, in depositions, quoted Cige as saying, according to the decision. “I was at your wedding. I would never do this to you. Ignore that. Don’t worry about. It is standard info.”
Balducci also complained that she was devoting her time to preparing for depositions while Cige was away attending chess tournaments, the ruling said.
Balducci fired Cige after she complained that it would be impossible for her to advance tens of thousands of dollar for expert witnesses.
Balducci filed a lawsuit against Cige, and he filed a counterclaim seeking more than $286,000 in fees for work he already had done.
“The trial court properly found the agreement was unenforceable and void,” Nugent said.
“There is no dearth of competent, civic-minded attorneys willing to litigate LAD and other statutory fee-shifting cases under fee agreements that do not include an hourly component. The number of such cases litigated in our trial courts and reported in the case law evidence this, as does—at least as to numbers—advertising on television and radio, in telephone books and newspapers, and on billboards and other media,” Nugent wrote, noting that Balducci’s current counsel in the LAD case is not charging hourly fees.
Cige, who represented himself, said the ruling was a “strikingly bad decision that is likely to be appealed.”
“There was no discovery. The judge completely believed the testimony of the individual who owed money,” Cige sadi.
Balducci’s attorney, Jay Rice of Roseland’s Nagel Rice, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.