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Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals has affirmed a judgment that splits a contingency fee between two Houston firms: Hightower, Russo & Capellan and Ireson, Weizel & Hightower. The fee fight arose because Timothy Hightower and an associate worked on an underlying lawsuit while at Ireson Weizel and later continued to work on the litigation after they departed in August 2011, when Hightower formed Hightower Russo.

The judgment gives Hightower Russo $7,446 of the $56,928 contingency fee in a personal injury lawsuit stemming from an auto accident. The rest goes to Ireson Weizel, now Ireson & Weizel.

Judge John Donovan signed the plurality opinion, Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost signed a concurring opinion, and Judge Tracy Christopher signed a dissent.

In a brief to the Fourteenth Court filed on Jan. 4, 2013, Hightower Russo argued that it should have received half the fee. But in the Dec. 31 plurality opinion Donovan wrote that Hightower Russo failed to demonstrate that the trial court applied an improper method to apportion the fee.

“In summary, the Hightower firm’s challenge to the trial court’s apportionment of the fees lacks merit, and the evidence is legally and factually sufficient to support the judgment,” Donovan wrote.

Pritesh Soni, who represents Hightower Russo, said, “We thoroughly disagree with the court of appeal on that.”

Soni, of the Soni Law Firm of Houston, said his client may file a motion for reconsideration.

Lansford Ireson Jr., a partner in Ireson & Weizel of Houston who represents his firm in the appeal, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Getting Paid

As Donovan described the facts in the opinion, while Hightower and an associate worked at Ireson Weizel, they represented the client in the personal injury suit under a contingency-fee contract.

Hightower resigned from Ireson Weizel on Aug. 22, 2011, and created Hightower Russo; the associate also moved to the new firm. While the client signed a document transferring the litigation to Hightower’s new firm, there was no separate contract with the new firm regarding attorney fees and no agreement between the firms on the division of fees.

The underlying suit settled, and the two firms agreed on a division of expenses. But they disagreed about how to divide $56,928 in attorney fees. After a bench trial on the fee dispute, 80th District Judge Larry Weiman of Harris County signed a judgment on July 29, 2012, awarding $49,482 to Ireson Weizel and $7,446 to Hightower Russo.

Hightower Russo appealed, arguing the trial judge used an “illegal methodology” to apportion the fees and erred by awarding 89 percent of the total fees to Ireson Weizel “when it performed, at most, 50 percent of the work.”

But in the plurality opinion, Donovan wrote that Hightower Russo “offers no authority that the trial court was required to apportion the total fee according to the amount of work performed by each firm on the entire case.”

“A 50/50 split would effectively transform this arrangement from a contingency fee into one based on the amount of work performed and give the Hightower firm a larger fee than one consistent with the result it obtained for the client,” Donovan wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Frost wrote that Ireson Weizel has a “valid and enforceable contingency-fee contract with the plaintiff,” so it is entitled to the entire fee, and Hightower Russo does not have a contract with the client. However, he wrote that Ireson Weizel agreed during the trial that Hightower Russo should receive $7,446 of the fee, and it is not entitled to more.

In a dissenting opinion, Christopher wrote that the evidence was “uncontroverted” that the attorneys’ time working on the underlying litigation was equally divided between the two firms.