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Fired attorneys have quantum meruit claim

Where landowners involved in a condemnation action brought by Mountain Valley Pipeline fired their lawyers without cause, the law firm was found to have a valid and enforceable lien for the work it performed while representing the landowners. The attorneys, who were hired on a contingency basis, were awarded $15,000 in quantum meruit for services rendered.

Background

At issue in this condemnation action brought by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC is an attorney fee dispute that arose after the landowners in this case, defendants Lois King Waldron and Lois Mabel Waldron Martin, fired their attorneys. The Waldrons’ former attorneys seek to recover fees from the Waldrons for work performed while representing them. The Waldrons object on the grounds that they had just cause to fire Lollar Law.

The parties filed competing motions on these issues, which the court referred to U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou for a report and recommendation. On Oct. 25, 2019, the magistrate judge issued his R&R, recommending that the court find that Lollar Law has a valid and enforceable lien for their fees and that the court award attorneys’ fees to Lollar Law in the amount of $15,000.

The Waldrons’ objection to the magistrate judge’s R&R is before the court for resolution.

Analysis

As the magistrate judge explained, when “an attorney employed under a contingency fee contract is discharged without just cause and the client employs another attorney who effects a recovery, the discharged attorney is entitled to a fee based upon quantum meruit for services rendered before discharge . . . .”

The magistrate judge found that the Waldrons did not have just cause to discharge Lollar Law. “Lollar Law’s essential purpose in representing the Waldrons was, first, to try to stop MVP from taking their property, and, then, to obtain full and fair compensation from MVP for the value of the land taken. The evidence shows that Lollar Law worked hard to advance these purposes . . . .”

The magistrate judge also found that Lollar Law had just cause to withdraw as counsel, even though the court did not permit withdrawal initially. “At bottom, the attorney-client relationship had soured and the necessary foundation of trust and cooperation between an attorney and client was gone.”

The Waldrons argue that Lollar Law was responsible for the breakdown in communication between attorney and client. This argument is contrary to the magistrate judge’s finding.

The Waldrons further recite a series of complaints related to Lollar’s purported failure to prepare for trial on the just compensation issue, including finding an appraiser or developing a contingency plan to try the case without an appraiser. As the magistrate judge explained, however, the testimony showed that the Waldrons were not cooperating in preparing for trial.

In sum, based on the court’s de novo review of the record, the court agrees with the magistrate judge that the difficulty preparing for trial was due to a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, not a lack of effort or diligence on the part of Lollar Law.

The Waldrons also take issue with the magistrate judge’s award of $15,000 in fees. The Waldrons argue the hours used to calculate the fee should be discounted for vagueness and block billing. The magistrate judge, however, explicitly accounted for block billing in calculating the hours.

The Waldrons also assert that of the 39.1 hours used in the R&R to calculate the fee, “none of them resulted in any discoverable or admissible evidence for use by substitute counsel in attempting to prepare the case for trial.” Even if true, this does not mean that Lollar Law should not be compensated for its time, especially considering that Lollar Law secured a better result than that which was eventually obtained.

Report & recommendation adopted.

Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC v. 2.93 acres of land, owned by Lois King Waldron and Lois Mabel Waldron Martin, Case No. 19-cv-00150, Dec. 13, 2019. WDVA at Roanoke (Dillon). VLW 019-3-603. 6 pp.

VLW 019-3-603