Madison - St. Clair Record

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fee dispute between former Lakin law partners settled at Fifth District

By Ann Maher | Jun 6, 2016

The Fifth District Appellate Court has upheld an award of attorneys' fees favoring SL Chapman of St. Louis arising from a 2007 Jones Act suit against Beelman River Terminals.

Last month's decision ended a longstanding dispute between former law partners, netting Brad Lakin's firm SL Chapman $206,733.33 and Craig Jensen's firm MeyerJensen $51,600.

Jensen had appealed a ruling by Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian in the case of deckhand Jesse White, who was severely injured in 2007 when a winch operator tightened a towline too fast causing it to strike his knee.

White settled his case with Beelman in November 2013 for $775,000.

A fight over the one-third share of attorneys' fees - $258,333 - ensued.

White originally hired Lance Mallon to represent him in 2007. A year later, Mallon partnered with the Lakin Law firm, predecessor to LakinChapman and SL Chapman, on the White case. Mallon died in 2010, but his firm received a referral fee for White v. Beelman.

Jensen had been a partner at Lakin Law; in 2011 he resigned from the firm, then known as LakinChapman, and entered into an of counsel arrangement while operating a practice independent of LakinChapman. He worked the White case while of counsel at LakinChapman.

In March 2013, Jensen became a shareholder in MeyerJensen; White then discharged SL Chapman as counsel and selected MeyerJensen to represent him.

At a December 2013 hearing to adjudicate SL Chapman's lien for attorneys' fees before Matoesian, SL Chapman attorney Robert Schmieder argued that his firm had represented White for 46 months and that MeyerJensen had represented White for approximately six months.

Schmieder further argued that SL Chapman had undertaken the more significant risks and contingencies involved in the case, and that it was ready for trial at the time White dicharged the firm.

Jensen argued that the case was ready for trial when MeyerJensen took it over.

"The record in this case clearly shows Jensen performed most of the pretrial preparations and trial preparations while he was working for SL Chapman, and that the client obtained substantial benefits from this work," wrote Justice Judy Cates.

"This is a case in which the law firm who had done much of the work was discharged without cause a few months before a settlement was reached."

Cates also wrote that the MeyerJensen's $51,600 share of attorney fees represented almost 20 percent of the total.

"After reviewing the record, we find that the factors involved in determining a reasonable fee in quantum meruit support the court's determination that the entire contingency fee should be awarded to SL Chapman, less a reasonable fee to MeyerJensen for its service, and we find no abuse of discretion in the court's award."

Justices Bruce Stewart and James Moore concurred.

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