Monday, March 5, 2018

Heller Ehrman LLP v. Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, S236208

Law partnerships: Partnership (dissolution): Property interest: Vested rights: Fees (contingency basis): Fees (hourly basis): Jewel Waiver: Chapter 11: Common law:

(…) Does a dissolved law firm retains a property interest in (…) legal matters (matters on an hourly basis) that are in progress –– but not completed –– at the time of dissolution?

(…) Under California law, a dissolved law firm has no property interest in legal matters handled on an hourly basis, and therefore, no property interest in the profits generated by its former partners’ work on hourly fee matters pending at the time of the firm’s dissolution. The partnership has no more than an expectation that it may continue to work on such matters, and that expectation may be dashed at any time by a client’s choice to remove its business. As such, the firm’s expectation — a mere possibility of unearned, prospective fees — cannot constitute a property interest. To the extent the law firm has a claim, its claim is limited to the work necessary for preserving legal matters so they can be transferred to new counsel of the client’s choice (or the client itself), effectuating such a transfer, or collecting on work done pretransfer.

Heller’s dissolution plan included a provision known as a Jewel waiver. Named after the case of Jewel v. Boxer (1984) 156 Cal.App.3d 171 (Jewel), the provision purported to waive any rights and claims Heller may have had “to seek payment of legal fees generated after the departure date of any lawyer or group of lawyers with respect to non-contingency/non-success fee matters only.” The waiver was intended as “an inducement to encourage Shareholders to move their clients to other law firms and to move Associates and Staff with them, the effect of which will be to reduce expenses to the Firm-in-Dissolution.” By its express terms, the waiver governed only those matters billed on a non-contingency –– that is continual, or hourly –– basis.

(…) In the meantime, Heller filed for bankruptcy under chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. When Heller’s plan of liquidation was approved, the bankruptcy court appointed a plan administrator who became responsible for pursuing claims to recover assets for the benefit of Heller’s creditors.

(…) We granted the Ninth Circuit’s request that we resolve the question of what property interest, if any, a dissolved law firm has in the legal matters, and therefore the profits, of cases that are in progress but not completed at the time of dissolution.

(…) Our policy of encouraging labor mobility while minimizing firm instability. It accomplishes the former by making the pending matters, and those that work on them, attractive additions to new firms; it manages the latter by placing partners who depart after a firm’s dissolution at no disadvantage to those who leave earlier.

(…) In Osment v. McElrath (1886) 68 Cal. 466 and Little v. Caldwell (1894) 101 Cal. 553, we confronted situations in which law firms dissolved with contingency matters pending. In both cases, we held that the fees generated by one partner in completing the matters were to be shared equally with the former partner (or his estate). (Osment, supra, 68 Cal. at p. 470; Little, supra, 101 Cal. at p. 561.) We thus rejected the argument that the lawyers who personally completed the matters were entitled to a greater share of the fees than stipulated to in the partnership agreements.

California partnership law was codified in 1929 when the Legislature adopted the Uniform Partnership Act (UPA). The UPA preserved many common-law principles, including the rules elucidated in Osment and Little. (See Jacobson v. Wikholm (1946) 29 Cal.2d 24, 27–28 (Jacobson).) The First District Court of Appeal then added further gloss when it interpreted UPA in the case of Jewel v. Boxer, supra. In Jewel, partners of a dissolved law firm sued their former partners who had been handling “most of the active personal injury and workers’ compensation cases.” (Jewel, supra, 156 Cal.App.3d at p. 175.) The suing partners sought their shares of the fees from these cases, arguing that they were entitled to the same fees as prevailed during the partnership.

The Jewel court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. It reasoned that the former partners were not entitled “to extra compensation for services rendered in completing unfinished business,” where “extra compensation” was compensation “which is greater than would have been received as the former partner’s share of the dissolved partnership.” (Jewel, supra, 156 Cal.App.3d at p. 176 & fn. 2.) Accordingly, without an agreement to the contrary, any attorney fees generated from matters pending when the law firm dissolved were “to be shared by the former partners according to their right to fees in the former partnership, regardless of which former partner provides legal services in the case after the dissolution.” (Id. at p. 174.)

Subsequent Court of Appeal decisions consistently applied Jewel’s holding to contingency fee cases. (See, e.g., Fox v. Abrams (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 610, 612–613; Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman v. Cohen (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1035, 1063.) Such widespread application of Jewel was confined to the contingency fee context, however. Only in 1993 did a Court of Appeal expressly interpret Jewel to encompass matters the dissolved law firm had been handling on an hourly basis. (See Rothman v. Dolin (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 755, 757–759.) To this day, Rothman remains the only published California opinion to apply Jewel to the hourly fee context, and it did so before UPA was revised. Three years after Rothman, the Legislature again revised partnership law by replacing UPA with RUPA. (See Corp. Code, § 16100 et. seq.) RUPA made several changes to the default rules of California partnership law.

(…) Since the enactment of RUPA, no California court has, in a published opinion, resolved whether there remains a basis for holding that a partnership has a property interest in legal matters pending at a firm’s dissolution. The last time we took up the issue was in Osment and Little. More recent is the intermediate appellate decision in Jewel, although that, too, was issued before the passage of RUPA and implicated only contingency fee matters. We thus consider with fresh eyes the question posed to us by the Ninth Circuit.

(…) The circumstances giving rise to a property interest, in turn, include not only familiar arm’s-length transactions but also certain sufficiently reliable expectations, such as unvested retirement benefits. (E.g., In re Marriage of Green (2013) 56 Cal.4th 1130, 1140– 1141 [“Nonvested retirement benefits are certainly contingent on various events occurring — such as continued employment — but this does not prevent them from being a property right for these purposes.”].) In this case, we consider the question of whether a sufficiently strong expectation exists in the context of a law firm partnership performing hourly work on legal matters. We find that it does not. A property interest grounded in such an expectation requires a legitimate, objectively reasonable assurance rather than a mere unilaterally-held presumption (See Bd. of Regents v. Roth (1972) 408 U.S. 564, 577).

(…) (See, e.g., General Dynamics Corp. v. Superior Court (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1164, 1174–1175, 1172 (General Dynamics) [stating that it is “bedrock law” that a client has the right “to sever the professional relationship [with its attorney] at any time and for any reason,” although carving out a limited exception for in-house counsel whose relationship with the client is not a “ ‘one shot’ undertaking”].)

While Heller was a viable, ongoing business, it no doubt hoped to continue working on the unfinished hourly fee matters and expected to receive compensation for its future work. But such hopes were speculative, given the client’s right to terminate counsel at any time, with or without cause. As such, they do not amount to a property interest. (Civ. Code, § 700; In re Thelen LLP (2014) 20 N.E.3d 264, 270–271 [“no law firm has a property interest in future hourly legal fees because they are ‘too contingent in nature and speculative to create a present or future property interest’ ”].) Dissolution does not change that fact, as dissolving does not place a firm in the position to claim a property interest in work it has not performed — work that would not give rise to a property interest if the firm were still a going concern. A dissolved law firm therefore has no property interest in the fees or profits associated with unfinished hourly fee matters. The firm never owned such matters, and upon dissolution, cannot claim a property interest in the income streams that they generate. This is true even when it is the dissolved firm’s former partners who continue to work on these matters and earn the income — as is consistent with our partnership law.

So, with the exception of fees paid for work fitting the narrow category of winding up activities that a former partner might perform after a firm’s dissolution, a dissolved law firm’s property interest in hourly fee matters is limited to the right to be paid for the work it performs before dissolution. Consistent with our statutory partnership law, winding up includes only tasks necessary to preserve the hourly fee matters so that they can be transferred to new counsel of the client’s choice (or the client itself), to effectuate such a transfer, and to collect on the pretransfer work. Beyond this, the partnership’s interest, like the partnership itself, dissolves.

(Cal. S.C., March 5, 2018, Heller Ehrman LLP v. Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, S236208)

Une étude d'avocats est-elle titulaire, après sa dissolution, d'un "property interest" portant sur les affaires en cours (facturées selon un tarif horaire), et sur les honoraires qu'elles génèrent après dissolution ?

En droit californien, une étude d'avocats dissoute, en phase de liquidation, n'est pas titulaire d'un "property interest" s'agissant des affaires traitées à un tarif horaire. De la sorte, elle n'est pas non plus titulaire d'un tel intérêt sur les honoraires générés après dissolution, dans ces dossiers, par les anciens associés. Même avant dissolution, l'étude n'a que l'expectative de pouvoir continuer à travailler dans les affaires en cours, et cette expectative peut être contrariée en tout temps par le choix du client de résilier le mandat. Dite expectative ne saurait constituer un "property interest" : elle ne permet, après dissolution, que d'entreprendre contre rémunération le travail nécessaire au bon transfert du dossier et de procéder au recouvrement des honoraires dus avant le transfert.

Dans deux décisions anciennes, Osment v. McElrath (1886) 68 Cal. 466 et Little v. Caldwell (1894) 101 Cal. 553, la Cour Suprême de Californie a jugé que dans des dossiers rémunérés autrement que selon le système du tarif horaire, l'avocat qui continuait de traiter le dossier après dissolution de l'ancienne étude devait partager ses honoraires avec l'avocat (ou sa succession) qui le traitait avant dissolution. Les honoraires devaient ainsi être partagés comme si l'étude n'avait pas été dissoute, en conformité avec le contrat de collaboration des anciens associés de l'étude dissoute. Cela sauf accord contraire entre les anciens associés (cf. Jewel v. Boxer (1984) 156 Cal.App.3d 171 (Jewel)).

Le "partnership law" californien a été codifié en 1929, et a conservé de nombreux principes de la Common law, y compris les principes énoncés par les deux décisions précitées Osment et Little.

La décision Jewel a été reprise de manière réitérée par les cours d'appel, mais seulement dans le contexte d'honoraires calculés autrement que selon le tarif horaire. Une seule décision d'une seule cour d'appel a repris Jewel dans le cadre du tarif horaire (Rothman v. Dolin (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 755, 757–759). Trois ans après Rothman, le législateur a révisé le droit du "partnership", remplaçant UPA par RUPA.

Depuis l'entrée en vigueur de ce nouveau droit, aucune décision publiée des cours de Californie n'a jugé si le droit révisé permettait de retenir l'existence d'un "property interest" en faveur d'une étude dissoute et portant, après dissolution, sur les affaires en cours et sur les honoraires générés après dissolution.

La Cour juge en l'espère qu'un "property interest" peut être reconnu si l'expectative du droit qui lui est lié est suffisamment solide. Tel est le cas par exemple d'un droit futur reconnu par un contrat bilatéral, ou de rentes de retraite dont les montants ne sont pas encore certains. Mais tel n'est pas le cas s'agissant d'honoraires d'avocats à verser selon un tarif horaire. Des honoraires futurs pour un travail qui n'a pas encore été accompli ne sont en rien acquis. Le client peut en effet résilier le mandat en tout temps, avec ou sans motif (est citée la fameuse décision Bd. of Regents v. Roth (1972) 408 U.S. 564, 577). Dès lors, une étude en dissolution n'est pas titulaire d'un "property interest" s'agissant des honoraires portant sur du travail effectué après dissolution. Elle n'était déjà pas titulaire d'un tel intérêt avant dissolution, et la dissolution ne change pas cet absence d'intérêt. Cela même si le travail après dissolution est entrepris par un ancien associé du "partnership" en dissolution. Le "partnership" en dissolution a tout de même droit au paiement de ses honoraires pour le travail, après dissolution, lié au transfert du dossier au nouveau conseil ou au client lui-même. Les honoraires liés au travail accompli avant la dissolution sont également dus.

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