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Cordell & Cordell, P.C. v. Gao

Court of Appeals of Georgia

March 25, 2015

CORDELL & CORDELL, P.C.
v.
GAO

Contract, etc. Fulton Superior Court. Before Judge Markle.

Jacobs & King, Cary S. King, for appellant.

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, Gregory W. Traylor, for appellee.

Paula J. Frederick, amicus curiae.

OPINION

Page 197

McFadden, Judge.

Shaojun Gao sued his former law firm, Cordell & Cordell, P.C. (hereinafter, the firm) for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and money had and received in connection with alleged overbilling. The case went to a jury, which found in favor of Gao and awarded him $23,213.70, the same amount that a panel of arbitrators previously had awarded Gao in nonbinding arbitration under the State Bar of Georgia's fee arbitration process.

The firm appeals from the judgment entered on that jury award. It argues that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence the arbitration award and portions of a recording of a telephone call between Gao and a former lawyer of the firm, and that the trial court should have granted its motion for directed verdict on all of Gao's claims. The trial court, however, did not err in admitting the challenged evidence, the evidence supported the denial of the directed verdict motion on the breach of contract and breach of fiduciary

Page 198

duty claims, and the firm did not argue to the trial court the specific ground upon which it now claims entitlement to a directed verdict on the remaining claims. For these reasons, we affirm.

1. Facts and procedural history.

Gao hired the firm in September 2008 to represent him in an ongoing divorce action that involved complicated custody issues. The parties entered into a written contract setting forth the terms of the representation. Among other things, the contract provided that Gao would pay the firm specific hourly rates for its work on his case, that Gao acknowledged the total fees might be higher than any estimates given to him by the firm, and that Gao would like the firm to " assign attorneys and other staff to handle [the] matter in the most economical manner possible."

The firm worked on Gao's case for five-and-a-half months and charged Gao nearly $50,000 for that work. The work included a mediation and three court appearances, at which some of the custody issues in the case were temporarily resolved to Gao's satisfaction. During this time, Gao told the firm he was concerned about the mounting fees. Nevertheless, he paid all of the bills he received from the firm. In February 2009, Gao terminated the firm's representation of him because he could not afford further fees.

Soon after Gao ended the representation, the lawyer that had been assigned to his case left the firm. Shortly thereafter, that lawyer and Gao had a telephone conversation -- a portion of which Gao recorded -- that led Gao to believe the firm had overcharged him. Gao unsuccessfully sought a refund of some of the fees he had paid, then [331 Ga.App. 523] brought an arbitration proceeding against the firm under the State Bar of Georgia's fee arbitration program. The firm declined to participate in that proceeding. Gao, however, presented ...


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