Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Law Offices of Jorge Luis Flores, LLC v. Cruz & Associates

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

January 29, 2018



          McMillian, Judge.

         In this worker's compensation case, the Administrative Law Judge awarded attorney fees to the employee's former counsel, The Law Offices of Jorge Luis Flores, LLC ("Flores"), following the settlement of the case by the employee's new counsel, Cruz & Associates ("Cruz"). The Appellate Division of the State Board of Workers' Compensation[1] affirmed the ALJ's order, but the superior court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. We granted Flores' application for discretionary appeal in this matter and now reverse the superior court's order because we find there was sufficient evidence below to support the award of attorney fees to Flores.

         The undisputed facts in the record show that the employee, Martha Rodriguez, suffered a compensable work-related injury on July 21, 2005, and on October 29, 2005, she signed a contingency contract with Flores to pursue her workers' compensation claim (the "fee contract"). Flores represented Rodriquez for over six years, during which time Flores, associated counsel, and legal assistants performed legal services related to her claim, including, but not limited to, ensuring the payment of employment benefits, managing medical treatment, engaging in discovery, meeting with Rodriguez, and filing motions and other documents on her behalf.

         Around January 12, 2012, Rodriguez terminated Flores's representation and hired Cruz as her new counsel. Flores subsequently filed a notice of lien in the amount of $17, 180 seeking payment for services rendered and expenses incurred. Cruz later settled the case, with the settlement including a payment of $50, 000 in attorney fees and approximately $1, 500 in expenses.

         After the case settled, Cruz contested Flores' right to recover payment under his lien on the grounds that the Flores' fee contract was unenforceable due to a lack of a meeting of minds between the parties and further that Flores had failed to prove the value of his services. The ALJ held a hearing on the matter, and based on the evidence and testimony presented as well as briefing by the parties, the ALJ found that Flores "successfully proved his claim of lien, albeit in quantum meruit rather than on his fee contract." (Emphasis in original.) The ALJ also found that Cruz was correct in arguing that "there was no meeting of the minds between [Flores] and [Rodriguez] regarding any hourly rates payable under the fee contract, . . . as the fee contract is silent in this regard" and that "the contractual language did not specify the recovery [Flores] would be entitled to in the event the contingency provided for under the contract did not occur or the expenses for which the Employee would be liable in that event." Nevertheless, the ALJ held that "counsel may still prove the value of his services performed prior to termination under a theory of quantum meruit." The ALJ concluded that Flores had established that the fair value of its legal services was $15, 650 and its proven expenses were $1, 530; therefore, the ALJ awarded Flores the full amount if its lien, $17, 180. Cruz appealed the ALJ's order, and the Board affirmed the award, determining that the ALJ's award was supported by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence and adopting the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law as the Board's own.

         Cruz then appealed the Board's award to the Superior Court of Fulton County. Following a hearing, the superior court issued an order reversing the award and remanding the case for consideration of additional evidence on the fees claimed by Flores. The superior court determined that Flores' fee contract was invalid because it was not drafted in accordance with the Georgia Rules of Professional Coduct and further because there was no meeting of the minds between the parties as to Flores' hourly rates. The superior court also found that there was a clear lack of competent evidence to support the Board's award of the full amount of the lien to Flores. This appeal followed.

         Flores argues that the superior court applied the wrong standard of review and erred by failing to analyze the issue of quantum meruit, because that issue, and not the issue of the fee contract's validity, was the foundation of the administrative rulings. We agree.

         Turning first to the standard of review, we note that superior courts apply the same standard of review as this Court does in considering decisions by the Board. In workers' compensation cases,

both the superior court and this Court are required to construe the evidence in a light most favorable to the party prevailing before the State Board. It is axiomatic that the findings of the Board, when supported by any evidence, are conclusive and binding, and that neither the superior court nor this Court has any authority to substitute itself as a fact finding body in lieu of the Board.

(Citation omitted.) Autozone, Inc. v. Mesa, 342 Ga.App. 748, 752 (804 S.E.2d 734) (2017). "The question of whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard in evaluating the evidence, however, is one of law, which we review de novo." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Id.

         Here, the Board found that the parties failed to reach a meeting of the minds under the fee contract as to any hourly rates payable or as to the amount of any recovery in the event that the fee contract's contingency did not occur, so the fee contract was unenforceable. The Board then relied on the well-settled principle that

[w]hen a contingent fee arrangement exists between a client and an attorney and the client prevents the contingency from happening, the attorney is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees for his services that have been rendered on behalf of the client. Thus, although prevented from recovering under the contract, the attorney still has [a] remedy in quantum meruit.

Ellerin & Assocs. v. Brawley, 263 Ga.App. 860, 862-63 (2) (589 S.E.2d 626) (2003). Therefore, an attorney who is discharged before earning his contractual contingency fee may seek a recovery under quantum meruit. See Tolson v. Sistrunk, 332 Ga.App. 324, 333 (2) (a) (772 S.E.2d 416) (2015); Haldi v. ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.