Thursday, March 27, 2014
Court of Appeal Rebuffs Attempt to Get Around Rule Against Attorney Fees for Self-Representation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday upheld an order denying attorney fees to a lawyer who prevailed in an action on a contract with an attorney-fee provision, rejecting what it viewed as efforts to circumvent the general rule that a self-represented attorney can collect no fees for professional services.
The appellant was Surjit P. Soni, proprietor of The Soni Law Firm in Pasadena. He prevailed in an action against a former client, Wellmike Enterprise Co. Ltd., for unpaid fees, garnering an award of $28,384, but was denied additional fees in connection with the litigation.
Writing for Div. Three, Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein recited:
“Soni contends he was not self-represented and therefore was entitled to an award of attorney fees as the prevailing party. Soni’s basic contention is that the trial court erroneously viewed Soni as a ‘firm,’ rather than as an individual doing business under a fictitious name, and treated the fiction of a dba as it if were a separate entity.”
The jurist quoted, with approval, from the decision of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jan A. Pluim:
“Although ‘The Soni Law Firm’ is identified as the fictitious business name for Mr. Soni, there is ample evidence that it operates as a law firm and that the attorneys who represented the law firm in this action are its employees….Therefore, based on the rule set forth in Trope v. Katz (1995) 11 Cal.4th 274 and Carpenter & Zuckerman v. Cohen (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 373, attorney’s fees are not recoverable because the law firm was represented by an employee or associate of the firm.”
Among the evidence the defendant offered in opposing the award of attorney fees was that two attorneys who represented Soni—Michael Danton Richardson and Leo E. Lundberg Jr.—are listed on the State Bar’s website as practicing at The Soni Law Firm, and listed themselves on the pleadings in that manner. Too, Richardson said in a declaration submitted in connection with a discovery dispute:
“I am a member of The Soni Law Firm (‘SONI’), and I serve as counsel to SONI as the Plaintiff in this action.”
“In this litigation, Soni’s associates were working to recover some $28,000 in attorney fees for legal services the Soni firm had rendered to Wellmike. Thus, in working to recover fees owed by Wellmike, the associates were performing services for the law firm which employed them. Accordingly, this case is governed by the general rule that a law firm which represents itself in litigation cannot recover its own attorney fees.”
Soni told the MetNews yesterday:
“We do not believe that the decision comports with the Supreme Court’s precedential Trope authority. The Supreme Court in that case expressly taught that a lawyer-plaintiff who pays for the services of another lawyer to prosecute his case is entitled to recover his fees when he prevails. A sole practitioner who retains other lawyers to provide services for his personal cases is entitled to recover his fees under Trope. It was improper for the court to disregard the fact that Mr. Soni was a sole practitioner and treat him as a law firm. None of the facts cited supported such a conclusion.”
The case is Soni v. Wellmike Enterprise Co. Ltd., 2014 MetNews 1531.
Richardson and Lundberg, Jr. represented Soni on appeal and Ellen J. Wang and John D. van Loben Sels acted for Wellmike.
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