Monday, November 14, 2016
C.A. Upholds Judgment Against Attorney for Overbilling
Rejects Bias Claim Against Judge White
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Beverly Hills family law attorney, whose former client obtained a judgment of more than $7,300 against her for overbilling, failed to prove that the judge who made the award was biased against her, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Thursday.
Div. Eight affirmed the judgment against Karen J. Segel, rejecting her contention that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth A. White prejudged the case. Presiding Justice Tricia Bigelow, in an unpublished opinion, said Segel might have committed an ethics violation by depositing unearned fees in her personal bank account, and suggested she was fortunate the trial judge did not report the possible violation to the State Bar.
Segel sued her client, Cinnamon McDaniel, and McDaniel’s father, Gregory Johnson, who guaranteed the fees, for nearly $24,000 in unpaid fees. McDaniel and Johnson cross-complained, alleging fraud, breach of contract, and other causes of action.
The parties took the case to non-binding County Bar arbitration, resulting in a finding that the client was overcharged and awarded more than $8,700.
Segel rejected the award, and the case went to nonjury trial before White. Segel testified that she fully performed under the fee agreement, which called for an $8,000 retainer, against a $350 hourly rate. Segel testified she accepted $4,000 towards the retainer with the understanding the balance would be paid within two months.
Johnson paid Segel $2,000, a month after the initial payment was made and shortly before final judgment was granted, with McDaniel obtaining 75 percent custody. When McDaniel told Segel she couldn’t pay the final $2,000 installment on the retainer, Segel agreed to accept $500 monthly until a pending personal injury claim by McDaniel was resolved.
Segel was ultimately paid a total of $11,000 before her representation was terminated. She received nothing from McDaniel’s $17,250 personal injury settlement.
Johnson testified that he believed Segel had agreed to represent his daughter for a flat fee of $8,000. McDaniel testified that Segel persuaded her to continue litigating custody, even though the final judgment gave her most of what she was asking for, and that the attorney also advised her to follow her ex-husband in order to obtain proof he was driving without a license with their son in the car.
McDaniel said she took the advice and was arrested for violation of a no-contact order, costing her $1,500 to obtain a bail bond and $3,000 in attorney fees.
White concluded there was no reason for Segel to run up a $45,000 fee bill in a case where the client’s objectives were largely obtained shortly after the attorney was hired, nor was it necessary to file a writ petition in the Court of Appeal seeking to transfer the case to another judge or to write letters to the supervising family law judge.
Segel, the judge found, unnecessarily continued to litigate for another 18 months without obtaining any additional results for the client, kept billing records that lacked “clarity,” and gave bad advice.
Segel subsequently moved twice to disqualify White for bias, also moved to set aside the judgment and for a new trial. All of those motions were stricken or denied.
Bigelow, in her opinion for the Court of Appeal, rejected Segel’s claims that White’s “plagiarism” of the arbitrator’s opinion, her quoting from a letter by the supervising family law judge regarding Segel’s efforts to take the dissolution case away from Commissioner John Chemeleski, and her finding that Segel violated the unearned-fees rule were all indicators of bias.
The fact that White “adopted portions of the arbitrator’s opinion” did not prove that she failed to exercise independent judgment in the matter, Bigelow said. This was not a case where the trial judge adopted an argument that the parties didn’t make or treated extrajudicial findings as evidence, the jurist explained, noting that all of White’s findings were supported by citations to the facts presented at trial.
Bigelow also rejected the claim that the letter by then-Supervising Judge Marjorie Steinberg regarding the transfer attempt was “was not in evidence” and referred to matters not outmentioned at trial. In fact, the letter was admitted in evidence, apparently without objection by Segel, the presiding justice said.
Apart from its admissibility, Bigelow added, the use of the letter did not indicate bias, especially because it was undisputed that Segel tried to get the commissioner transferred off the case and billed the client for the time she spent trying to do so.
All of the parties represented themselves on appeal in Segel v. Johnson, B254997.
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