C.A. Affirms $500,000 Award Against Cochran Firm
Opinion Says Fee-Sharing Agreement Reached With Lawyer About to Leave Firm Did Not Require Client’s Assent
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A fee-sharing agreement is not invalidated by virtue of a law firm’s client not having assented to the arrangement where the agreement was entered into before the attorney who was to receive a share went off on her own, the Court of Appeal for this district held yesterday in an opinion that affirms a $500,000 award against the Cochran Firm.
Justice Audra Mori of Div. Four authored the unpublished opinion which upholds a judgment by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael P. Linfield.
The Cochran Firm—founded by criminal defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, now deceased, who was the leading member of the “dream team” successfully representing O.J. Simpson at his murder trial—entered into a Dec. 13, 2018 memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with attorney Ibiere Seck before she departed the firm. The agreement provided that she would be furnished 25 percent of the net fees received in connection with enumerated cases which included Reddick v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Declines to Pay
The firm honored the agreement in making a payment to Seck of 25 percent of the fees garnered in three of the cases that were enumerated and one that wasn’t. But it refused to Sack hand over her a share of the fees in Reddick,
On Nov. 7, 2019, the Cochran Firm filed a complaint against Seck and Seck Law PC seeking a declaration that it owed nothing in connection with the settlement in Reddick because plaintiff John Reddick had not assented in writing to the fee-sharing agreement. It cited Rule 1.5.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct which says that “[l]awyers who are not in the same law firm shall not divide a fee for legal services unless: [¶] (1) the lawyers enter into a written agreement to divide the fee: [¶] (2) the client has consented in writing” to the arrangement.
On July 13, 2020, Linfield denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the Cochran Firm.
Seck proceeded to make a formal demand for her share of the settlement to which the firm responded that it would “never consent to the payment of ANY fees absent a judgment or specific order directing payment of a specific amount to her.”
Files Cross Complaint
She filed a cross-complaint for breach of contract and filed a motion for summary judgment. On April 14, 2022, Linfield granted the motion.
In her opinion affirming the judgment, Mori said:
“The Cochran Firm contends the MOU is unenforceable because it violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, rule 1.5.1, which prohibits lawyers ‘who are not in the same law firm’ from dividing a fee for legal services unless certain requirements are met, including written consent from the client. Here, the MOU was entered into on December 13, 2018, while Seck was a lawyer with Cochran Firm. Seck’s employment with the firm did not end until December 31, 2018. The Cochran Firm fails to provide any valid argument or evidence to refute this fact. Thus, this fee sharing agreement was not subject to rule 1.5.1.”
The jurist went on to say:
“The Cochran Firm spends a portion of its briefing on the amount or lack of significant time Seck spent working on the Reddick matter. As the Cochran Firm admitted in discovery responses, the negotiated 25 percent of attorney fees was not based on the amount of work that Seck performed on the listed cases. Furthermore, the MOU specifically states that ‘Seck [h]ad undertaken substantial efforts to secure the effective representation of the plaintiff(s) [in a specified list of cases] during her tenure with The Cochran Firm,’ and the agreement was made and based on the representations made by Seck ‘that she worked on these cases in some capacity.’ Thus, the specific amount of time that Seck spent on the Reddick matter or any of the other cases listed in the MOU does not render the fee sharing agreement unenforceable.”
The case is The Cochran Firm v. Seck, B321448.
The Cochran Firm was represented by its managing attorney, Brian T. Dunn, and by Edward M. Lyman III. Acting for Seck and her firm were Phillip A. Baker and Derrick S. Lowe of Baker, Keener & Nahara.
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