Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, June 7, 2023


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Judge Erred in Adjudicating Fee-Entitlement Of Lawyer Who Wasn’t a Party—C.A.


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A judge went too far in not only deciding what share of two settlement funds the plaintiff, a discharged lawyer, was entitled to receive, but also how much of the money belongs to the successor lawyer, who was not a party, Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal has held, further determining that the judge then went wrong, when the successor lawyer balked, by vacating the judgment in its entirety.

The plaintiff must receive what was initially awarded to him—$65,222.98and the other lawyer is on his own in establishing in an independent action what he deserves to collect, Justice Thomas M. Goethals said in an opinion filed May 16 and certified for publication on Monday.

One settlement fund resulted from a 2018 employment action filed by Newport Beach attorney Zaal Aresh on behalf of Monica Marin-Morales and the other fund was derived from a 2019 personal injury suit Aresh brought on behalf of Marin-Morales and members of her family. In both cases, he was fired, and replaced by San Diego lawyer Daniel J. Williams and, as to the personal injury case, by another attorney, as well.

 Aresh brought suit to get his share of the funds, pursuant to his attorney’s lien. He included Williams as a defendant but the San Diego practitioner protested that the dispute was between Aresh and his former clients and he was dropped from the action, as were other potential claimants.

Trial Court’s Action

Orange Superior Court Judge James Crandall, following a trial, purported to adjudicate both Aresh’s share of the two funds and Williams’s share, with the balance going to the clients. After Aresh filed a notice of appeal, Williams entreated Crandall to vacate the judgment, complaining that, in his absence, he was allocated too little a portion of the pie, and Crandall granted his motion.

Goethals wrote:

“The court lacked jurisdiction to determine the validity and value of Williams’s lien claim; it also lacked jurisdiction to determine the amount of remaining settlement funds to be paid to the former clients. Thus, the invalidity of the judgment provisions awarding fees to Williams could not be severed from the provisions awarding specific amounts to the former clients.”

The justice continued:

“As a result, we reverse the order vacating the judgment and remand the case to the trial court with directions to enter a new order vacating only the provisions purporting to adjudicate (1) Williams’s rights to the settlement funds and (2) Aresh’s former clients’ entitlement to be paid specific amounts of the settlement funds. The provisions adjudicating Aresh’s rights to specific portions of the settlement funds remain intact.”

Williams’s Contention

Williams argued in his appellate brief:

“On Williams’ motion to vacate the underlying judgment, the trial court realized the errors and acknowledged that the specific monetary amounts awarded to Aresh could not be severed from the rest of the judgment, because the trial court specifically based those numbers upon a proportional split with Williams’ contingency attorney’s fees, using Williams’ higher contingency rates, and without any evidence of the work done by attorney Williams. Despite the trial court’s candid admission of error, Aresh wants the Court of Appeals to uphold the underlying judgment awarding him the specific monetary amounts from the clients’ settlements. Aresh ignores, or does not understand, that those monetary amounts do not represent the value of his purported liens, and do not constitute an order, adjudication, and decree of the validity, value, and enforceability of his purported liens.”

Goethals responded:

“The amount of fees awarded to Aresh may or may not be the product of factual or legal error, but as a non-party to the judgment, Williams lacked standing to move to vacate it on that ground….Because Williams is not bound by the judgment, he is not aggrieved by it. If Aresh’s former clients believed the court erred in rendering the judgment in Aresh’s favor, they had the right to file their own motion to vacate or to appeal the judgment. Our record suggests they elected to do neither.”

He added:

“Williams remains free to pursue his own lien claims in a separate action or negotiation with the clients.”

The case is Aresh v. Marin-Morales (Williams), 2023 S.O.S. 1904.


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