Wednesday, November 14, 2001
Attorney Grimes Wins Fee Dispute Arising From Rodney King Case
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles attorney Milton C. Grimes has won a fee dispute with fellow lawyer John L. Burris, arising from the work both lawyers did in representing Rodney King in King’s lawsuit against Los Angeles for the beating he suffered at the hands of police officers in 1991.
In an unpublished opinion released Friday, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a ruling rejecting Burris’ breach of contract claim seeking a portion of the $1.19 million in legal fees that Grimes recovered as part of King’s $3.8 million jury award.
Justice Gilbert Nares of Div. One said Orange Superior Court Judge Raymond J. Ikola was wrong in ruling that the contract between the two lawyers was illegal under the Rules of Professional Conduct. But Ikola’s construction of the contract—that Burris was to get nothing out of Grimes’ fees if he got anything at all from the federal court under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988—was correct, Nares said.
Burris sought $673,725 from the federal court but was awarded only $310,142.50. He argued that his contract with Grimes stated that he was to recoup the balance from Grimes’ award.
King, well-known from the videotape of his beating by police officers and the criminal prosecution, acquittals and riots that followed, retained Grimes in 1992 to handle his lawsuit against the city. Under a contingency fee agreement, Grimes was to get 25 percent of King’s recovery.
Grimes asked Burris to join his team because of his experience in police misconduct cases. The two agreed orally that Burris would be compensated through his application to the federal court for Sec. 1988 fees.
But Grimes later told Burris that he had entered into a written contract with attorney Federico Sayre to handle the medical aspects of the case and he suggested that Burris might want to have a similar arrangement, through which he would get a portion of Grimes’ contingency, up to 20 percent, if he failed to prevail in his quest for Sec. 1988 fees.
Burris agreed and the two signed the contract.
After King won his award and Grimes his percentage, and after Burris won a portion of the Sec. 1988 fees he sought, Burris sought the balance from Grimes. Their contract, Burris said, specified that he was to get up to 20 percent from Grimes if he got less than he asked for from the court.
But Grimes argued that the contract only covered payment to Burris if Burris got completely shut out by the federal court.
At issue was a clause in the short contract that said:
“It is agreed that if the application is not granted, Grimes will pay Burris out of Grimes’ contingency fee....”
Ikola, noting that King did not sign on to the fee-sharing arrangement, said the contract violated Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 2-200, which bars fee-splitting among lawyers not already in the same firm without client written consent.
Nares said the rule did not apply in this case since it was not an improper fee-split because it did not involve a “pure referral” from Grimes. Grimes didn’t simply turn the case over to Burris for a fee, the justice explained, but instead brought Burris in as a member of his team for Burris’ specific expertise.
As for the disputed contract language, Nares said it was “clear and unambiguous on its face.” Since Burris recovered some money from the federal court, the justice said, he was not entitled to a cut from grimes.
The case is Burris v. Grimes, D038633.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company