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Sheffer v. Carolina Forge Co., LLC

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma

July 20, 2017

CHARLES SHEFFER, an individual, JENNIFER SHEFFER, an individual, and JOSHUA SHEFFER, a minor, by and through his parents, Charles and Jennifer Sheffer, Plaintiffs,
v.
CAROLINA FORGE COMPANY, LLC, and WILLIAM GARRIS, III, Defendants, and GARRETT LAW CENTER, PLLC, Appellant,
v.
THE HERSHEWE LAW FIRM, P.C., Appellee.

          Mandate Issued: 08/22/2017

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OTTAWA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE ROBERT HANEY, JUDGE

          D. Mitchell Garrett, Amber Peckio Garrett, GARRETT LAW CENTER, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Appellant.

          Michelle B. O'Neal, THE HERSHEWE LAW FIRM, P.C., Joplin, Missouri, for Appellee.

          Bay Mitchell, Presiding Judge.

         ¶1 This appeal involves two law firms disputing the trial court's division of a $234, 462.34 contingent attorney fee fund. The court awarded $5, 000.00 to attorney Rick Yohn, then awarded Appellant Garrett Law Center, PLLC (GLC) 25% of the fund and 75% to Appellee The Hershewe Law Firm, P.C. (HLF). We find the division was not against the clear weight of the evidence or contrary to law. Accordingly, we affirm.

         ¶2 Plaintiffs Charles Sheffer, Jennifer Sheffer and Joshua Sheffer (the Sheffers) filed suit for personal injuries sustained in an automobile accident with Defendant William Garris, III (Garris) and David Billups (Billups) near Miami, Oklahoma. Garris and Billups were on a business trip in Joplin, Missouri for their employer, Defendant Carolina Forge Company, LLC (Carolina Forge). After spending the day with clients, Garris and Billups decided to go to Buffalo Run Casino. On their return to their hotel, they collided with the Sheffers' eighteen-wheeler tractor trailer. Billups died as a result of the wreck, and the Sheffers sustained serious injuries.

         ¶3 The Sheffers hired and fired three different law firms and/or attorneys while pursuing their claims before ultimately hiring GLC. The Tawwater Law Firm and attorney Rick Yohn (Yohn) initially represented the Sheffers, filing the petition on August 25, 2008. In April 2010, the Sheffers hired HLF to take over as lead counsel. HLF provided representation to the Sheffers for approximately 4.5 years. During this time, HLF represented the Sheffers' claims against multiple defendants, including Carolina Forge, Billups, Garris, Buffalo Run Casino, PTE, Inc., and the Peoria Tribe of Indians. The case involved numerous complex issues, including the disputed identity of the driver who collided with the Sheffers; the contested legal theory as to whether the driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment; whether Carolina Forge negligently entrusted the vehicle to their employees; and the pursuit of potential dram-shop claims against the casino and the tribe.

         ¶4 In pursuit of the Sheffers' claims, HLF gathered medical records, consulted with experts, conducted legal research, issued discovery, conducted depositions, drafted motions, and attended hearings. HLF also filed and litigated two separate appeals to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In the first appeal, the Court found that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment to Carolina Forge because reasonable minds could differ on whether Billups and Garris were in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident and whether Carolina Forge negligently entrusted the rental vehicle to them. Sheffer v. Carolina Forge Co., LLC, 2013 OK 48, ¶30, 306 P.3d 544, 553. In the second appeal, the Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the Peoria Tribe and its entities, finding the tribe was immune from suit in state court for compact-based tort or prize claims and from state court dram-shop liability. Sheffer v. Buffalo Run Casino, 2013 OK 77, ¶50, 315 P.3d 359, 373.

         ¶5 After losing its case on appeal, Carolina Forge proposed mediation. The trial court also encouraged mediation. On September 19, 2014, defense counsel notified the court that the parties intended to mediate the case by mid-October. The case, however, did not proceed to mediation at that point because the Sheffers refused to agree to a mediator. The Sheffers notified HLF on September 30, 2014 that it was being terminated. GLC filed its entry of appearance on October 10, 2014. GLC reviewed the file, ordered some missing medical records, prepared a written demand, and mediated the case. Through mediation, Carolina Forge agreed to pay $610, 000.00 to settle the Sheffers' claims.

         ¶6 GLC then filed a motion to interplead and disburse the settlement funds, asking the court to determine payment of the medical bills and liens, including the attorney fee liens filed by Yohn, HLF, and GLC. Pursuant to GLC's written contingency fee contract with the Sheffers, 40% of the settlement was to be paid as attorney fees. However, GLC agreed during the mediation that all medical bills, medical liens, and a possible insurance lien would be paid out of the attorney fees and that GLC would not charge any litigation expenses. After deducting payment of those bills and liens, $234, 462.34 was left as attorney fee proceeds.

         ¶7 An attorney fees hearing was held on December 17, 2015. The court considered the attorneys' pleadings, oral argument by all interested counsel, and "the Court's own familiarity with this case and the work performed by the respective attorneys" and found that, after resolution of an outstanding subrogation claim, the attorney fees remaining should be distributed as follows: $5, 000.00 to Yohn; 25% to GLC; and 75% to HLF. [1] GLC appeals.

         ¶8 An action to enforce an attorney's lien is an equitable matter. Duffy v. Cope, 2000 OK CIV APP 140, ¶7, 18 P.3d 366, 368. "A judgment in a case of equitable cognizance will be sustained on appeal unless it is found to be against the clear weight of the evidence, or is contrary to law or established principles of equity." Id.

         ¶9 GLC argues the court's apportionment was contrary to law because the court failed to consider the factors set forth in Burk v. Oklahoma City, 1979 OK 115, 598 P.2d 659. HLF argues that GLC's reliance on Burk is misplaced. We agree. Burk applies to evaluate the reasonableness of an attorney fee award "in the absence of a contract or a statute fixing the amount." State ex rel. Dep't of Transp. v. Cedars Grp., L.L.C., 2017 OK 12, ¶23, 393 P.3d 1095, 1104 (citing Oliver's Sports Center, Inc. v. Nat'l Standard Ins. Co., 1980 OK 120, ¶7, 615 P.2d 291, 294). The reasonableness of the total contingency fee fund in this case, however, is not disputed. Rather, the issue is whether the trial court's apportionment ...


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