Difference of Opinion regarding Mandatory Attorney Fee Dispute Arbitration

The Fee Dispute Resolution Program (22 NYCRR Section 137) was created to mandate arbitration of fee disputes between attorneys and their former clients in civil matters (Mandatory Attorney Fee Dispute Arbitration). It has been subject to differing opinions among different departments leading to divergent opinions on the issue of whether or not an arbitration is necessary when the former client fails to object the validity of the underlying fee.

In 2000, the Second Department determined in Scordio that when there is a fee dispute between an attorney and a former client, the attorney was not required to send notice to the former client informing them of their rights to arbitrate when there was no dispute or objection to the reasonableness of the attorney’s fees. Scordio v. Scordio, 270 A.D.2d 328 (2nd Dept. 2000).

The decision in Scordio would ordinarily lend to the notion that an attorney may pursue collection of his fees without notice to a client of his right to arbitration but the rules regarding arbitration of fee disputes were modified and expanded in 2002, and now lists exceptions to when a notice to a client of his right to arbitrate can be waived. In Wexler & Burkhart, the court held that a reading of the Rules in this way would “effectively eviscerate Part 137 of the Rules, a comprehensive scheme for the informal and expeditious resolution of fee disputes between attorneys and clients through arbitration and mediation.” Wexler & Burkart LLP v. Grant, 12 Misc.3d 1162(A) (Nassau Cty. 2006).

The court in Rotker determined that “the rules of the appellate division establish a clear public policy in favor of the arbitration of attorney-client fee disputes.” Rotker v. Rotker, 195 Misc.2d 768 (Westchester Cty. 2003). Rotker was a matrimonial case where the attorneys for the wife instituted a retainer lien against her for non-payment of her fees. The attorneys asserted that since the client had not disputed the fees, under Scordio, they were entitled to payment without arbitration. The court held that even if it was determined that counsel was not fired for cause, the attorneys were required to provide the client notice of her rights to arbitrate the dispute, with said notice given in writing. If the client then failed to avail herself of her right to arbitrate after 30 days of mailing the notice, the right to arbitration would be waived. Id at 790-791.

The court in Rotker went so far as to hold that the failure of former counsel to send the 30-day notice, regardless of whether or not there is a dispute, would mandate the dismissal of any action for unpaid counsel fees. Rotker at 791.

The basic tenet held in these decisions is the idea that if the Scordio argument is used as a means to avoid Rule 137, then nearly anyone can circumvent the protections that Rule 137 was meant to provide. Wexler & Burkhart LLP at 214;

The position of the Wexler & Burkhart decision and the Rotker decision was most recently supported in Noel F. Caraccio, where the court held that regardless of whether there was an objection or dispute as to the fees when they were billed, the attorney was still required to send the 30-day notice of the right to arbitrate. Noel F. Caraccio PLLC v. Thomas, 29 Misc.3d 1230 (A) (City Ct., Rye 2010); Rotker at 791.

Thus, it is questionable as to whether Scordio remains good law, and as such, it is prudent to notify the former client of his rights to arbitrate the fee in order to prevent a dismissal of an attorney’s action for payment.

— Elisa S. Rosenthal, Esq.
Law Office of Richard A. Klass
Copyr. 2014

The law firm of Richard A. Klass, Esq. practices in areas that include commercial litigation, debt collection/enforcement of judgments, legal malpractice and real estate litigation. They may be reached by phone at (718) COURT-ST [(718) 268-7878)] or www.courtstreetlaw.com.