A Milwaukee attorney known as the “Lemon Law King” has no claim to collect attorney’s fees from a settlement his client reached without his involvement, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court, in a 5-1 decision, ruled that Vince Megna, an attorney with Aiken & Scoptur SC, Milwaukee, is not entitled to the money in the settlement, part of a fee-shifting case, because the fee agreement Megna drafted did not spell out his right to recover attorney’s costs in the fee agreement his client signed.
Megna represented Randy Betz, who bought a 1999 Cadillac Escalade for $9,000 in October 2009 from Diamond Jim’s Auto Sales. Soon thereafter, Betz had problems with his car, and Diamond Jim’s was unable to fix them, according to the opinion.
Betz, through Megna, was unable to obtain an agreeable settlement, and the case went to court in March 2010. In April 2011, Betz and Diamond Jim’s General Manager Thomas Letizia met without attorney’s present and agreed on a $15,000 settlement.
The settlement agreement did not specifically mention any attorney’s fees. Megna subsequently filed motions to compel Diamond Jim’s to pay attorney’s fees. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Maxine White dismissed the case, and Megan appealed his denied motions.
The Court of Appeals reversed, saying the settlement was void because it was contrary to the public policy reasons behind the state’s fee-shifting statutes.
But the court said these statutes are there to ensure that a client is able to recover attorney’s fees and not an attorney, unless it is written in an agreement.
According to the high court’s opinion, “If we were to conclude that the client’s right to recover statutory attorney’s fees is equitably subrogated to the attorney once counsel is retained, despite a fee agreement that does not clearly assign that right, we would undermine the legislature’s explicit directive to the contrary.”
The opinion also notes Megna can still seek to collect his fees from Betz.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, in her dissent, noted that the majority’s opinion is “troubling on too many different fronts.” She wrote that the fee agreement clearly has holes in it, and that those holes need to be interpreted by a judge or jury when they are presented with evidence.
Justice Pat Roggensack did not participate in the case. Follow @eheisigWLJ