In Duchrow v. Forrest, 2013 DJAR 5534 (2013) the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District decided a unique fee claim arising in a procedural context.
An attorney, the Plaintiff, retained counsel to sue her employer for employment‑related claims. Under the retainer agreement, the Plaintiff and the lawyer agreed that the lawyer would be compensated on an alternative fee arrangement involving both hourly rates and on a contingency fee basis.
At the beginning of the trial, Plaintiff’s counsel moved to withdraw from the case. The Plaintiff did not oppose that request and the court granted the motion to withdraw. The Plaintiff apparently could not find another attorney to represent her. The case was subsequently dismissed.
After the dismissal was entered, counsel sued the Plaintiff for breach of the retainer agreement, alleging he was entitled to approximately $40,000 in fees. Near the end of a week long trial, the lawyer then filed a motion to amend the complaint, increasing the amount of fees at issue to over $300,000. Counsel claimed the new sum was valid as it represented compensation for additional work on the file. The trial court granted the motion to amend and the jury awarded the lawyer $140,057 in fees.
The Plaintiff filed an appeal and the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision under Code of Civil Procedure Section 473(a)(1).
The court noted that a trial Judge has discretion to determine whether to grant an amended complaint. Despite the discretion, the court of appeal also noted that a trial court must still consider mitigating factors, such as untimely presentation of the amendment. The court of appeal noted that unexplained lengthy delay in seeking the amendment is a valid reason for denying a motion for leave to amend.
The court of appeal concluded that the lawyer should have included the true amount sought in the original complaint or should have sought leave to amend at an earlier date, not during trial. The panel stated that the delay in seeking the amendment deprived the Defendant of the ability to prepare for trial and the motion should have been denied on that basis alone.