William West, an attorney licensed to practice in North Carolina, entered into a contingency fee agreement with a beneficiary of a trust to handle a trust dispute in Florida. West handled the matter through mediation, and received a favorable result for his client. When West sought to collect a $1 million fee, his client balked, and claimed West was not entitled to any fee because he earned the fee while practicing law in Florida without a license.
At several points in the litigation, West advised his client that he would need to affiliate with a Florida law firm since he was not authorized to practice in Florida. He even made arrangements with a Florida law firm and sent them a motion to appear pro hac vice. However, he never finalized these arrangements and the Florida firm was not engaged.
The trial court found that West’s contract with his client was void ab initio because he was not authorized to practice law in Florida.
West then sought to be paid, either under the theory of unjust enrichment (his client being unjustly enriched by not having to pay his fee) or quantum meruit (his being paid for his service based on their value, even though there was no existing valid fee agreement). The trial court then awarded fees based on quantum meruit.
The appeals court reversed the trial court and held Mr. West was not entitled to any fee, stating that to “award fees for illegal activities is contrary to public policy.”
The case is interesting for the total rejection of compensation to the attorney, and doubly so for the amount of fees at issue - $1 million lost, yikes!
Morrison v. West, 4th DCA, Case No. 4D08-1693 (2/17/10)