Have you ever had to deal with a difficult attorney? Did you ever wonder what it would take for the judge to punish that attorney, by making the attorney pay legal fees?
In the recent case of Wong v. Luu & others, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified when a judge could exercise the court’s inherent powers to sanction an attorney with an assessment of attorney’s fees. It held that in cases where an attorney’s conduct does not violate a court order, statute, rule of procedure or an attorney has not intentionally mislead the court, such a sanction could only be contemplated if the attorney’s conduct threatens the fair administration of justice, and the sanction is necessary to preserve the judge’s authority to administer justice. SJC-11789, slip op. (Jul. 15, 2015).
In Wong, a number of different parties and their respective attorneys spent four months negotiating a settlement in a complex litigation case. Just days before all parties and their attorneys were to appear in court, execute the agreement and present it for court approval, Attorney X sent out a solicitation letter to individuals already represented by other attorneys, as well as those who had no idea the lawsuit even existed. In that letter, Attorney X divulged some of the terms of the pending settlement agreement and indicated that he would be willing to represent others in a similar fashion. As a result of the letter, parties in the case refused to settle the case. Other attorneys who had worked for months to secure the settlement were naturally upset and asked the judge to make Attorney X responsible for their legal fees. The judge obliged, finding Attorney X had violated a number of rules of professional conduct, in addition to being the malefactor who had caused the case to derail from settlement. He ordered Attorney X to pay nearly $240,000.00 in accumulated legal fees.
However, the SJC reasoned that insomuch as the settlement agreement had not been breached, and because Attorney X had not violated a court order, statute, rule of procedure or intentionally misled the court, the judge had overstepped his bounds by sanctioning Attorney X under the court’s inherent powers. They clarified that the “fair administration of justice” relates to a party’s right to a trial. Parties do not have a right to a settlement. Because the parties involved still had the ability to proceed to trial, or try again for a settlement, their entitlement under the law had not been deprived. The court said, “It might be regrettable that money and time were wasted in negotiations that ultimately failed to bear fruit, but that risk is inherent in every negotiation.”
(For those of you shaking your head, keep reading.)
Despite the fact that the SJC reversed the judge’s order, and Attorney X did not have to pay those legal fees, there is still a possibility that Attorney X could be sanctioned or even disbarred. Because not only did the judge order Attorney X to pay those legal fees, the judge also referred Attorney X to the Board of Bar Overseers – the administrative body charged with investigating and evaluating complaints against attorneys – and the SJC allowed that referral to stand. Attorney X will, undoubtedly, yet be held accountable for his actions.
For any of your legal needs, contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. today.