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ROBERT L. WHEELER, INC. v. SCOTT - 1989 OK 106, 777 P.2d 394


In setting a reasonable attorney’s fee, the court looks to the hourly rate for comparable representation where compensation is guaranteed. It must adjust the basic hourly rate where compensation is contingent by assessing the likelihood of success at the outset of the representation.


The client retained the lawyer to represent him in a mortgage foreclosure proceeding. The lawyer, who represented the client for several months, withdrew from the case when a fee dispute arose. The client retained new counsel, and the case was settled. The lawyer filed suit against the client to collect unpaid attorney fees, claiming that was entitled to over $140,000 for the work that he and a first-year associate performed for the client. The trial court awarded the lawyer over $125,000. The client appealed, claiming that the award was excessive. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, finding that the guidelines delineated in State ex rel. Burk v. Oklahoma City, 598 P.2d 659, 661 (Okla. 1979) and Oliver's Sports Center v. Nat'l Standard Ins., 615 P.2d 291, 294-95 (Okla. 1982), had been followed. The client sought certiorari review in the Supreme Court of Oklahoma.


Was the attorney’s fees excessive?




The Supreme Court of Oklahoma vacated the opinion of the appellate court, reversed the judgment of the trial court, and remanded the matter for reconsideration of the lawyer's fee request. The court noted, among other things, that much of the time expended in the case was unnecessary by any reasonable standard, that the issues involved in the case were relatively simple, that the lawyer's involvement in the case did not preclude him from obtaining other employment, and that the bulk of the work was performed by the associate. The proper determination of reasonable attorney fees requires a balancing and thorough consideration of the Burk and Oliver's Sports factors, which are applicable to each case. Apparently, the trial court gave too much weight to the time spent on the case and failed to consider adequately the other applicable standards.  Setting attorney fees would be a simple matter if numbers could be inserted mechanically into a universally valid formula. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Here, it is obvious that much of the time expended was unnecessary by any reasonable standard. Under detailed analysis of the guidelines--particularly the excessive time spent, the relative simplicity of the issues (except where they were needlessly multiplied and complicated by counsel), the very average lawyering skill required, the nonpreclusion of other employment, the entry of summary judgment, the customary fee, the absence of restrictive time limitations, and the inexperience of the lawyer who did the bulk of the work-- the state supreme court found that the fee allowed by the trial court was excessive.

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