When the only issue to be resolved in a dispute over attorney fees is the amount of fees owed, the matter is a question of law for the court.
This action arises out of a dispute over attorneys' fees between Louis Ginberg, an attorney, and his former client, Laszlo N. Tauber. Ginberg filed an action against Tauber seeking, on a quantum meruit theory, the reasonable value of the services he provided in representing Tauber in a commercial landlord and tenant dispute against the District of Columbia. Although there was no fee agreement between the parties, Ginberg maintained he was entitled to recover the sum of $ 3,750,000 in attorneys' fees. The claimed fee amounted to one-third of the judgment, plus accruals, recovered from the District. Disclaiming the existence of a contingency fee arrangement or any other formal contract, Ginberg argued that, based on the parties' prior course of dealing, and an oral agreement allegedly entered into at the end of the representation, there was an "understanding" between himself and his client that his fee would be result-based. Ginberg moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability, which the court granted, and demanded a jury trial on the issue of the amount of the fee. The trial court denied the demand for a jury trial.
Did the trial court err when it denied the attorney's request for a jury trial?
On appeal, the court affirmed and held that where it was undisputed that the client owed the attorney some fee, but there was no agreement concerning how the amount would be determined, the trial court and not the jury would determine the amount. The Seventh Amendment guarantee of a right to a jury trial did not apply where the issue was: What is a reasonable attorneys' fee? The questions of whether a client agreed to pay and the calculation of the fee were ordinarily to be resolved "at law." If a jury found in favor of an award or if there was no agreement concerning how to calculate the amount, the trial court, acting "in equity," determined the amount. Thus, the trial court did not err when it denied the attorney's request for a jury trial. Moreover, the trial court's reasoning and the record adequately supported the fee award.