Attorney Fees

Judge won't enforce 'usurious' retainer pact, blasts law firm for 'condescending' tone of filings

Finding that a law firm’s retainer agreement in a divorce case was “usurious” and calling its billing practices “facially outrageous and certainly bereft of reasonableness,” a New York judge on Thursday refused to vacate his earlier ruling dismissing the firm’s lawsuit seeking to collect about $53,000 from a former client.

Attorney Bryan Salamone of Long Island-based Bryan L. Salamone & Associates said the hard-fought case was complex and contended Melissa Cohen never questioned his firm’s bills at the time they were issued. With legal fees and interest, the total amount sought exceeded $100,000.

Cohen, who represented herself in the collection case, argued in a handwritten filing that “I am a single mother raising two children. I have no assets and have paid Mr. Salamone over and beyond expected,” the New York Law Journal (sub.req.) reports.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Spinner expressed concern about multiple aspects of the retainer at issue in the Suffolk County case, calling it a contract of adhesion. He noted that it applied an 18 percent annual interest rate to balances that were not immediately paid and waived the client’s right to appeal any adverse ruling in arbitration.

The judge also blasted the law firm for the tone of its filings, contending that it used “an unpleasant, somewhat sarcastic and clearly condescending tone throughout, which, counsel is warned, borders upon conduct that may well be sanctionable.”

Partner Timothy Wan of Smith Carroad Levy & Wan represented the Salamone firm and said it will appeal. He said he believes the retainer contract is enforceable and is not voidable, the legal publication recounts.

“The sad truth is we gave her reasonable bills on a monthly basis; charged her a lower rate than any other firm; held her hand throughout and tried to steer her towards a prudent settlement rather than an expensive trial and now she (as we all knew she would) disputed everything we did for her,” said Salamone of Cohen in court papers.

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