Attorney's Fees

Pay law firm the disputed $94, plus $5K more, top state court tells couple

Updated: Sued by a Montana law firm in 2010 over a $2,800 unpaid legal bill, Daniel and Valery O’Connell anted up some $3,000 but disputed $93.99 of the total.

The result was additional litigation, a default judgment and an eventual determination by the state’s highest court earlier this month that the couple must pay the $93.99—plus $5,000 or so in legal fees representing the Wittich Law Firm’s collection costs in the breach of contract case, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports.

“Their appeal was without merit and the court ruled accordingly,” attorney Arthur V. “Art” Wittich told the newspaper.

The dispute wasn’t just about $93.99 but collection costs, he said. “They continued to refuse to pay any of that. Instead they wanted to fight, and they lost.”

Although the general American rule is that each side pays its own attorney’s fees, the O’Connells were required to pay the law firm’s collection costs because the legal representation contract provided for this, wrote the Montana Supreme Court in its May 7 opinion. “Indeed, because the contract expressly allowed the award of attorney fees if WLF brought a claim to recover legal fees, the court lacked the discretion to deny the requests.”

Valery O’Connell says the couple, who are representing themselves pro se in the dispute, plan to seek a rehearing. As Wittich knows, the couple can’t afford to pay the judgment, she says.

Wittich, who is a state senator from Bozeman and served as majority leader during the 2013 legislative session, said the O’Connells got the result they should have expected from pursuing a meritless case.

“The bottom line for me, like the vast majority of my clients, when they come, they agree to pay and we agree to serve,” he told the newspaper. “We expect them to meet their contract commitments.”

A concurring judge said it was unfortunate that the law firm had not found a way to resolve the matter without litigation, and another judge dissented, pointing to “the financial carnage wreaked upon [the] O’Connells for their refusal to pay a disputed $93,” and noting that they will apparently be required to pay attorney’s fees and costs for the law firm’s appeal, too.

“The Court and the Concurrence are careful to note that WLF was within its contractual rights to exact the sums the District Court has ordered [the] O’Connells to pay. Perhaps so,” wrote Justice Patricia Cotter. “Nonetheless, I simply cannot join the Court in affirming this unconscionable result. I therefore dissent.”

The opinion can be accessed on the supreme court’s website.

Updated on June 21 to include additional comments by Wittich from Daily Chronicle article.

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