Court Rules Quantum Meruit Is Appropriate Standard in Dispute Between Former Law Partners


As Chicago corporate dispute lawyers, we were interested to see a ruling in a dispute between former law partners. In Bernstein and Grazian, P.C. v. Grazian and Volpe, P.C., No. 1-09-0149 (Ill. 1st June 25, 2010), both firms, and the individual partners, accused each other of breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty in a dispute about how to allocate payment on cases that were pending during the breakup of their first firm. At trial, the trial court found no breach of any duty. It also found that quantum meruit was the correct standard to apply and awarded Bernstein 10 percent of attorney fees generated from those cases by Grazian and Volpe. Both Bernstein and Grazian appealed this ruling, and the First District Court of Appeal made no changes except to vacate the 10 percent fees awarded to Bernstein.

Isadore Bernstein hired John Grazian in the 1990s as an independent contractor to Bernstein’s law practice. They eventually formed the law firm of Bernstein & Grazian, P.C., which focused its practice on personal injury and workers’ compensation cases. Bernstein was president and 70 percent owner, who provided the office, cases and money; Grazian was a salaried employee and vice president. They later hired Richard Volpe as an employee to handle workers’ compensation cases. In January of 2003, they agreed to change the firm’s structure and compensation scheme. The agreement said the three would split the office overhead equally. Bernstein and Volpe were to split expenses of workers’ compensation cases equally and split the fees equally. Similarly, Bernstein and Grazian were to equally split expenses and fees for personal injury cases.

In 2005, Grazian and Volpe decided to leave and form their own firm. The three attorneys agreed that Grazian & Volpe would take over Bernstein & Grazian’s open cases, but they disagreed on how they were to split the fees. Bernstein testified that he was promised 50 percent of the coming fees, but Grazian testified that he offered, and Bernstein accepted, only one-third of the fees. They also disagreed about whether they intended to file forms to substitute attorneys in the open cases before there was a formal separation and exit agreement. Bernstein and his firm sued Grazian, Volpe and their firm, alleging breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty and demanding an accounting; defendants filed a counterclaim for breach of fiduciary duty.

At a bench trial, the court dismissed every claim but breach of contract. It found that the agreement to dissolve the firm was the controlling contract. But since that document was silent on compensation, the court found that Bernstein should receive compensation under quantum meruit — that is, he should be paid according to the value of his actual services. Noting that it was difficult to determine this from the record, the trial court nonetheless awarded Bernstein 10 percent of the fees. Bernstein and Grazian appealed. Volpe is not a party to the appeal. Because Bernstein died during the pendency of the case, his estate was the appellant.

The appeals court started by dismissing Bernstein’s entire appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Bernstein filed in trial court to dismiss his appeal about two months after filing it. This was granted. About six weeks later, he moved in the appeals court to vacate that dismissal and reinstate the appeal, saying his attorney had made a mistake. This was granted as well. But according to the First, it had no authority to grant that motion, because an order dismissing an appeal is final under Physicians Insurance Exchange v. Jennings, 316 Ill. App. 3d 443, 456 (2000) and Rickard v. Pozdal, 31 Ill. App. 3d 542 (1975). Thus, Bernstein’s entire appeal was dismissed.

On cross-appeal, Grazian argued that the trial court was improper in finding no breach of fiduciary duty by Bernstein. Bernstein had formed a separate law firm in 2004, after the revenue-splitting agreement but before Grazian & Volpe was formed. Isadore M. Bernstein & Associates P.C. (IMB) existed to refer medical malpractice claims to other attorneys. Bernstein bought television advertisement time for both firms, but claimed he paid for the IMB commercial himself. Grazian claimed he had never been told about IMB and its advertisements. The commercials resulted in many new inquiries for both firms, but Bernstein claimed he did not spend a lot of extra time or firm resources on IMB-related work. Grazian disagreed, testifying that this cost the firm resources but did not generate income for him or Volpe, and caused Bernstein’s fee income to drop dramatically. This was the basis for the breach of fiduciary duty claim.

The First did not accept Grazian’s argument. The standard for overturning the trial court was “the manifest weight of the evidence,” it noted — and much of the evidence is unclear because Bernstein and Grazian had sharply conflicting accounts of this situation. What evidence there is does not lead to a conclusion that Bernstein clearly breached his fiduciary duty, the court said. Thus, it could not find that the trial court’s finding on fiduciary duty was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Grazian had more luck with his argument that while quantum meruit was proper, it should have led to an award of nothing rather than of 10 percent of the attorney fees, because Bernstein provided no evidence required for recovery. Under caselaw including Hayes Mechanical, Inc. v. First Industrial, L.P., 351 Ill. App. 3d 1, 9 (2004), the burden is on Bernstein to show that he provided services of reasonable value to the defendants, and at least some evidence to prove that value. The First found that Bernstein had never provided any such evidence; testimony at trial showed that he did not do several major duties of an attorney, such as going to court, on those cases. In fact, he admitted that his fee generation dropped sharply. Having done “something” is not enough by itself to support a quantum meruit award, the First wrote. Therefore, it vacated the trial court’s 10 percent award to Bernstein.

Based in Chicago, Lubin Austermuehle represents clients throughout Illinois who are involved in high-stakes business disputes, including disputes between partners, shareholders or members of the same business. Because these disputes involve people who have worked closely together and have significant money at stake, our Illinois shareholder dispute attorneys find that they are often very contentious. We help our clients protect themselves and their businesses from illegal or improper behavior by partners and shareholders, and enforce their legal rights. We are proud of our strong record of positive results for clients who were facing adverse actions by business associates or the business itself. To learn more or tell our Elgin business dispute attorneys about your case, you can contact us through our website or call toll-free at 630-333-0333 today.

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