DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/08/95 TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JERRY G. MASON COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: LEE COUNTY CHANCERY COURT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pittman, Presiding Justice, For The Court:
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - CONTRACT
MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED:
¶1. This case involves a dispute over the apportionment of attorney's fees arising from the wrongful death suit of Mark Moreland. This is actually the fourth time these parties have carried their ongoing dispute before this Court. Riley v. Moreland, 537 So. 2d 1348 (Miss. 1989) (Moreland III); Moreland v. Riley, 537 So. 2d 1345 (Miss. 1989) (Moreland II); Moreland v. Moreland, 537 So .2d 1337 (Miss. 1989) (Moreland I). The current dispute arises from a fee dispute between the attorneys for Mittie Moreland, specifically Rhett Russell and Ralph Pogue ("Russell et al."), and the attorneys for Jane Moreland Riley, specifically Joey Langston and Wendell Trapp ("Langston et al.").
¶2. The procedural history of this case is quite complex, and is covered thoroughly in the facts below (taken from Moreland I), but it is necessary to briefly outline the progress of the case in order to understand the current dispute. Mark Moreland died in a helicopter crash in Alabama. Mittie Moreland was Mark Moreland's mother and the original administratrix of the estate of her deceased son. Mittie was in the process of suing on behalf of the estate for Mark's wrongful death when she was dismissed and replaced as administratrix by Jane Riley, the ex-wife of Mark Moreland and guardian of his only son, Nick Moreland. Mittie had entered into a contingent fee agreement with Rhett Russell who associated Ralph Pogue ("the Moreland/Russell contract"). Jane Riley entered into a similar agreement with Langston et al. Russell/Pogue originally associated a law firm in Alabama. Subsequently, Langston et al. associated with the same Alabama firm.
¶3. The litigation in Alabama eventually obtained a large judgment in the wrongful death case of Mark Moreland. Through the Alabama firms's agreement with Langston et al., it took 45 percent of the attorneys' fee, leaving about $316,000 to be divided in some proportion among the Mississippi attorneys. Rhett Russell and his associate Ralph Pogue claimed that they were entitled to the entire amount, because they originally associated the Alabama attorneys, and because they had a valid contingency fee agreement with the original administratrix of the estate, Mittie Moreland.
¶4. Alternately, Langston et al. maintained that Russell et al. were entitled to only a small part of the fee, or a quantum meruit recovery of expenses under this Court's holding in Moreland III.
¶5. The question came before a Special Chancellor below, who found that Russell et al. had failed to prove that they were entitled to any fee for work performed on the Moreland wrongful death case. The Chancellor thus awarded the entire fee to Langston et al.
¶6. The basis for the chancellor's holding was that Russell et al. had not put on evidence sufficient to prove a fee, but instead had relied solely on the proposition that, under their fee contract with Mittie Moreland, they were entitled to no less than 60 percent of the Mississippi portion of the fees. The chancellor found that the 60 percent fee requested was unreasonable, and that the chancellor was without sufficient evidence to award an in quantum meruit fee or recovery and awarded Russell et al. no fee at all. Aggrieved by the chancellor's decision, Ms. Mittie Moreland appeals the denial of fees to her attorneys, Russell et al., presenting the Court with the following issues:
I. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN REFUSING TO AWARD ANY FEES TO RHETT RUSSELL AND RALPH POGUE FOR THEIR WORK IN CONNECTION WITH THE WRONGFUL DEATH SUIT OF MARK MORELAND.
II. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN REFUSING TO PERMIT THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE AMOUNT OF FEES RETAINED BY MR. LANGSTON AND WENDELL TRAPP FOR SIMILAR SERVICES.
III. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN FINDING THAT THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE UPON WHICH TO BASE AN AWARD OF ATTORNEYS' FEES.
IV. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN MISINTERPRETING AND MISCONSTRUING THE OBITER DICTA OF THIS COURT BY LIMITING THE AWARD TO RUSSELL AND POGUE TO THE REASONABLE EXPENSES.
V. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN FAILING TO ADVISE COUNSEL FOR THE PARTIES THAT THE CHANCELLOR DID NOT FEEL THAT HE HAD SUFFICIENT INFORMATION UPON WHICH TO BASE AN AWARD TO RUSSELL AND POGUE.
¶7. The facts and procedural history of this case stretch back to 1986 and span three separate appeals to this Court. The primary facts of this case were stated by this Court in Moreland I:
Mark Moreland departed this life on June 2, 1986, as a result of a helicopter crash in the State of Alabama. At the time of his death he was a resident of Hinds County, Mississippi. Surviving him was the sole heir of his estate, Stefan Nicklous Moreland (hereinafter "Nick"), a minor child. Nick resided with his mother, Jane Moreland, in Lee County, Mississippi, pursuant to a child custody arrangement resulting from the previous divorce of Mark and Jane Moreland. The appellant in this case, Mittie Moreland, is the mother of the decedent, Mark Moreland, and she also resides in Lee County, Mississippi.
On June 11, 1986, Mittie Moreland filed a Petition for Appointment as Administratrix of Mark Moreland's estate. This petition, filed in Hinds County Chancery Court, also asked for Letters of Administration and for authority to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of the estate of Mark Moreland. That same day, a decree was entered by the Hinds County Chancery Court appointing Mittie Moreland as Administratrix of the Estate of Mark Moreland, and authorizing her to sue on behalf of the estate. A proper oath was taken, and Letters of Administration were issued to Mittie Moreland. On that same day, the original wrongful death complaint was filed in Lee County Circuit Court.
On June 12, 1986, a petition was filed by Mittie Moreland in Hinds County Chancery Court seeking the specific authority to file a wrongful death claim on behalf of Mark Moreland's estate, and on behalf of the minor child. On that same day, a decree granting the above requested authority was filed by the Hinds County Chancery Court. On the 12th, Mittie Moreland filed an amended complaint for wrongful death in Lee County Circuit Court. Some time proximate thereto, Jane Moreland received second-hand notice of ...