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In re Estate of Burford

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

April 16, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF LEE HOUSE BURFORD, DECEASED: GINGER RICHARDS AND KIMBERLY ARCHER, AS CO-MANAGERS OF THE BLACKBURN FIRM LLC APPELLANTS
v.
WALTER WENDELL FREEMAN, EXECUTOR APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/06/2017

          TATE COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. VICKI B. DANIELS JUDGE:

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: HARRIS H. BARNES III JAMES WILLIAMS JANOUSH S. GRAY EDMONSON

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: JOHN THOMAS LAMAR III TAYLOR ALLISON HECK

          BEFORE J. WILSON, P.J., GREENLEE AND McCARTY, JJ.

          McCARTY, J.

         ¶1. This case concerns an employment contract between an attorney and his client. We must decide whether the chancery court erred by cancelling the contract due to the attorney's death and ordering compensation for the attorney's firm on a quantum meruit basis. Finding no error, we affirm.

         FACTS

         ¶2. In 2008, Lee House Burford entered into an employment contract with Barry C.

         Blackburn for legal services. The contract stated as follows:

THIS AGREEMENT, made this 4th day of June, 2008, at Olive Branch, Mississippi, by and between LEE HOUSE BURFORD, hereinafter referred to as "Client," and BARRY C. BLACKBURN of THE BLACKBURN LAW FIRM, PLLC, hereinafter referred to as "Attorney."
Client retains Attorney to represent him as his Attorney at law in connection with his estate plan and the administration of his estate, including but not limited to preparation of estate planning documents, consultations, updates/revisions, and the formal administration of his estate upon his demise including assistance with Client's revocable living trust. Therefore, Client and Attorney have agreed that Attorney shall receive a fee of Two Hundred and Sixty-Five Thousand Dollars ($265, 000.00) for his services rendered from his estate upon his demise. Further, client empowers him to institute all legal action as may be advisable in his judgment.

         ¶3. Additionally, both Burford and Blackburn agreed that the contract "shall bind their estates, successors and assigns, whether so expressed or not, and shall inure to the benefit of the successors and assigns of Client and Attorney." The contract also contained a clause that entitled Blackburn to reasonable attorney's fees if he had to file suit to collect his fees owed under the contract. The contract was signed by both parties and notarized.

         ¶4. About six years after the contract was signed, Blackburn passed away. Prior to his death, Blackburn had conveyed the Blackburn Law Firm (BLF) into a revocable living trust. Ginger Richards and Kimberly Archer, the managers of BLF and executors of Blackburn's estate, established an account on behalf of BLF to collect money owed and pay outstanding debts. The managers also changed the name of BLF to The Blackburn Firm LLC (the Firm). Archer stated that Jason Bailey, a local attorney, helped her and Richards file the petition to probate Blackburn's estate.[1] The record includes the order accepting Blackburn's will for probate and granting letters testamentary. Bailey prepared and submitted the order. Blackburn's will also contained a clause requesting that his executors hire Bailey to administer Blackburn's estate. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Burford cancelled or rescinded the contract for services-a fact that the attorney for Burford's estate conceded during oral argument.

         ¶5. Burford died in February 2015. On behalf of Walter Freeman, the executor of Burford's will, Bailey filed a probate petition in the Tate County Chancery Court.[2] The managers subsequently filed a probate claim against Burford's estate for the contracted sum of $265, 000. Freeman objected to the claim. In their response to Freeman's objection, the managers conceded that Blackburn did not handle the formal administration of Burford's estate and that a reduction in the amount owed to Blackburn would be appropriate based upon the costs associated with probating Burford's estate.

         ¶6. After a hearing, the chancery court found that the contract between Burford and Blackburn was cancelled due to the impossibility of performance, i.e., Blackburn's death. The chancery court ruled that "Blackburn's duties under the contract were clearly spelled out and he was unable to come close to performing those duties due to his death." The chancery court concluded that the Firm was entitled to collect fees from Burford's estate on a quantum meruit basis. During the hearing, Archer had produced two documents listing the scheduled meetings and the list of estate-planning documents drafted for Burford. Based upon these documents, the chancery court found that Blackburn had documented performing thirty-six hours of work for Burford prior to Blackburn's death. The chancery court then determined that a $250 per-hour fee was reasonable for the work performed and awarded the Firm $9, 000.

         ¶7. The Firm now appeals, arguing several issues that we have condensed as follows: (1) the contract was valid and should be enforced as written; (2) even if quantum meruit was the proper basis, then the amount awarded should be based on the amount stated in the contract; and (3) attorney's fees should have been awarded according to the contract.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8. This Court will not disturb a chancery court's findings of fact unless they are manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous or unless the chancellor applied an erroneous legal standard. Ainsworth v. Ainsworth, 139 So.3d 761, 762 (¶3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). However, we review a chancellor's conclusions of law de novo. Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So.3d 274, 285 (ΒΆ26) (Miss. 2009). Questions involving the construction and interpretation of contracts are ...


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