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White v. McBride

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff probate attorney is seeking to enforce the contingency fee agreement made with his client before his death on the theory of quantum meruit.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The theory of quantum meruit may not be used to enforce a clearly excessive fee.

    Facts. Plaintiff, attorney White, made a contingency agreement with his client shortly before his death by which his fee would consist of one-third of the client’s statutory share of his wife’s estate-a total of $108,000. The probate court found that Plaintiff had devoted about 114 hours to this matter, and awarded him $12,500 using the Tennessee’s maximum allowable rate of $150/hour for probate work. Plaintiff now appeals, arguing that he is entitled to the full $108,000 (even if this was held to be excessive) under the theory of quantum meruit.

    Issue. May a clearly excessive fee by upheld under the theory of quantum meruit?

    Held. No. The court reversed previous cases holding that an excessive fee may be upheld in some circumstances and determined that an attorney charging a clearly excessive fee has forfeited his right to any fee.
    “An attorney who enters into a fee contract… that is clearly excessive [has committed] an ethical transgression of a most flagrant sort… [and should not be permitted] to fall back on the theory of quantum meruit when he unsuccessfully fails to collect a clearly excessive fee.”

    Discussion. These types of cases are rare, but attorneys should always remember the court’s right to examine lawyers’ fees based on their general power to regulate the profession.


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