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Lawyer Ordered to Repay Legal Fees Collected During "Conflict of Interest"

Lawyers owe their clients a duty of loyalty and cannot act if their personal interests or interests of other clients create a conflict of interest.  Where a conflict of interest arises a lawyer needs to obtain informed consent from a client to continue acting or sometimes stop acting for the client altogether.  If a lawyer fails to do so he/she can be exposed to various consequences including the loss of their right to claim fees for services rendered.  Reasons for judgement were released last week by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, discussing this area of law.
In last week’s case (Campbell v. Ragona) the Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle collision in Hong Kong in 1992.  He hired a Vancouver lawfirm to prosecute his claim.  The Vancouver firm retained a Hong Kong firm to assist in the prosecution.  A trial was held on the issue of fault in 1998 and a Hong Kong judge found that the motorist who struck the Plaintiff’s vehicle was at fault for the crash.     The ‘damages‘ portion of the trial did not proceed in a  timely fashion.   In 2004, some 12 years after the crash, the at fault driver brought a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed for ‘want of prosectution’ and succeeded.  The Plaintiff appealed this dismissal.  Prior to having the appeal heard the Plaintiff settled his lawsuit on a compromised basis with the at fault motorist and waived his right to sue the Hong Kong lawfirm that acted on his behalf.
The Vancouver lawfirm continued to act for the Plaintiff during the settlement negotiations.  After the claim was settled the Plaintiff sued his Vancouver lawyer and lawfirm arguing that they were negligent and that they continued to act on his behalf despite a conflict of interest.  Mr. Justice Pearlman agreed with the Plaintiff and found that the Vancouver lawfirm should have insisted that the Plaintiff obtain independent legal advice after the Hong Kong lawsuit was dismissed for want of prosectuion.
Mr. Justice Pearlman went on to award the Plaintiff the difference between the realistic trial value of his personal injury  lawsuit and the settlement amount.  The Court went on to order that the Vancouver firm ‘discourge‘ the legal fees collected for representing the Plaintiff.  In making this order Mr. Justice Pearlman made the following comments about a lawyer continuing to act after a conflict of interest arises:

[563]     The rationale for the duty of loyalty, including the duty to avoid conflict, was explained by Wilson J.A. (as she then was) in Davey v. Woolley, Hames, Dale & Dingwall (1982), 35 O.R. (2d) 599 (C.A.) at 602:

The underlying premise … is that, human nature being what it is, the solicitor cannot give his exclusive, undivided attention to the interests of his client if he is torn between the client’s interests and his own or his client’s interests and those of another client to whom he owes the self-same duty of loyalty, dedication and good faith….

[565]     The codes of conduct published by both the British Columbia Law Society and the Canadian Bar Association contain provisions requiring the withdrawal of a lawyer if the lawyer’s continued employment would place the latter in a conflict of interest.  The Canadian Bar Association Code of Professional Conduct Rule XII Commentary 4(c) provides:

Obligatory Withdrawal

4. In some circumstances the lawyer will be under a duty to withdraw …:

(c) if it becomes clear that the lawyer’s continued employment will lead to a breach of these Rules such as, for example, a breach of the Rule relating to conflict of interest (Chapter V).

[566]     Similarly, the Law Society of British Columbia’s Annotated Professional Conduct Handbook, Chapter 10, s. 1 states:

Obligatory withdrawal

1. A lawyer is required to sever the solicitor-client relationship or withdraw as counsel if:

(d) the lawyer’s continued involvement will place the lawyer in a conflict of interest, …

[568] Mr. Ragona knew, at the very latest, on June 9, 2004 that there was the potential for a claim for professional negligence against him and his firm.  Mr. Ragona told Mr. Campbell that he could or should get independent legal advice when they met at the offices of AHBL on June 23, 2004.  At that time, the plaintiff indicated that he did not wish to obtain independent legal advice, and Mr. Ragona did not insist that he do so….

[574]     Independent legal advice at this point would probably also have ensured that if Mr. Campbell chose to continue with AHBL’s representation, he would do so on the basis of an informed waiver of the conflict of interest.

[575]     A client must have a full understanding of the nature of the conflict in order to make an effective waiver. This may require independent legal advice: Moffat v. Weinstein (1996), 135 B.L.R. (4th) 298 (Ont.Gen.Div.).

[576]     In some cases, nothing short of the lawyer ceasing to act for the client will suffice to avoid subsequent liability for the consequences of breach of fiduciary duty: Davey v. Woolley, Hames,Dale & Dingwall (1982), 35 O.R.(2d) 599 (C.A.), leave to appeal to SCC refused, 37 O.R.(2d) 499. In my view, given the nature of the conflict, and AHBL’s role in the loss of Mr. Campbell’s right to maintain his action in Hong  Kong, this was a case where AHBL ought  either to have informed the plaintiff that they could no longer act, or they should have insisted that that the plaintiff take independent legal advice, at their expense, before they settled his claim. If AHBL did not withdraw, then they were under a duty to insist that Mr. Campbell obtain independent legal advice: Re A Solicitor (1995), 14 B.C.L.R. (3d) 100 (C.A.).  Because Mr. Ragona continued to act for Mr. Campbell and did not insist upon the plaintiff obtaining independent legal advice, he and AHBL must bear the consequences of their breach of the fiduciary duty to avoid conflicts of interest.

[577]     The defendants are responsible for the consequences flowing from their breach of fiduciary duty.  The plaintiff bears the onus of proving a causal relationship between a breach of fiduciary duty and any loss for which he claims compensation.  Here, by the time of the breach of the duty to avoid conflict of interest, which occurred upon dismissal of the Hong Kong action for want of prosecution, Mr. Campbell had already suffered the loss resulting from inordinate delay in the prosecution of his action, for which he claims damages in contract and tort.

[578]     In Strother v. 3464920 Canada Inc., [2007] S.C.R. 177 at paras. 75 and 76, Justice Binnie held that the remedy of disgorgement may be ordered for either prophylactic or restitutionary purposes.  The prophylactic purpose is served by appropriating “for the benefit of a person to whom the fiduciary duty is owed any benefit or gain obtained or received by the fiduciary in circumstances where there existed a conflict of personal interest and fiduciary duty or a significant possibility of such conflict, the objective is to preclude the fiduciary from being swayed by considerations of personal interest.” Strother at para. 75, citing Chan v. Zacharia (1984), 154 C.L.R. 178 (Aust H.C.) per Deane J., at p.108.

[579] The prophylactic purpose of disgorgement is intended to teach fiduciaries that conflicts of interest do not pay.  The plaintiff is not required to prove a loss in order to recover a gain or benefit received by the fiduciary as a result of its breach of duty: Strother, at para.77.

[580] Subsequent to the dismissal of Mr. Campbell’s action for want of prosecution, Mr. Ragona, in breach of the fiduciary duty he owed to avoid conflict of interest, accepted the plaintiff’s offer of hourly remuneration for work performed on the file. He did so in order to benefit himself and his firm, at the plaintiff’s expense. The plaintiff is entitled to disgorgement of all fees or benefits received by Mr. Ragona and AHBL in consequence of this breach of their fiduciary duty to avoid conflict of interest  : Strother at para. 83.

[581] There will be an order that AHBL disgorge and pay to Mr. Campbell’s estate the sum of $84,391.86, representing the full amount of the fees charged by AHBL in their account rendered to Mr. Campbell dated December 29, 2004.

Special Costs Awarded for 'Reprehensible' Behaviour by Law Firm

In reasons for judgement released today (Chudy v. Merchant Law Group) the BC Court of Appeal upheld a trial judge’s award for special costs.
The Plaintiff was involved in a serious motor vehicle collision in 1995.  The Plaintiff hired a lawyer and ultimately a $860,000 settlement was reached.
A fee dispute arose after this settlement and litigation ensued.   At trial the Plaintiff’s were granted judgement in the sum of $300,404.17 against the law firm.  This award included a punitive damages award of $50,000 finding that the law firm acted in a ‘malicious, oppressive and high-handed‘ manner to their client.
The lawfirm appealed for various grounds.  In a split decision handed down several months ago, the BC Court of Appeal dismissed the major grounds of appeal but did reduce the over-all judgement by $27,413.58.
Today’s appeal provided supplemental reasons dealing with the narrow issue of whether the trial judge was correct in awarding special costs against the law firm.  In upholding the award, the Court of Appeal said the following with respect to the law of ‘special costs’ and to the behaviour of the Defendant Law Firm:

[6]                The trial judge discussed the claim for special costs at some length at paras. 216 to 261 of his reasons for judgment which are indexed as 2007 BCSC 279.  It is not disputed that he correctly stated the applicable law: 

[255]    In Garcia v. Cresbrook Industries Ltd. (1994), 9 B.C.L.R. (3d) 242 (C.A.) [Garcia], the Court of Appeal considered the type of conduct required for an award of special costs under the Rules of Court, B.C. Reg. 221/90.  After reviewing decided cases and the relationship of “special costs” to the concept of “solicitor-and-client costs”, Lambert J.A. (for the Court) stated at ¶ 17:

Having regard to the terminology adopted by Madam Justice McLachlin in Young v. Young, to the terminology adopted by Mr. Justice Cumming in Fullerton v. Matsqui, and to the application of the standard of “reprehensible conduct” by Chief Justice Esson in Leung v. Leung in awarding special costs in circumstances where he had explicitly found that the conduct in question was neither scandalous nor outrageous, but could only be categorized as one of the “milder forms of misconduct” which could simply be said to be “deserving of reproof or rebuke”, it is my opinion that the single standard for the awarding of special costs is that the conduct in question properly be categorized as “reprehensible”.  As Chief Justice Esson said in Leung v. Leung, the word reprehensible is a word of wide meaning.  It encompasses scandalous or outrageous conduct but it also encompasses milder forms of misconduct deserving of reproof or rebuke.  Accordingly, the standard represented by the word reprehensible, taken in that sense, must represent a general and all encompassing expression of the applicable standard for the award of special costs.

[7]                Davies J. stated his conclusion on the costs issue thus: 

[257]    I am satisfied that the conduct of the Merchant Law Group in this case was reprehensible within the meaning attributed in Garcia.  The conduct and actions of the Merchant Law Group would be deserving of rebuke in an ordinary commercial transaction.  In the context of litigation involving its own clients and the integrity which the Court and the public are entitled to expect from those who are privileged to be members of the legal profession, it was both outrageous and scandalous.

[258]    I order that the plaintiffs recover special costs from the Merchant Law Group from the commencement of this litigation and throughout, including all costs related to the third party proceedings brought against Mr. Shaw.  Those proceedings were, in my view, not only devoid of evidentiary substance but also unnecessarily added to the length of these proceedings.

[259]    Any costs that were paid to the plaintiffs pursuant to previous orders of the Court shall, of course, be deductible from the award of special costs.

[8]                Before stating the above conclusion, the judge described the conduct of the appellant law firm.  In the court’s view, the bad conduct began with a pre-litigation letter from Mr. Merchant to the Law Society of British Columbia dated 2 December 2003 in which he falsely claimed for the appellant a solicitor’s lien on the Chudy file.  He also prepared a fictitious fee account to the Chudys.  This “foreshadowed the way in which the Merchant Law Group was prepared to defend against the plaintiffs’ claims” (para. 251).  In our opinion, this did not amount to a colouration of the judge’s assessment of litigation conduct.  It was properly seen as an attempt by the appellant to put a chill on the appellant’s unsophisticated former clients.  This conduct was not a factor in the assessment of punitive damages.  Rather, the award of punitive damages was based on an earlier breach of fiduciary duty.  In these circumstances, an improper attempt by a legal professional to discourage a claim against that professional, although done before commencement of the action, is properly taken into account when considering litigation conduct.  The trial judge’s conclusion at para. 225 that Mr. Merchant’s evidence about the draft account and an accompanying letter to the respondents “was a disingenuous attempt to cover up the fact that he did not want the plaintiffs to have the file and that he was prepared to go to unethical lengths to avoid delivering it to them” is unassailable.  It was bad enough that Mr. Merchant improperly claimed the lien.  But he exacerbated that conduct by offering an explanation at trial that was contrived.  That was litigation conduct properly considered on the claim for special costs. 

[9]                The appellant has not demonstrated error on the part of the trial judge in his conclusion that the conduct of the appellant during this litigation, both pre-trial and during the trial, was reprehensible as that term is used in Garcia.  The evidence abundantly supports the conclusion.  The appellant brought pre-trial motions that were without merit; it brought a specious application, based in part on false evidence, challenging the jurisdiction of the court to try the matter; it avoided a peremptory trial date by adding Mr. Shaw as a third party but did not require him to file a defence, did not examine him for discovery, did not cross examine him at trial with respect to its allegations against him, and in a lengthy written submission at the end of the trial, did not refer to its claim over against Mr. Shaw (the trial judge tersely dismissed the third party claim); it brought a motion (returnable on the date scheduled for the hearing of a R. 18A application for a summary trial brought by the respondents) for removal of the respondents’ counsel on ridiculous grounds, a tactic which the trial judge at para. 236 stated, with the benefit of his unique perspective of the appellant’s entire conduct, “was not only without merit but was calculated to prevent the Rule 18A application from proceeding as ordered”; on the hearing of the respondents’ R. 18A motion, Mr. Merchant produced a large number of documents, not previously disclosed and not sworn to, in support of his position that the action could not be determined on a summary basis; and, finally but of most significance, Mr. Merchant offered evidence at trial that the trial judge determined was false and misleading.

[10]            As to the final point, the respondents refer to Brown v. Lowe, 2002 BCCA 7, in which Southin J.A. said (at para. 149):  “To give false evidence relating to the matters in question at any stage of the proceedings is a grave matter.  By “false”, I do not mean “erroneous”; I mean knowingly untrue.”  The falsity of Mr. Merchant’s evidence is commented on by the trial judge at several points in his judgment and is referenced by the majority judgment in this court.  There is no need to particularize it here.

[11]            The evidence as a whole clearly supports the conclusion of the trial judge that the legal basis for the awarding of special costs was established in this case.