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Miller v. Maurer

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 7, 2019

JOSEPHINE S. MILLER
v.
ELISABETH MAURER ET AL.

          Argued January 9, 2019

         Action for interpleader to determine the rights of the parties to certain settlement funds, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Danbury and tried to the court, Truglia, J.; judgment ordering distribution of the funds, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Appeal dismissed in part; affirmed.

          Josephine S. Miller, self-represented, the appellant (plaintiff).

          Elisabeth Seieroe Maurer, self-represented, the appellee (defendant).

          OPINION

          ELGO, J.

         In this interpleader action, the plaintiff, Attorney Josephine S. Miller, appeals from the judgment of the trial court distributing the proceeds of a legal settlement between the plaintiff, the plaintiff's client, the defendant Lori Rodriguez, and Rodriguez' former legal counsel, the defendant Attorney Elisabeth Maurer.[1] On appeal, the plaintiff challenges (1) the court's finding that she was entitled to 15 percent of the settlement proceeds and (2) the court's determinations with respect to Maurer's entitlement to a portion of those proceeds. We dismiss the plaintiff's second claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and affirm the judgment of the trial court in all other respects.

         As the court found in its oral decision, [2] Rodriguez entered into a valid retainer agreement in 2005 with Maurer's law firm, Maurer & Associates, PC (law firm), which agreed to represent Rodriguez in connection with a sexual harassment complaint against her employer, the Bridgeport Housing Authority, and other defendants. Pursuant to the retainer agreement, Rodriguez agreed to pay the law firm a ‘‘contingency fee . . . of one third of any recovery'' from that action, plus costs.

         The court also found that the law firm commenced a federal action on Rodriguez' behalf, ‘‘diligently and professionally represented Rodriguez in her claims against all defendants in that action, '' and ‘‘added good value to Rodriguez' claims by, among other things, commencing the action, successfully defending an early motion to dismiss and diligently prosecuting and responding to discovery requests in that action, including compiling and indexing Rodriguez' . . . medical records in support of her claims.'' The court further found ‘‘no evidence of misconduct or professional negligence by anyone in the [law firm] or in its handling'' of the action.

         While that action was pending, Rodriguez discharged the law firm in December, 2012, and retained the plaintiff to represent her in that action. In releasing Rodriguez' file to the plaintiff, the law firm claimed a lien thereon. By letter dated January 10, 2013, Maurer notified the plaintiff that the law firm had expended significant resources on Rodriguez' behalf and, thus, was asserting a ‘‘lien against the file unless adequate protection of its interest in the case is provided in the form of a letter from you stating that you will hold settlement proceeds in escrow pending resolution of the fee dispute.''

         Rodriguez subsequently agreed to settle her claims against the Bridgeport Housing Authority and received a payment of $128, 151.89 in exchange for the withdrawal of her claims. Upon receipt of those funds, the plaintiff disbursed $27, 329 to Rodriguez and $4822 to herself; she later deposited the remaining $96, 000 with the clerk of the Danbury Superior Court. This interpleader action followed to determine the proper distribution of the settlement proceeds.

         In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged in relevant part that ‘‘there exists a genuine dispute regarding ownership of the $96, 000 being held'' by the court because Maurer ‘‘has claimed a lien of $96, 000 for work done on the case . . . .'' Pursuant to General Statutes § 52-484, [3] the plaintiff therefore requested a judicial determination as to the amount ‘‘rightfully owned by each party.'' The defendants filed their respective answers and all three parties thereafter filed a statement of claim. The plaintiff claimed ‘‘a one-third share of the funds now held by the court, based upon the retainer agreement [she] had with [Rodriguez].'' Rodriguez, by contrast, claimed that she was entitled to ‘‘all the monies awarded to [her] from the Bridgeport Housing Authority except for the 15 [percent] owed to'' the plaintiff pursuant to their fee agreement. In her statement of claim, Maurer requested a ‘‘proportionate share of the contingency fee (i.e. $42, 290.12) based on hours invested, '' in addition to ‘‘[out-of-pocket] expenses of $29, 922.92.''

         A two day court trial was held in July, 2017, at which the plaintiff, Rodriguez, Maurer, and Christopher Avcollie, an attorney with the law firm, testified. Following closing arguments, the court delivered its decision from the bench. With respect to the plaintiff, the court found that she had agreed to a 15 percent fee for any recovery received by Rodriguez and thus concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to ‘‘15 percent of the gross amount recovered, '' which ‘‘equals $19, 222.78.'' Because the plaintiff already had received $4822 in settlement proceeds, the court held that she was ‘‘entitled to an additional $14, 400.78.''[4] With respect to Maurer, the court found that her law firm was ‘‘entitled to an equitable attorney's charging lien on the settlement proceeds'' and ‘‘reasonable compensation for its services rendered'' in the amount of $23, 067.34, as well as $20, 632 in costs. As a final matter, the court concluded that ‘‘[t]he balance of $37, 899.88 is to be distributed to [Rodriguez].'' From that judgment, the plaintiff now appeals.[5]

         I

         We first address the plaintiff's claim that the court improperly determined that she was entitled to 15 percent ...


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