Appellate court affirms Cook County ruling over attorneys fees sought by firm of lawmaker and former judge

By Andrew Thomason | Oct 23, 2013

An appeals panel has upheld a Cook County judge’s decision to award the law firm of a retired judge and a state lawmaker only a fraction of the attorney’s fees and costs it sought from a former client.

In an unpublished order filed on Oct. 21, a panel of the First District Appellate Court affirmed the ruling of Cook County Judge Susan Zwick to give attorneys Llwellyn Green Thapedi and Andre Thapedi $78,864.36 in attorney’s fees and costs for their work on a case despite being fired by the former client.

Llwellyn Green Thapedi is a retired Cook County Circuit Judge and her son, Andrea Thapedi, is a state representative in the Illinois General Assembly. They make up the firm Thapedi & Thapedi.

The Thapedis argued in their appeal that they should have been awarded the full amount they sought, which was about $600,000. Their former client, Pamela Cooper, argued in a cross-appeal that the Thapedis should receive nothing for their work on her case.

Cooper hired Thapedi & Thapedi on a contingency fee basis after a wrought iron gate fell and killed her three-year old son at a Chicago Housing Authority project.

The Thapedis filed a standard premises liability suit against the housing authority and its management company, which was eventually mediated before a judge. The Thapedis asked for $22 million, but the defendant only offered $800,000.

Cooper fired the Thapedis after mediation, and hired Chicago personal injury lawyer Donald Shapiro.

Shapiro then asked the Thapedis for their case file regarding Cooper, which they refused to turn over, claiming a lien on the file for $597,068.75 in unpaid fees and other unpaid costs, according to court documents.

The Thapedis turned the file over 10 months after the request following judicial intervention, motion practice and a court order.

Shapiro eventually settled the case for $2 million. Shapiro’s contingency fee was 33 percent of the $2 million, or $666,666.66.

The Thapedis’ fee petition eventually turned into a lengthy evidentiary hearing. An expert witness for Cooper testified that the Thapedis overly complicated what should have been a simple wrongful death case, leading to the large amount of time they spent on the case.

“Although the fee petition sought compensation for scores of interviews of witnesses, research, and the like, Shapiro discovered the file was virtually bereft of any notes of such interviews, research, or written work product,” Justice Mathias Delort wrote in the appeals panel ruling.

Delort was joined on the panel by Justices Thomas Hoffman and Joy Cunningham.

Despite finding that large parts of the petition were either false or exaggerated, the lower court awarded the Thapedis $75,000, based on $250 per hour for 300 hours of work. The Thapedis were paid out of the $2 million settlement Shapiro negotiated for Cooper’s son’s wrongful death.

The Thapedis’ claimed in their appeal that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Cooper to file an unverified answer to a verified petition; prohibiting the Thapedis from conducting limited discovery in preparation for an evidentiary hearing; and imposing arbitrary ceilings for billable hours of word and cutting their hourly rates.

They also claimed the lower court erred by denying them due process by entering ex parte orders without notice of the proceeding; failing to properly scrutinize the contingency fee contract before distributing settlement funds; and denying them a fair hearing and just disposition resulting from the previous allegations.

The appeals court dismissed the Thapedis’ arguments in their appeal.

Delort wrote in the order that the “trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the Thapedis $75,000 in quantum meruit compensation. The trial court property considered the reasonableness of the Thapedis’ fee petition by evaluating the amount of time and labor expended, the difficulty of the issues, the fee customarily charged in the community, the results obtained, and the Thapedis’ reputation, experience and skill level.”

Cooper claimed in her cross-appeal that the Thapedis should not get any compensation for their work on her case because they engaged in unethical conduct, both while they represented her and after she fired them.

Cooper sites evidence that the Thapedis’ fee petition was based on an inflated account of the time they worked on the case and their failure to turn over the case file to her new attorney, Shapiro, for months in her cross-appeal.

“While the evidence clearly supports the trial court’s finding that the Thapedis’ conduct was rife with gross incompetence and lack of professionalism, their attorney-client relationship was not itself so grounded in an unethical contract that they should forfeit all rights to compensation,” Delort wrote.

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