Editor's note: This article has been revised and updated to include a statement issued by the firm of Romanucci & Blandin. The article has also been revised to clarify the relationship between the parties involved in the legal action and to remove language which could have been understood to indicate one of the Romanucci & Blandin firm's principals was involved in the action individually.
A state appeals court says law firm Romanucci & Blandin can’t necessarily use the Illinois frauds statute to escape a lawsuit brought by another lawyer who claimed their refusal to pay her $7,000 in fees violated a deal she had struck with one of the firm's clients to represent that client’s husband in court and be paid from funds the client would win in the settlement of a lawsuit being prosecuted by an attorney from the Romanucci & Blandin firm.
On Nov. 2, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court sent back to Cook County Circuit Court part of a dispute between the Romanucci & Blandin firm and lawyer Michelle Gonzalez.
The root issue is a breach of contract and detrimental lawsuit Gonzalez brought against Romanucci & Blandin LLC, as well as one of the firm’s attorney’s, Michael Holden. Gonzalez was representing a client in a criminal matter for an agreed upon $7,000, which she asserted was to come from the client’s wife’s settlement of a suit in which Holden represented her.
According to Gonzalez, she discussed the funds on a phone call with Holden, and although the suit was settled, the firm did not pay her from those proceeds. On March 24, 2015, a circuit court judge granted the firm’s motion to invalidate Gonzalez’s attorney lien. She filed her complaint April 9, 2017. Cook County Judge David Roti ultimately dismissed both claims and later denied Gonzalez’s motion to vacate the order.
On appeal, the First District justices determined Roti had erred.
Justice Thomas Hoffman authored the decision; Justices Mary Rochford and Shelvin Hall concurred. The decision was issued as an unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under very limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.
In his dismissal, Roti had agreed with the firm’s argument the Frauds Act bars Gonzalez’s breach of contract claim because Holden’s oral promise to facilitate the lien was “purely collateral” to her contract with her client, didn’t involve “new and independent consideration” and wasn’t a signed agreement. Holden insisted he only said his firm “would satisfy all valid and enforceable liens out of the proceeds,” and not that it would assume the cost of Gonzalez representing the client’s husband.
Hoffman explained how the Romanucci & Blandin motion to dismiss didn’t contest whether Gonzalez stated a cause of action or challenge her complaint based on obvious defects. Rather, since it pursued a statutory block, the firm “admitted the legal sufficiency” of Gonzalez’s complaint.
The panel said the key issue is whether Gonzalez held up her end of the deal by fully representing the husband. Determining she did just that, Hoffman explained, means the firm is precluded from using the Frauds Act as a means to nullify Gonzalez’s complaint.
“In so holding,” Hoffman wrote, “we make no factual determinations regarding the existence and enforceability of the alleged agreement, which are questions of fact to be decided by the trier of fact.”
As such, the panel reversed Roti’s dismissal and remanded the issue for further consideration.
However, Hoffman continued, the panel agreed that Roti was right to dismiss Gonzalez’s complaint of a claim based on detrimental reliance, which “is not a recognized cause of action under Illinois law.”
The panel said this distinction is “well established” and pointed to the 1993 Illinois Third District Appellate Court opinion in Jordan v. Civil Service Commission for establishing that precedent.
In response to the decision, the Romanucci & Blandin firm issued the following statement:
"Ms. Gonzalez attempted to assert an attorney’s lien that was not valid and was appropriately adjudicated by the trial court. Not being pleased with that result, Ms. Gonzalez filed a baseless lawsuit against our firm, Romanucci & Blandin LLC and one of our attorneys. At the trial court level, we filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, which was granted with prejudice. The appellate court felt that such dismissal was not appropriate on one issue, and remanded the matter. We will most certainly continue to assert a defense to this matter as Ms. Gonzalez’s lawsuit is without merit."