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Zegeye v. Liss

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

July 18, 2013

Etenat Zegeye, Appellant,
v.
Marvin Liss, Appellee.

Submitted April 23, 2013

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-4241-12) (Hon. John M. Mott, Trial Judge)

Etenat Zegeye pro se.

Robert M. Somer filed a brief for appellee. Before Beckwith and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

Ruiz, Senior Judge

On May 11, 2011, appellant Etenat Zegeye filed a request with the District of Columbia Bar Attorney-Client Arbitration Board to arbitrate a fee dispute between herself and her attorney, appellee Marvin Liss. Appellant sought $15, 000 for what she claimed was unjustified overbilling and appellee filed a counterclaim seeking $4, 000 in unpaid legal fees. On April 26, 2012, the arbitration panel denied both claims. Appellant filed a motion with the Superior Court to set aside the arbitral award; appellee moved to confirm the award. The trial court confirmed the award on August 22, 2012. We affirm the order of the Superior Court.

I.

On May 14, 2008, appellant and appellee entered into a "Retainer Agreement" pursuant to which appellee would represent appellant at an hourly fee of $325. Appellant made an initial payment of $7, 000.

Appellee filed a complaint in the Superior Court on behalf of appellant against contractors who caused damage to her home. On January 15, 2010, appellant accepted a settlement offer of $79, 000.[1] On March 17, 2010, appellee produced an invoice charging fees for professional services in the amount of $29, 323.35, less the initial $7, 000, for an amount due of $22, 322.35. An invoice in the record, however, includes a notation that the parties "agreed to a total bill of $18, 323.35, " and that appellee would issue a check to appellant for approximately $60, 676 from the settlement funds.[2] Appellant filed a complaint against appellee in Superior Court alleging "fraud, misrepresentation, concealment or non-disclosure, " as well as a disciplinary complaint with the Office of Bar Counsel. The Office of Bar Counsel found that appellant's allegations of disciplinary misconduct did not warrant a formal investigation, and that the essence of appellant's complaint is a fee dispute. Bar Counsel noted that such a dispute could be submitted to the District of Columbia Bar's Attorney-Client Arbitration Board if appellant wished. The dispute was submitted to the Arbitration Board, which rendered the award appellant seeks to set aside.

II.

It is well-established that judicial review of an arbitration award is extremely narrow. See A1 Team USA Holdings, LLC v. Bingham McCutchen LLP, 998 A.2d 320, 322 (D.C. 2010). The District of Columbia Arbitration Act limits the permissible grounds for vacating an arbitration award. D.C. Code § 16-4423 (2012);[3] Celtech, Inc. v. Broumand, 584 A.2d 1257, 1259 (D.C. 1991) ("An award may be vacated or modified only on grounds clearly specified by statute." (citation omitted)). "[C]ourts cannot set aside such awards for errors of law or fact made by the arbitrator." Shaff v. Skahill, 617 A.2d 960, 963 (D.C. 1992) (citation omitted). "With rare exceptions, an award will not be disturbed unless the arbitration panel is found to have ruled on matters beyond the scope of its authority or unless it appears that the panel manifestly disregarded the law." Dolton v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 935 A.2d 295, 298 (D.C. 2007) (internal quotation marks, ellipses and citations omitted). Appellant was made aware of these limitations. The Agreement to Arbitrate signed by appellant expressly provided that the arbitration award is "binding on both parties" and "that there is only a limited right of appeal in the District of Columbia Superior Court." A separate "Important Notice for Clients" also cautioned about the binding nature of arbitration and limited right of appeal, with specific references to the applicable provisions of the D.C. Code.

Appellant claims that appellee's invoice was "fraudulent" and contained false charges. Appellant also contends that the arbitration proceeding was unfair and that the arbitration award must be vacated because without a record of the hearing it was impossible for the Superior Court (or this court) to review the arbitration proceeding.

Appellant's argument that the arbitration award should be vacated because of the allegedly fraudulent invoice cannot meet the exacting standards that limit judicial review of arbitration awards. It is not our responsibility to address the merits of appellant's claim but to review whether the arbitrators were derelict in considering it. There is nothing so outrageous in the invoice to prove that it is entirely fraudulent or that the arbitrators "manifestly disregarded the law." Schwartz v. Chow, 867 A.2d 230, 233 (D.C. 2005) (citation omitted). Nor does appellant make that claim. Instead, appellant's brief takes issue with certain charges: a 2.25 hour meeting that she claims should not have been billed; four items totaling 2.2 hours that are listed as occurring before the retainer agreement was signed and, in some instances, before appellant met appellee; and phone calls that appellant says she would not have agreed to had she known she would be charged. These line items amount to nothing more than a fee dispute and do not necessarily amount to fraud, as Bar Counsel found. The Arbitration Board may have accounted for these alleged over-billings when it denied appellee's counterclaim for $4, 000. Moreover, the Arbitration Board was not required "to state the grounds" for its award. Id.

Similarly, appellant's argument that the arbitration proceedings were unfair does not shoulder the "heavy burden" of showing that the arbitration award should be set aside. Motor City Drive, L.L.C. v. Brennan Beer Gorman Monk Architects & Interiors, P.L.L.C., 890 A.2d 233, 237 (D.C. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). When the grounds concern the performance of the arbitrator, appellant "must show specific facts which indicate improper motives on the part of the arbitrator." Umana v. Swidler & Berlin, Chartered, 745 A.2d 334, 339-40 (D.C. 2000) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). We are ...


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