United States District Court, District of Columbia
CYNTHIA S. HILL, et al., Plaintiff,
HON. VINCENT GRAY, et al., Defendant.
S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Coles, III has filed a motion to enforce an attorney's
charging lien against Plaintiff Cynthia S. Hill. (ECF No. 84,
Coles Mot. to Enf. Charging Lien.) Coles withdrew as counsel
for Hill before she reached a settlement with the District of
Columbia and subsequently demanded attorney's fees from
her. For the reasons set forth below, the court will DENY
was retained by Hill, a former public-school teacher, and
four other plaintiffs in January 2015 to represent them in an
age discrimination action against the District of Columbia.
The case stemmed from the dismissal of Hill and her
co-plaintiffs-all over forty years old-as part of the
District of Columbia Public Schools 2009 Reduction-in-Force
(“RIF”). The RIF occurred before Hill was
entitled to collect her full pension.
John Mercer represented Hill for several years while she
exhausted her administrative remedies and ultimately filed
the Complaint in this case in January 2013. Mercer continued
to represent Hill as she filed an Amended Complaint and
successfully opposed Defendants' motion to dismiss.
years later, in January 2015, Hill and her remaining
co-plaintiffs retained Coles as replacement counsel, after
Mercer withdrew for health reasons. At that time, Hill paid
Coles a $6, 000 retainer and agreed to a one-third contingent
fee of any cash settlement or judgment collected. (Coles Mot.
to Enf. Charging Lien, Ex. A, Fee Agreement ¶ 1(a).)
represented Hill and the other plaintiffs until early March
2017, during which time he conducted discovery, but did not
file or defend any dispositive motions. On March 6, 2017,
Hill and the District of Columbia entered into mediation
before Magistrate Judge Harvey. During mediation discussions,
a dispute arose between Coles and Hill that led Coles to
orally move to withdraw as to Hill during a March 13, 2017
status hearing before this court.
Coles continued to represent the remaining plaintiffs, this
court granted his motion to withdraw as to Hill. In reaching
its decision, the court noted that Judge Harvey had indicated
he viewed the dispute between Coles and Hill as a conflict
and understood the need for the withdrawal. (ECF No. 83,
3/13/17 Tr. at 3.) The court subsequently appointed Justin
Guilder as pro bono counsel for Hill on May 5, 2017.
weeks later, Coles sent Guilder and counsel for the District
a letter providing formal notification that he was entitled
to perfect an attorney's lien and asking that the
recipients “countersign this letter thereby
acknowledging that [they] will protect the lien.”
(Coles Mot. to Enf. Charging Lien, Ex. C.) When neither party
responded, Coles re-sent a nearly identical letter on July
25, 2017, this time copying Judge Harvey by
email. (Coles Mot. to Enf. Charging Lien, Ex. D.)
The parties did not respond.
September and October 2017, Hill and Coles exchanged emails
about a possible settlement with respect to the
attorney's lien issue, but failed to reach an agreement.
(See ECF No. 85, Hill Opp. to Mot. to Enf. Charging
Lien, Ex. 3.) Guilder continued to represent Hill during
mediation and, on December 22, 2017, Coles filed the
attorney's lien motion, “seeking one third of the
amount of the lump sum payment/deposit by the District into
the Teachers [sic] Retirement Account on behalf of Plaintiff
Hill” minus the $6, 000 retainer fee. (Coles Mot. to
Enf. Charging Lien, Coles Decl. ¶ 12.) Guilder filed a
response on behalf of Hill opposing the motion. (Hill Opp. to
Mot. to Enf. Charging Lien).
months later, during a June 19, 2018 mediation, the District
of Columbia agreed to pay Hill a $140, 000 settlement and the
District of Columbia deposited one third of that settlement,
$46, 666, in the court's registry to pay the lien should
the court grant Coles' motion. (See ECF Nos. 93,
94; 12/6/18 ECF entry.) On November 19, 2018, this court
ordered Coles and Hill to file a joint status report updating
the court regarding any negotiations over the attorney's
fee issue. (10/18/19 Min. Order.) Guilder notified the court,
on Hill's behalf, that she was willing to mediate the
matter, but Coles refused. (ECF No. 95, 11/02/18 Joint Status
existence and effect of an attorney's lien is governed by
the law of the place in which the contract between the
attorney and client is to be performed.” Peterson
v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 220 F.Supp.3d 98, 104
(D.D.C. 2016) (citing 7 Am. Jur. 2d Attorneys at Law
§ 351 (1980)). Because Coles performed legal services on
Hill's behalf in the District of Columbia, the law of
that jurisdiction governs this dispute.