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Hill v. Gray

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 3, 2019

CYNTHIA S. HILL, et al., Plaintiff,
HON. VINCENT GRAY, et al., Defendant.



         Frederick 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 Coles' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Coles 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.

         Attorney 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.

         Two 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).)

         Coles 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.

         Although 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.

         Several 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.[1] (Coles Mot. to Enf. Charging Lien, Ex. D.) The parties did not respond.

         In 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).

         Several 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 Report.)


         “The 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.

         III. ...

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