In Brault Graham, LLC v. Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, P.C., __ Md.App. ___ (2013), the Court of Special Appeals reiterated that a client has the inherent right to discharge his or her personal injury attorney at any time. First Union National Bank of Maryland v. Meyer, Faller, Weisman & Rosenberg, P.C. 125 Md.App. 1, 9 (1999) (a “client may discharge an attorney at any time”); Skeens v. Miller 331 Md. 331, 335 (1993) (“The client’s power to discharge the attorney is an implied term of the retainer contract”).
Whether a discharged attorney is entitled to zero or some compensation depends upon the reason for discharge.
A. DISCHARGED FOR CAUSE
When a personal injury attorney is discharged for serious misconduct, the discharged attorney is not entitled to any compensation. Somuah v. Flachs 352 Md.App. 241, 264 (1998). For example, abandoning a client, which is typically manifested by not returning phone calls, constitutes serious misconduct. Rule 1.4 of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct; Scamardella v. Illiano 126 Md.App. 76, 95 (1999) (“If the attorney is discharged for cause in a situation in which the attorney commits serious misconduct, he will receive no compensation”).
B. DISCHARGED FOR A GOOD FAITH REASON
When a personal injury is discharged for a good faith reason, then the discharged attorney has a claim for part of the eventual recovery based upon quantum meruit. The Brault Graham decision exemplifies when a client has a good faith reason to discharge the original personal injury attorney. The client had retained the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos in a medical malpractice case. When the assigned attorney left the Angelos’ law firm, the client terminated his relationship with Peter Angelos’ firm and hired the attorney who had been working on his case for many years.
“[W]here a client has a good faith basis to terminate the attorney-client relationship but there is no serious misconduct warranting forfeiture of any fee, the attorney is entitled to compensation based on the reasonable value of services rendered prior to discharge, considering as factors the reasonable value of the benefits the client obtained as a result of the services rendered prior to discharge and the nature and gravity of the cause that led to the attorney’s discharge”. Somuah v. Flachs 352 Md.App. 241, 258 (1998).
After the client receives a recovery in the personal injury case via settlement or judgment, the court will determine how much the discharged attorney should receive based upon the reasonable value of the legal services that had been rendered. This quantum meruit recovery cannot exceed the original contingency fee. First Union National Bank of Maryland v. Meyer, Faller, Weisman & Rosenberg, P.C. 125 Md.App. 1, 24 (1999).
C. DISCHARGED IN THE ABSENCE OF GOOD FAITH REASON
When a client discharges an attorney in the absence of a good faith reason, the attorney is immediately entitled to recover the reasonable value of his legal services from the former client. Skeens v. Miller 331 Md. 331, 343-44 (1993) (“we hold that, where an attorney has been discharged without cause, the attorney’s claim in quantum meruit accrues immediately upon discharge, notwithstanding the fact that the contingency has not occurred).
Practice pointer for clients: When you terminate your personal injury attorney, you should always express why you have a valid, good faith reason for your discharge decision.