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Harris v. Capell & Howard, P.C.

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

January 11, 2019

Napoleon Harris
Capell & Howard, P.C.

          Appeal from Lee Circuit Court (CV-14-900387)

          PER CURIAM

         In July 2014, siblings Napoleon Harris, Tiffany Harris, and Robin Harris (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the siblings") filed a complaint in the Lee Circuit Court ("the trial court") contesting the validity of the will of their uncle, Robert Lee Harris ("the will contest"). Robert T. Meadows and R. Faith Perdue, attorneys with the law firm of Capell & Howard, P.C., represented the siblings in the will contest. After significant litigation and one failed settlement, the will contest was concluded in February 2017 by a settlement whereby, among other things not pertinent to this appeal, Robert's estate paid the siblings $170, 000. No appeal was taken from the February 2017 judgment incorporating the settlement.

         In July 2017, Meadows filed a "Motion to Schedule a Hearing to Determine a Reasonable Attorney Fee and to Divide the Remaining Settlement Funds." In that motion, Meadows alleged that, as required by the settlement agreement, Robert's estate had paid the $170, 000 by check made out to the siblings and Capell & Howard jointly; that a dispute had arisen between the siblings and Meadows relating to the fee due to Capell & Howard for its representation of the siblings in the will contest; and that the siblings could not agree among themselves regarding the division of the proceeds of the will contest. The trial court set the motion for a hearing, which was continued at least twice at Napoleon's request.

         The trial court held a hearing on Meadows's motion on November 9, 2017. At that hearing, the parties presented their respective arguments regarding the trial court's jurisdiction over Meadows's motion. The trial court ordered the parties to present written briefs on the jurisdiction issue. Napoleon filed his opposition to Meadows's motion, arguing in that opposition that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to decide the attorney-fee dispute. Specifically, Napoleon contended that Meadows's motion was not a timely filed postjudgment motion under Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., and that, although the trial court, in the February 2017 judgment, had "retain[ed] jurisdiction to issue any additional orders needed for the finalization of this matter," the fee dispute and the division of the proceeds among the siblings were not items over which the trial court could retain jurisdiction because they were not issues before the trial court in the will contest. In response to Napoleon's opposition, Meadows argued that the trial court's reservation of jurisdiction provided it with the power to decide the fee dispute and the proper division of the settlement funds and that it also had such authority pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6), Ala. R. Civ. P. Meadows also contended that, even if he should have filed an independent action under Rule 60(b), as opposed to a motion, the trial court could choose to treat the motion as an independent action. See, e.g., Robinson v. Kato, 944 So.2d 965, 967 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006) (quoting Committee Comments on 1973 Adoption of Rule 60 and explaining that "'courts have consistently treated a proceeding in form an independent action as if it were a motion, and vice versa, where one but not the other was technically appropriate, and any procedural difference between them was immaterial in the case'").

         On April 13, 2018, the trial court entered a judgment awarding Capell & Howard $54, 158 in attorney fees and dividing the remainder of the $170, 000 settlement funds among the siblings. In its judgment, the trial court stated that it had retained jurisdiction to address the issues in Meadows's motion. Napoleon timely filed a postjudgment motion, in which he again contended that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Meadows's motion and also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the attorney-fee award. After the trial court denied his postjudgment motion, Napoleon timely appealed the judgment to our supreme court, which transferred the appeal to this court, pursuant to Ala. Code 1975, § 12-2-6(7).

         On appeal, Napoleon again asserts that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Meadows's motion. He specifically contends that the retention of jurisdiction to effectuate the February 2017 judgment did not include the power to determine a fee dispute between the siblings, who were the contestants in the will contest, and their attorney. Furthermore, Napoleon argues that the trial court could not have exercised jurisdiction over Meadows's motion under Rule 60(b).

         We agree that Meadows's motion was not cognizable under Rule 60(b)(6) because Meadows can present no basis upon which he, a nonparty, is entitled to relief from the February 2017 judgment. See Ex parte Overton, 985 So.2d 432 (Ala. 2007) (explaining that a nonparty cannot typically seek relief from a judgment by way of a rule 60(b) motion). Furthermore, we agree that the language in the trial court's February 2017 judgment did not permit it to retain jurisdiction over the fee dispute between the siblings and Meadows, which dispute was not directly related to the issues presented in the will contest. See Ex parte Caremark Rx, LLC, 229 So.3d 751, 760 (Ala. 2017) (noting that "[t]he jurisdiction retained by the trial court after it entered its final judgment ... is limited to interpreting or enforcing that final judgment; the trial court could not extend its jurisdiction over any matter somehow related to [a] final judgment in perpetuity by simply declaring it so"). However, Capell & Howard argues on appeal that it has an attorney's lien on the proceeds collected from the settlement incorporated into the February 2017 judgment and that Meadows properly sought to have the dispute over the attorney fee decided by filing a motion.

         Specifically, Capell & Howard contends that Ala. Code 1975, § 34-3-61, provides for a lien in favor of an attorney. The statute reads, in its entirety, as follows:

"(a) Attorneys-at-law shall have a lien on all papers and money of their clients in their possession for services rendered to them, in reference thereto, and may retain such papers until the claims are satisfied, and may apply such money to the satisfaction of the claims.
"(b) Upon actions and judgments for money, they shall have a lien superior to all liens but tax liens, and no person shall be at liberty to satisfy the action or judgment, until the lien or claim of the attorney for his or her fees is fully satisfied; and attorneys-at-law shall have the same right and power over action or judgment to enforce their liens as their clients had or may have for the amount due thereon to them.
"(c) Upon all actions for the recovery of real or personal property, and upon all judgments for the recovery of the same, attorneys-at-law shall have a lien on the property recovered, for their fees, superior to all liens but liens for taxes, which may be enforced by the attorneys-at-law, or their lawful representatives, as liens on personal and real estate, and the property recovered shall remain subject to the liens, unless transferred to bona fide purchasers without notice.
"(d) The lien in the event of an action, provided in subsections (b) and (c) of this section, shall not attach until the service upon the defendant or respondent of summons, writ or other process. However, when any claim is settled between the parties after the filing of an action but before the defendant has actual notice of the filing of the action by service of summons or otherwise, such settlement shall operate as a full discharge of the claim."

         Moreover, Capell & Howard points out, Ala. Code 1975, § 34-3-62, permits an attorney seeking to settle a disagreement about the compensation to which that attorney is entitled to "file a motion" in the circuit ...

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