A Kansas City law firm won in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when it claimed it didn’t owe an Indiana attorney for his alleged work with a shared client.
The underlying 2010 wrongful death lawsuit is that of Charlisa Allen, who filed a federal district lawsuit in Arizona for her late husband. She retained attorney Neal Lewis of Indiana in the lawsuit.
According to the July 15 opinion, Allen hired the Wagstaff & Cartmell firm to litigate the case four years later. Its contract did not mention Lewis, but did refer to the firm’s possible employment of other counsel. Wagstaff served as lead plaintiff counsel in the suit.
In 2014, Lewis sent two emails asking Wagstaff to enter into a co-counseling arrangement to share responsibilities and fees, but never received a reply. Neither Allen nor Wagstaff said in writing or verbally directed Lewis to collaborate on the case.
“Lewis, however, maintains that he did consult on some discovery issues and review filings made in the wrongful death lawsuit,” Judge Lavenski Smith wrote. “But he admitted that Wagstaff had done the ‘bulk of the heavy lifting’…”
Four years after, Allen stopped retaining Lewis as an attorney. After Lewis learned about the lawsuit’s dismissal via confidential settlement that same year, Lewis demanded an attorney’s fee from Wagstaff.
Once the dispute had escalated into court motions, Lewis failed to respond to Wagstaff’s motions and instead filed a voluntary dismissal of his counterclaims and requested to file a second amended answer.
T. Michael Ward of Brown & James in St. Louis represents Lewis. He did not respond to a call or email requesting comment.
The district court denied Lewis’ motions, interpreting them as his attempts to evade the court’s jurisdiction. Lewis had claimed that he, like the law firm, also was a Missouri resident while living in Indiana at the time, but the court relied on Lewis’ filed address in Indiana, his Indiana bar license and litigation records as well as his voting registration, property tax and public personal information to make its determination.
“Lewis offered only self-serving statements of intention to relocate to Missouri,” Smith wrote. “The district court properly accorded them little weight when contrasted with objective facts.”
Judges Duane Benton and Jane L. Kelly concurred in the appellate opinion that affirmed the district court decision. On appeal, Lewis had claimed that the district court had abused its discretion by denying his flurry of five motions, many of which were considered redundant by the 8th Circuit and the district court.
Lewis also objected to the district court’s citation of the abstention doctrine, which determines when a case might be best held in another jurisdiction. The district court also had granted Wagstaff’s motion to dismiss Lewis’ counterclaims while allowing the case to continue.
“In addition, Lewis has not sustained his burden of proving that Wagstaff has engaged in misconduct that prevented him from fully and fairly presenting his case,” Smith wrote.
Dane Martin of Graves Garrett represents Wagstaff. He said that the team of attorneys believe this opinion brings the case to an end.
“It is unfortunate that this dispute arose, but we do not believe it was a close call,” Martin said. “And we are very pleased with the well-reasoned decisions we’ve received from the district court and now the 8th Circuit, which have confirmed Wagstaff’s position.”
The case is Wagstaff & Cartmell, appellee, v. Neal R. Lewis, appellant, 21-2266.