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Halstrom v. Dube

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

February 15, 2019

FREDERIC N. HALSTROM [1]
v.
MARILYN P. DUBE, administratrix, [2] & another. [3]

          Heard: December 3, 2018.

          Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on July 7, 2016. The case was heard by Michael D. Ricciuti, J., on a motion for summary judgment. The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Frederic N. Halstrom, pro se.

          Michael J. Grace for the defendants.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          CYPHER, J.

         This is a contract action by a law firm to collect an outstanding legal fee from a former client. The plaintiff, Frederic N. Halstrom, as assignee of Halstrom Law Offices, P.C. (HLO), brought this action for legal fees against Michael J. Grace, a former HLO employee, and Marilyn P. Dube, as representative of the estate of David 0. Hicks, a former HLO client, for the payment of certain legal fees allegedly owed by Hicks to HLO under a contingent fee agreement. A Superior Court judge allowed the defendants' motion for summary judgment, concluding that Halstrom's claim for fees was time barred by the statute of limitations applicable to contract actions set forth in G. L. c. 260, § 2.[4]We affirm.

         Background.

         We summarize the facts found by the motion judge, supplementing them where necessary with undisputed facts in the record.

         In 2007, Hicks retained HLO to serve as counsel in a medical malpractice action in the Superior Court. The contingent fee agreement between Hicks and HLO regarding that litigation, executed on December 7, 2007, included the following discharge provision:

"If the client wishes to discharge the Law Firm, the client shall, in this event, be liable to the Law Firm for a fee at the hourly rate of Three Hundred Fifty Dollars ($350.00) per hour, as substantiated by a Notarized Statement of Hours, provided by the Law Firm to the client."

         Grace, then an employee of HLO, performed most, if not all, of the legal work on the case, but neither he nor HLO recorded Grace's hours contemporaneously.

         HLO terminated Grace on June 25, 2010, while Hicks's medical malpractice case was pending. Hicks, notified of Grace's departure, elected to have Grace continue to represent him in the medical malpractice action. Grace and HLO were notified of Hicks's election in writing on July 1, 2010. On July 2, HLO transferred Hicks's file to Grace at his new firm, Denner Pellegrino, LLP (Pellegrino), and shortly thereafter Hicks entered into a second contingent fee agreement regarding his medical malpractice action with Pellegrino.[5] In August 2013 and July 2015, HLO asked Grace to provide it a statement of the hours he spent on Hicks's medical malpractice action while in HLO's employ; Grace was not cooperative. On August 17, 2015, Halstrom, as assignee of HLO, brought suit against Grace in the Superior Court in an effort to compel Grace's cooperation.[6] In his complaint in that action, Halstrom noted that "the statutes of limitations are running on Halstrom's rights" against numerous former clients for legal fees owed in accordance with HLO's contingent fee agreement.

         Halstrom commenced the present contract action in the Superior Court on July 7, 2016, seeking "an amount exceeding $30, 000.00 for legal services rendered" from Hicks's estate (count I) and stating that because Hicks's attorney's fees for the underlying medical malpractice action are capped by statute, Hicks's estate has a cause of action against Grace "and anyone else who has already received payment for legal fees" in connection with the underlying action (count II). Thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that Halstrom commenced the action beyond the six-year statute of limitations applicable to contract actions. Halstrom opposed the motion, arguing that his 2015 action against Grace tolled the limitations period because the action "made it abundantly clear that it was a lawsuit to begin vindicating HLO's right to attorneys' fees" and "formally served as the commencement of its claim against [Hicks] for attorneys' fees."[7] Halstrom argued in the alternative that the defendants (1) are ...


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