The Land of the Fee

The SE Texas Record Sep. 12, 2009, 10:00am

"The one great principle of the English law," Charles Dickens wrote in his 1853 novel Bleak House, "is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings."

America's most famous backwoods lawyer, a contemporary of Dickens, put it even more plainly. "Never stir up litigation," Abe Lincoln advised. "A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this."

The Supreme Court of Texas clearly agrees. On August 28th the state's highest court reversed a Ninth District Court of Appeals decision upholding District Judge Frederick Edwards' judgment against the MBM Financial Corporation. Edwards had ordered MBM to pay $1,000 to the Woodlands Operating Company and $150,000 in fees to the company's lawyers.

You read that right: $1,000 for the plaintiff, $150,000 for the lawyers!

The Supreme Court's reversal cited the fictional case made famous in Dickens' Bleak House.

"Since Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, there have been charges that some cases benefit the lawyers more than the clients," Justice Scott Brister wrote for the court. "But suits cannot be maintained solely for the attorney's fees; a client must gain something before attorney's fees can be awarded."

Noting that while "the plaintiff obtained a judgment for $1,000 in damages and almost $150,000 in attorney's fees," Justice Brister wrote, "there was no evidence to support the amount of the $1,000 award, and it is too large to constitute nominal damages. As the award to the client must be set aside," he explained, "the attorney's fee award must also. Accordingly, we reverse and render a take-nothing judgment."

Lawyers are supposed to be officers of the court -- promoters of justice, not self-promoters. But some can't resist the temptation to go into business for themselves, clogging our courts with frivolous suits that turn justice on its head.

It is refreshing, indeed, to read Justice Brister's opinion concerning suits brought solely for fees. We applaud the Supreme Court's decision and hope it will serve as a model.

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