HOUSTON – A convicted criminal won his breach of contract case against his former defense attorney but lost his claim that the attorney had stolen money from him.
William J. Gonyea Jr. v. Orion Scott was filed in the Court of Appeals for the 1st District of Texas, on appeal from Harris County, Texas.
“We affirm the judgment as to the breach-of-contract claim, holding that the public policies underlying the Peeler doctrine do not support extending the doctrine to restitution of monies paid for post-conviction legal services that were never performed. We reverse and render judgment in Gonyea’s favor on the theft claim, holding that the claim accrued more than two years before it was asserted and that Scott failed to meet his burden to prove that the discovery rule applied," the court ruled Nov. 2.
According to the ruling, after he was convicted of several criminal offenses, Scott hired attorney Gonyea in 2010 and asked him to file a writ of habeus corpus on his behalf. Scott alleges he paid Gonyea $25,000 as per their contract. Scott claims his sister also made an additional $25,000 to Gonyea because of confusion regarding bank authorizations.
The ruling states Scott and Gonyea agreed that $10,000 of the second $25,000 would be applied to additional representation. Scott asked Gonyea to return the remaining $15,000, but Gonyea allegedly didn’t comply.
Three years passed without Gonyea returning the money or filing the writ. Scott hired another attorney and also sued Gonyea.
According to the appellate court’s opinion, “His first cause of action was for breach of contract. He sought $25,000 in restitution damages, which was the full amount of the fee paid under the terms of the contract. His second cause of action was for theft and sought $15,000 in damages, which was the amount of overpayment that Gonyea never returned.”
Gonyea filed for summary judgment, arguing both claims of Scott’s failed as a matter of law. The trial court didn’t grant summary judgment. Gonyea appealed.
The Peeler doctrine asserted by Gonyea states: "Public policy requires that a person convicted of a criminal offense not be permitted to profit from his criminal conduct by obtaining a money damages award against his criminal-defense lawyer for legal malpractice that allegedly contributed to the client’s incarceration," according to the ruling.
Scott argued that Peeler didn’t apply because Gonyea did nothing.