In the matter of the Guardianship of Stanfield

Tracy Stanfield was injured in 1992. A settlement relating to his injuries resulted in an annuity providing periodic payments to Stanfield from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife). Stanfield assigned certain annuity payments, and the assignee in turn assigned them to J. G. Wentworth S.S.C. Limited Partnership (Wentworth). Stanfield later caused MetLife to ignore the assignments to Wentworth. Wentworth filed an action in a Pennsylvania state court and obtained a judgment against Stanfield. Wentworth then filed a motion for a judgment against MetLife for the same amount. A Pennsylvania court granted the motion. Soon thereafter, Stanfield's mother Mildred filed a petition in an Oklahoma district court to be appointed guardian of her son's estate. MetLife filed an interpleader action in a Pennsylvania federal district court and named Wentworth and Mildred in her capacity as guardian of her son's estate as defendants. Mildred asked attorney Loyde Warren to accept service of process on her behalf, and he agreed. Stanfield signed Warren's contingency fee agreement; Warren then engaged local counsel in Pennsylvania. At the settlement conference the parties agreed that Wentworth's judgment would be withdrawn; payments would be paid from Stanfield's annuity payments to Wentworth; the annuity assignment was rescinded; and future annuity payments from MetLife to Stanfield, as guardian, would be made payable in care of Warren. In 2009, Warren filed a motion in the open and continuing guardianship case before the Oklahoma district court for approval of both the 2001 contract for legal representation and the payment of legal fees made pursuant to that contract. Mildred objected and among her arguments, she maintained that a contingency fee for successfully defending a client from a judgment was improper, and that the fee agreement was unenforceable because it had not been approved by the guardianship court. The district court denied Warren's motion, "[b]ecause the application was not filed prior to payment of the fee and was not filed until nearly eight years after the contract was executed." The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed, and Warren appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that (1) the district court possessed jurisdiction to adjudicate a guardianship proceeding a motion seeking court approval of a lawyer's contingent fee contract; (2) the guardian's failure to obtain court approval of a contingent fee agreement prior to payment pursuant to that agreement is not, by itself, a legally sufficient reason for a court to deny a motion to approve the agreement; and (3) the mere passage of time between creation of a contingent fee agreement and when it is presented to a court for approval in an open and continuing guardianship proceeding is not a legally sufficient reason to deny approval of that agreement. View "In the matter of the Guardianship of Stanfield" on Justia Law