Is it possible to interfere with a case once it has already been settled? Bethesda solo-practitioner Joel Joseph thinks not, and he has $1 million riding partly on whether a federal appeals court agrees.
In 2001, Joseph sued his former law firm, Washington, D.C.'s Cuneo Law Group, for allegedly breaching his employment contract, and negotiated a fairly significant settlement. Specifically, he would get 20 percent of any fees that the firm, which has since changed its name to Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, earned in three pending class action cases. The catch: He had to keep his distance -- no interfering with the litigation or corresponding with the litigants.
One of the cases settled in 2002, and Joseph received a $240,000 check. Afterward, however, Joseph approached Cuneo's local counsel in the case, and asked for 20% finder’s fee. The local counsel said no, and Joseph sued. Cuneo paid for the local-counsel’s defense, costing the firm $35,000.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton for the District of Columbia ruled that Jospeh's actions broke the non-interference clause in his settlement with Cuneo, and that the firm did not have to pay him the remaining fees he would have been entitled to under the original settlement. In an interview, Joseph said that amount totaled roughly $1 million.
“The case was already settled," Joseph said. "You can’t interfere with a settled case,”
Joseph said Walton also ruled wrongly that the settlement was meant to stop him from contacting lawyers in the case, as opposed to just limiting his interaction with the plaintiffs.
"It’s one of the most ridiculous decisions I’ve ever heard by a district judge,” Joseph said. On Nov. 20, he filed notice that he was appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
In his Nov. 19 opinion, Walton found that Joseph's effort to claim extra fees was exactly the sort of behavior the non-interference clause was intended to prevent. He noted that Cuneo "took exception" to Joseph's attempts to file liens and contact co-counsel in the firm's cases during the first suit in 2001.
"To prevent the defendant from engaging in similar behavior, the parties entered into the 2002 settlement agreement," Walton wrote.
Stein, Mitchell & Muse partner Jacob Stein, who represented Cuneo, declined to comment.