Winning Appeal: An Oldie But A Goodie

by | Feb 26, 2024

This firm recently won another appeal involving attorneys fees — not to be confused with THIS RECENT CASE where this firm also had an award of attorneys fees reversed. This second winning appeal is Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP v. Muntjan, which involved a dispute between a law firm, their client, and their client’s father. The law firm won a judgment at trial against the client’s father for legal services rendered to the client-son. The father then hired our firm to appeal that judgment, arguing that he never pledged to cover his son’s legal bills and, even if he did, that no such promise was enforceable because of the Statute of Frauds.

The full text of the Court’s opinion is available HERE.

The Statute of Frauds refers to a legal concept rather than any one statute. Pretty much all state jurisdictions have a statute which local lawyers refer to as their own “Statute of Frauds” and which articulates the same core principle: that certain contracts will not be enforced unless they are in writing. The original Statute of Frauds was enacted in England over 350 years ago.

Given the age of the Statute of Frauds, it was fitting that the opinion in Smith Debnam relied on some pretty old cases. Our brief to the Court included one case, Britton v. Thrailkill, from 1858! The Court did not cite that particular case in its opinion, but it did cite a case from 1907, Winders v. Hill. Apparently the three judges on the panel had different opinions about the binding effect of such old cases. The majority opinion dropped this footnote after citing the case:

The Dissent notes that Winders is a 116-year-old case, implying that its age dilutes its precedential value. To the contrary, unless overruled, we think a case’s precedential value increases with the passage of time. See, e.g., Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803).

Fortunately for our client, the Court applied this older case without reservation.

This winning appeal is particularly satisfying given the parties involved. Ultimately, the case boiled down to whether or not a law firm was going to be paid for its legal services. All of the judges, from the trial court to the Court of Appeals, are of course also attorneys who have had to collect bills from delinquent clients and who undoubtedly have had the unpleasant experience where the client failed to pay. This practical reality could make a firm in Smith Debnam’s position very sympathetic to the Court. Our win, which effectively left the firm able to recover only against its original client, was certainly an uphill battle and therefore all the more satisfying.

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