N.J. law firm alleges Philadelphia personal injury firm obtained illegal fee division agreement in motor vehicle case

By Jessica Karmasek | Feb 15, 2017

WOODBURY, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - A New Jersey law firm, hired to represent a man injured in a motor vehicle accident, has filed a lawsuit against a Philadelphia personal injury firm, alleging one of its paralegals obtained an illegal fee division agreement.

Attorney Joel Wayne Garber and his firm, Garber Law, filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Gloucester County, Law Division, Jan. 13.

Also listed as plaintiffs are Garber’s clients, Michael Wagenbaur and Lisa Greenwood, Wagenbaur’s wife.

The named defendants include Heslin Law Firm, attorney Gary P. Heslin and Mark Patrick, a paralegal at the firm, according to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, Wagenbaur was involved in a “catastrophic” car accident in March 2013. The accident, which occurred in Gloucester County, caused severe and permanent injuries.

Three days after the accident and following a meeting at Cooper University Medical Center, Greenwood, on March 26, 2013, retained Garber to represent her and her husband.

Soon after, on or shortly before April 12, 2013, Garber claims he received a phone call from defendant Patrick. Patrick allegedly told Garber that his law firm, Heslin Law, was retained by Wagenbaur to assume his representation in connection with the car accident.

Patrick, according to Garber’s complaint, said Garber Law’s representation was to be terminated unless the firm agreed to pay a one-third referral fee to Heslin Law.

“Believing that he had no option but to acquiesce” to the firm, Garber sent a letter to Heslin agreeing to pay the referral fee in order to continue to counsel Wagenbaur and his wife.

Garber went on to represent the clients over the next three years, eventually reaching a $5 million settlement for the couple. Garber notes in the complaint that “at no time” did the Heslin defendants participate in the handling of the motor vehicle case.

In fact, it wasn’t until a fee petition was being prepared for the court that Wagenbaur and his wife -- who were required to review the proposed settlement distribution schedule -- were made aware of the referral, according to Garber’s lawsuit.

The fee to be given to Heslin Law totaled $438,787.66.

“Upon reviewing the Proposed Settlement Distribution Schedule, both of the clients inquired as to the reason why there were monies earmarked for the Heslin defendants on the distribution schedule, and upon hearing the explanation as to why, the clients raised strong exception to any fee being remitted to the Heslin defendants,” Garber alleged in his complaint.

Garber recounted to his clients the phone conversation he had with Patrick.

“Incredibly, after hearing the account, the clients explained that the Heslin defendants had never been hired by either client in connection with his March 2013 accident, that he had never given these defendants the authority to terminate Garber Law’s representation of the clients, and that neither client had any knowledge of nor assented to a fee sharing arrangement,” the complaint states.

“Moreover, importantly, the clients have instructed Garber Law to retain the subject monies in trust and to refrain from disbursing any monies whatsoever to the defendants until and unless a court orders as such.”

Garber claims his clients are “vehemently opposed” to Heslin Law receiving any compensation “whatsoever” from the proceeds of the underlying litigation.

Garber, in his complaint, points to the New Jersey Rules of Professional Responsibility, which provide that except as otherwise provided by the court rules, a division of fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm may be made only if:

- The division is “in proportion to the services performed by each lawyer,” or, by written agreement with the client, each lawyer assumes joint responsibility for the representation;

- The client is notified of the fee division;

- The client consents to the participation of all lawyers involved; and

- The total fee is reasonable.

“In the case before the court, it is the position of the clients that neither were notified of a fee division arrangement between the Garber firm and the Heslin firm, that they did not and do not consent to such an agreement and that any fee to the Heslin firm is unreasonable because the Heslin firm did not refer the case to the Garber firm, because the Heslin firm was never retained by either client, because the Heslin firm was not authorized to terminate the Garber firm and, importantly, because the Heslin firm did not contribute in any manner whatsoever in bringing about the excellent results achieved in the handling of the case,” Garber wrote.

He contends the information imparted by Patrick was “knowingly false” and that the paralegal’s conduct was “evil and recklessly indifferent to the rights of the plaintiffs.”

Garber and his clients are seeking punitive damages.

Cherry Hill, N.J., law firm Hockfield & Kasher LLC is representing the plaintiffs.

Heslin could not be immediately reached for comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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