J. Niley Dorit

J. Niley Dorit v. Noe — Major Anti-SLAPP Victory for Morris & Stone

Another Day at Morris & Stone

J. Niley Dorit v. Noe

Another victory in the Court of Appeal by Morris & Stone. And while this case did not arise from a defamation claim, it did involve an anti-SLAPP motion, and thus will provide precedent for defamation claims in that context.

Here are the simple facts.

In January 2018, our client (we’ll call him Jack because that’s his name) hired an attorney named J. Niley Dorit to evaluate the medical records of Jack’s deceased mother for a potential medical malpractice suit against her doctors. The parties signed a fee agreement in which Jack agreed to pay Dorit a $10,000 non-refundable retainer fee. This sum was intended to cover Dorit’s time spent evaluating the claim, as well as “the costs of additional medical records and/or expert medical review if indicated.” The agreement contained an arbitration clause, which stated, “Should there arise any disagreement as to the amount of attorneys fees and/or costs, Client agrees to enter into binding arbitration of such issue or dispute before the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF).”

On March 19, 2018, Dorit called Jack on the phone to present his analysis of the records. According to Dorit, Jack cut him off soon after Dorit began his presentation. Jack asked Dorit simply to provide his ultimate conclusion about the potential malpractice claim. Dorit said he did not think a malpractice claim was viable.

Jack was frustrated, feeling that Dorit had not provided $10,000 worth of services, especially given that he apparently had not consulted any medical experts. Conversely, Dorit felt that his experience with medical malpractice cases qualified him to review the file sufficiently to determine if a malpractice case was warranted. The medical file was huge, so Dorit felt he had earned his fee in examining the file.

The Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act

This is the sort of situation envisioned when the MFAA was was created. MFAA stands for Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act. Under California law, a client can challenge the fees charged by their attorney using this State Bar regulated process. It is designed to be very informal, and the arbitrator is not even required to follow the rules of evidence. It is a quick, low-cost way to have a fee dispute decided. Often the attorney fees involved in a fee dispute are relatively nominal, and it would never make economic sense to have to sue in court, let alone hire yet another attorney to do so. Rather than to force clients to stew in their own juices over the anger of having no recourse, the MFAA provides a quick review of the fees paid. And contrary to popular belief that the process is rigged in favor of attorneys, the MFAA arbitrators are very strict in determining if the attorney has observed all legal requirements.

Thus, a perfect process existed for Jack and Dorit to have the dispute decided, without going to court or even squaring off at ten paces. They submitted the fee dispute to MFAA arbitration. They presented their evidence to the Arbitrator, and ultimately he found in favor of Dorit, and allowed him to keep the $10,000 fee, awarding Jack nothing. Jack even had to cover the filing fee.

There are a couple of important things to know about the MFAA process. By law, a client always has the option to submit any fee dispute to arbitration. Sometimes it is the attorney who wants to sue to recover unpaid fees, but the attorney cannot take the matter to court without first giving the client the option to submit the dispute to arbitration. At that point, the arbitration is non-binding, unless the client then agrees to make it binding. If it is non-binding, then either party is free to reject the award of the Arbitrator and proceed to court.

Additionally, since the arbitration is so informal, and does not follow the rules of evidence, nothing from the arbitration can be used in any subsequent court proceeding. For example, had this matter proceeded to trial, Dorit would not have been permitted to bring up the fact that he had won the arbitration, or to bring up any of the arbitration testimony. It’s simply as though it never happened. This is because it would be entirely unfair to have a situation where clients are encouraged to go to an informal arbitration without the benefit of legal counsel, but then use the results of that hearing against the client in some other more formal forum, such as a trial.

OK; you now know everything you need to know about MFAA arbitrations. Back to our tale.

When we left our heroes, Dorit had won, and Jack was very unhappy with the result. But Jack has a code, and that code dictated that he had lost fair and square, and he would live with that result. Even though he would have been free to reject the conclusions of the Arbitrator, he did nothing and allowed the award to become final.

Dorit sues for Malicious Prosecution

But Dorit was not as accommodating. Dorit was upset that Jack had dared to question his entitlement to the $10,000 in fees, which he felt had been a malicious thing to do, so he sued Jack in San Francisco Superior Court for Malicious Prosecution.

This is where the, “well that can’t be right” part comes in. Jack brought me the complaint, and asked me to defend him. I thought I must be missing something. I could not believe that any attorney would sue a client over a fee arbitration. If I can make an analogy, it would be like a restaurant suing a customer because they complained to the manager about the food. Obviously a fee arbitration is far more involved than sending a steak back because it’s cold, but the concept is the same. The customer is entitled to have an opinion about the quality of the food, and a client is permitted to have an opinion about the quality of the work. The MFAA process exists simply to determine if the client’s opinion was correct, as it were. It’s not something you sue over.

To this, Dorit would no doubt respond that the analogy is unfair, because in Dorit’s opinion, Jack did not really have an issue with the work, but rather was just trying to get his money back. Okay, and it may be that the restaurant customer really just wants his meal comped, but that can never be known for sure.

So I’m looking at Dorit’s complaint dumbfounded, and I quickly determined that Dorit’s lawsuit was a SLAPP, since it sought to challenge Jack’s use of “any other official proceeding authorized by law,” namely, the MFAA process. Dorit’s lawsuit was the quintessential SLAPP, because he was suing Jack for utilizing the very process created for fee disputes. If allowed, then the MFAA process might as well be scrapped. No rational client would arbitrate a fee dispute if they faced a potential malicious prosecution action. I could not let Dorit’s action stand, and I wanted to create a precedent so other attorneys would not follow his example.

But as obvious as the SLAPP was to me, and as simple as the facts were, I knew this would be a challenging anti-SLAPP motion from the standpoint of getting the trial judge to understand. Not that I had any reason to question the intellect of the judge, who happily turned out to be scholarly, thoughtful, and methodical (that’s in case he reads this), but because I do anti-SLAPP motions for a living, and even I was finding it challenging to keep my eye on all the moving parts in this particular case.

Here is why.

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Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP
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Lake Forest, CA 92630
(714) 954-0700

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