A complicated dispute over attorneys’ fees that includes claims and cross-claims of fraud, breach of contract and taking a case from another firm has delayed a lawsuit settlement on behalf of an up-and-coming gymnast who suffered permanent brain injuries in a 2014 tumbling accident. In at least three hearings, Judge Jim Meyer could have been asked to approve a lawsuit settlement between Pat and Cynthia Hyland, the parents of Blake Hyland, and the owners of the Waco gym where he was hurt, but the hearing was postponed for unspecified reasons. Just like in Texas, Florida lawsuit settlements involving minors must be approved by the court.
The reasons for the past hearing postponements came to light recently. Once-private disagreements between some high-profile attorneys and Pat Hyland over attorneys’ fees have blown up into public lawsuits and countersuits. The original lawsuit was filed after Blake Hyland, then 14, was injured Feb. 18, 2014, at Texas Dynasty Cheer and Gymnastics on Schroeder Drive. Blake was practicing an advanced maneuver called an Arabian, a flipping move in which the gymnast starts backward, jumps and does a half-turn in the air and then completes a front flip. The teen was going to land in an in-ground foam training pit but drifted a bit to his left, striking his head on an exposed concrete side of the pit that was not covered with padding. Blake was near death and underwent multiple surgeries. He was in a coma for almost a month.
Since then, Blake has made astounding strides in his recovery. As Blake was undergoing rehabilitative therapy, disagreements between his father and two law firms he contracted with to represent their family were occurring. Those disagreements boiled over into a lawsuit filed recently by Pat Hyland against Waco attorney Craig Cherry and his law firm, Haley & Olson, and a countersuit filed Thursday by Cherry and Haley & Olson against Pat Hyland. At the root of the battle is money. The question is not how much the Hyland family will receive in the lawsuit settlement to provide Blake with care and treatment long into the future. The question is how much the lawyers – Cherry and Haley & Olson and the Williams and Brown law firm of Waco- will get in fees for their work on the lawsuit.
The Hylands’ complaint alleges fraud, fraud by nondisclosure, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent misrepresentation and gross negligence against Cherry. Cherry’s claim against Pat Hyland alleges Hyland fraudulently pitted Cherry and Dale Williams against each other in a form of attorney bidding war to pay the attorneys the least amount possible and then failed to live up to the terms of contracts he signed with both law firms. Even though the parties say they are working for Blake’s benefit, their disagreements are keeping the teen from collecting proceeds from the pending settlement.
Attorneys on both sides said they hope to schedule a meeting soon with Meyer to try to resolve the issue of Blake’s settlement.
In Florida, under Florida Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, 4-1 Client-Lawyer Relationship, Rule 4-1.5 Fees and Costs for Legal Services, a contingent fee agreement shall be in writing and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial, or appeal, litigation and other expenses to be deducted from the recovery, and whether such expenses are to be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated… Every lawyer who accepts a retainer or enters into an agreement, express or implied, for compensation for services rendered or to be rendered in any action, claim, or proceeding whereby the lawyer’s compensation is to be dependent or contingent in whole or in part upon the successful prosecution or settlement thereof shall do so only where such fee arrangement is reduced to a written contract, signed by the client, and by a lawyer for the lawyer or for the law firm representing the client. No lawyer or firm may participate in the fee without the consent of the client in writing. Each participating lawyer or law firm shall sign the contract with the client and shall agree to assume joint legal responsibility to the client for the performance of the services in question as if each were partners of the other lawyer or law firm involved.
If there is a termination of the lawyer, Florida law allows a lawyer to collect fees reasonable to what that lawyer invested in the case prior to the termination limited to the contract fee. In Rosenberg v. Levin, 409 So. 2d 1016 (Fla. 1982), the Florida Supreme Court held that “an attorney employed under a valid contract who is discharged without cause before the contingency has occurred or before the client’s matters have concluded can recover only the reasonable value of his services rendered prior to discharge, limited by the maximum contract fee.” Id. at 1021. The court explained its reasoning:
It seems this fight would not have happened here in Florida. Our ethical rules would not have allowed for this type of confusion.