COWLEY v. SEYMOUR LAW FIRM
292 P.3d 7 (2012)
2012 OK 6
Gina A. COWLEY, Individually, Plaintiff/Appellant,
SEYMOUR LAW FIRM, R. Thomas Seymour, Individually and as Partner, agent, servant or employee of Seymour Law Firm, and Scott A. Graham, Individually and as agent, servant or employee of Seymour Law Firm, Defendants/Appellees.
Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
January 31, 2012.
As Corrected February 3, 2012.
Rehearing Denied December 11, 2012.
Gina A. Cowley, pro se, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, plaintiff/appellant.
¶ 1 The issue before this Court is whether the expiration of an attorney lien prohibits a plaintiff's lawyer from suing her co-counsel for breach of contract over the distribution of attorney fees from a settlement of the underlying case. We hold that the one-year statute of limitations found in 5 O.S.2011, § 8, does not preclude a lawsuit arising over a contract dispute between plaintiff's lawyers.
¶ 2 In February 2002, Arvin McGee, Jr., contacted Gina Cowley, the appellant, to represent him in pursuing claims against multiple defendants in a civil matter for wrongful identification and conviction of kidnapping and rape. After his freedom from prison was secured by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, Ms. Cowley entered into an attorney fee contract with Mr. McGee on April 9, 2002. Since she had been licensed in April 2001, she found an experienced law
firm and contracted with them. Her responsibilities included putting the case together and leading the case. The initial complaint was filed in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. She claimed an attorney lien and demanded a jury trial.
¶ 3 In mid to late November of 2003, her client became dissatisfied with the associated firm, so Ms. Cowley took the advice of a lawyer with whom she had worked before her admission to the bar, and spoke with R. Thomas Seymour, one of the appellees, who assisted her with letters to terminate the first law firm, and the Seymour law firm entered the case after Christmas of 2003. But by late summer or early fall of 2004, she experienced immense personal family problems exacerbated by the enormous professional stress of being a young lawyer. During this time the relationship between Ms. Cowley and the Seymour firm became very strained. Mr. Seymour assured her that she had nothing to fear and that the firm would assist her, but she alleges his firm pursued a course of action against her and to her detriment, even expressing he would have Ms. Cowley's bar card. After she was faced with several bar complaints, she resigned her membership in the Oklahoma Bar Association pending discipline.
¶ 4 Although Ms. Cowley had a lien for the work done on the McGee matter, and the lien had not been released, a settlement of the case with the City of Tulsa took place in early 2006 and the last distribution of the settlement money took place in August of 2007. She was never paid for any of the work she did. When she was deposed by the appellees, she was asked why she did not believe she had abandoned Mr. McGee and she replied that she left him in good hands, that she had gotten him to Mr. Seymour. In the McGee case, the jury returned a verdict for $14.5 million and a settlement was effected for $12,250,000.00. Ms. Cowley received none of that settlement.
¶ 5 The Journal Entry of Judgment in the cause now before this Court found that § 8 of title 5 governed the action, that the plaintiff (appellant) failed to follow the procedure established by that statute, that the defendants (appellees) were awarded summary judgment against the plaintiff on that issue, that the court did not reach any of the defendants' other requested grounds to grant summary judgment and that the ruling disposed of all claims between the parties. Our construction of § 8 requires that the judgment be reversed. Because summary judgment was based on § 8, other arguments found in the briefs of waiver of attorney fee, repudiation of contract, breach of contract, public policy, client's payment of attorney fees, and other arguments outside of the construction of § 8 are to be determined on remand.
¶ 6 In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate a trial court considers factual matters. However, the ultimate decision involves purely legal determinations, that is, whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there are no material disputed factual questions. Since the decision involves purely legal determinations, the appellate standard of review is de novo. All inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the evidentiary materials must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Carmichael v. Beller, 1996 OK 48, ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051, 1053.