The American Lawyer describes the case:

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges has been hit with a malpractice lawsuit that claims the firm botched a $48.8 million settlement even as it took in some $12 million in contingency fees.

… The complaint against Quinn Emanuel highlights how — as a result of a contingency agreement that essentially guaranteed Quinn Emanuel half of any amount recovered up to $20 million and 20 percent thereafter — the firm has received approximately $12 million in fees for representing Kurtin. That amount is equal to what Kurtin himself has gotten to date from the settlement, which was reached a little more than four months after Quinn Emanuel took on the case.

… An initial payment of $21 million, which Quinn Emanuel essentially split with Kurtin, was received. But, according to court documents, a payment due June 30, 2006, of $13.1 million, as well as an additional payment outlined in the settlement agreement, was never sent.

… Kurtin initially retained Quinn Emanuel again to try to enforce the settlement agreement through arbitration. The firm even offered up the services of litigation partners Ken Chiate, Jeff McFarland and Bruce Van Dalsem at its "half-rate" of $300 per hour. According to the amended engagement agreement, those partners usually bill out at between $650 and $775.

I’ve written about Quinn Emmanuel’s contingency-fee practice before; it’s not quite the plaintiff’s firm writ large it’s reputed to be, since the bulk of their work is not on a contingency fee.

I’m baffled by this new story. Under the fee agreement as described, Quinn is entitled to another 20% of the remaining $27.8 million, yet they were unwilling to enforce the agreement except on a discounted hourly rate?

Maybe I’m charitable, but I don’t think I would need someone to pay me more by the hour to chase down $5.56 million in fees via arbitration of an iron-clad settlement agreement. In fact, it sounds like the additional hourly fees with be comparatively small even at >$650 — you’re arbitrating a settlement agreement you executed! — and would cause more client dissatisfaction than they would be worth.

There’s another wrinkle:

A public relations representative at SunCal Cos. did not return calls seeking comment. In an interview in March with the Orange County Register, a company executive said that Kurtin’s suit was without merit and that the company had previously met all its obligations to him.

In general, a lawyer’s comment to the media is one of three possibilities: 

  1. The other side’s case is frivolous garbage.
  2. There may be legitimate issues, but I’ll win.
  3. No comment.

I would expect a party that was knowingly in default of a settlement agreement to go with #3 since a properly drafted settlement agreement should be easily enforceable. To hear the settlor go with #1 suggests they really don’t think they are in default, which makes me wonder how the two parties to the settlement could have such radically differing views of their obligations. Sure, commercial litigation settlements can be complicated, but this settlement seemed pretty simple: it’s just money instead of a continuing relationship.

Which leaves us to ponder only two explanations for Quinn Emmanuel’s proposed hourly rates:

  1. Quinn Emmanuel thought their client’s settlement enforcement action had merit, but chose to let $5.56 million in their own fees sit unless they could bill $300 an additional hour recovering them.
  2. Quinn Emmanuel thought their client’s settlement enforcement action had no merit but were willing to fight it anyway, on a discount.

#1 does not make any sense. #2 could have a lot of possible explanations, none of them flattering.

Maybe the story is incorrect or incomplete. Maybe the case will reveal some more important facts. As it stands, this case does not look good for them.