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John v. Gering Public Schools

Supreme Court of Nebraska

February 15, 2019

Edward St. John, appellee,
Gering Public Schools and NASB Workers Compensation Pool, its workers' compensation carrier, appellees. James L. Zimmerman, APPELLANT, AND BRENDA L. BaRTELS AND Monte L. Neilan, appellees,

         1. Workers' Compensation: Appeal and Error. Pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-185 (Cum. Supp. 2018), an appellate court may modify, reverse, or set aside a Workers' Compensation Court decision only when (1) the compensation court acted without or in excess of its powers; (2) the judgment, order, or award was procured by fraud; (3) there is not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant the making of the order, judgment, or award; or (4) the findings of fact by the compensation court do not support the order or award.

         2. __: __. Determinations by a trial judge of the Workers' Compensation Court will not be disturbed on appeal unless they are contrary to law or depend on findings of fact which are clearly wrong in light of the evidence.

         3. Contracts: Attorney Fees. While a lawyer with a valid fee agreement is entitled to recover what a fee agreement allows to the extent that amount is reasonable, a lawyer is not entitled to recover more than a fee agreement allows.

         4. Contracts: Intent. A court should avoid interpreting contract provisions in a manner that leads to unreasonable or absurd results that are obviously inconsistent with the parties' intent.

          Petition for further review from the Court of Appeals. Moore, Chief Judge, and Pirtle and Arterburn, Judges, on appeal thereto from the Workers' Compensation Court: John R. [302 Neb. 270] Hoffert, Judge.

          James L. Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Law Firm, P.C., L.L.O., pro se.

          Monte L. Neilan, pro se.

          Brenda L. Bartels, of Hanes & Bartels, L.L.C., pro se.

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.

          PAPIK, J.

         During the course of his workers' compensation action against Gering Public Schools, Edward St. John switched lawyers. St. John eventually settled his claim, but a dispute remained as to how much St. John owed his lawyers. The Workers' Compensation Court held a hearing regarding the attorney fee issue. After the hearing, the compensation court entered an order directing that the lawyers that St. John discharged, Brenda L. Bartels and Monte L. Neilan, receive $82, 500 and that the lawyer who represented St. John through the settlement, James L. Zimmerman, receive $82, 500. The compensation court evaluated the attorneys' representation of St. John and found that one set of attorneys did not contribute more to the end result than the other. The compensation court did not analyze the attorneys' entitlement to fees under their written fee agreements with St. John. Zimmerman appealed, and the Nebraska Court of Appeals affirmed.

         We granted Zimmerman's petition for further review. We find that because Bartels and Neilan were entitled to less than the amount awarded by the Workers' Compensation Court under the terms of their fee agreement with St. John, the order splitting the fee evenly was erroneous. Accordingly, we reverse, and remand with directions.

         [302 Neb. 271] I. BACKGROUND

         1. St. John's Workers' Compensation Action

         After suffering an injury in the course of his employment. St. John retained Zimmerman in March 2013 by signing a contingent fee agreement. Under the terms of that agreement, St. John agreed to pay to Zimmerman one-third of any amounts collected after suit.

         St. John later moved to Colorado. Apparently desiring a Colorado lawyer, St. John discharged Zimmerman and retained Bartels, a Nebraska-licensed attorney based in Colorado. Bartels, in turn, hired Neilan to assist her with St. John's claim.

         In January 2014, St. John executed a single contingent fee agreement with the respective law firms of Bartels and Neilan. Like his agreement with Zimmerman, St. John agreed to pay Bartels and Neilan one-third of any amounts recovered from Gering Public Schools. Paragraph 8 of the agreement, however, also included the following language:

Should CLIENT choose to discharge ATTORNEYS prior to final settlement or judgment, CLIENT agrees to pay ATTORNEYS a fee equal to [one-third] of the "gross amount recovered''\ OR on an hourly basis of $175.00 per hour for his/her time and, in addition, $75 per hour for paralegal time from the date of this Agreement to the date of discharge, or the above percentage of ATTOR ...

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