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,
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.
__. 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.
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
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.
L. Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Law Firm, P.C., L.L.O., pro se.
L. Neilan, pro se.
L. Bartels, of Hanes & Bartels, L.L.C., pro se.
Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik,
and Freudenberg, JJ.
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.
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.
Neb. 271] I. BACKGROUND
John's Workers' Compensation Action
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
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.
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 ...