August 1, 2017

Only One Court Can Hear A Dispute At A Time; Sekerez v. Grund & Leavitt PC

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

Sometimes a client who disputes a fee can cause a real headache for a law firm. This is particularly true when the client and firm are in different states.

Sekerez lives in Indiana, and hired a Chicago firm to represent her in a custody dispute. The fee agreement stated that fee disputes would be settled by arbitration. The firm settled the custody dispute, but then began a fee dispute with Sekerez.

The firm filed suit in Illinois, and Sekerez challenged the court’s subject matter and personal jurisdiction. Rather than ruling on these issues, the Illinois court ordered the parties to arbitrate their dispute. The parties did so in Indiana, after which the arbitrator awarded about $50,000 to the firm. However, the arbitrator noted that Sekerez’s fraud and legal malpractice claims fell outside the scope of the arbitration agreement.

The law firm took the arbitration award to the Illinois court and sought to have it confirmed. Sekerez again objected to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction over her. However, the Illinois court confirmed the award and entered judgment for the firm.

Meanwhile, Sekerez moved to vacate the award in Lake County, and filed her claims against the firm. The firm moved to dismiss, arguing that the Illinois judgment precluded Sekerez’s claims, but the trial court denied that motion. The firm then filed an action to domesticate the Illinois judgment in Lake County under a new cause number. Sekerez moved to deny or stay this action, pending the outcome of her other Lake County action, but this court denied her request and domesticated the judgment.

Sekerez appealed, and the firm did not file an appellee’s brief. Therefore, the Court reviewed the appeal for prima facie error, and found it. The Court noted that the arbitration award was “the exclusive basis for the Illinois trial court’s judgment,” and that Sekere was challenging that award already. Moreover, Sekerez had challenged the jurisdiction of the Illinois court.

The law firm’s ensuing attempt to have the Lake Superior Court domesticate the Illinois trial court’s judgment on the arbitration award appears, on the face of it, to simply have been an attempt to circumvent the proceedings in the Lake Circuit Court. That was inappropriate, and the Lake Superior Court should have denied the request.

If the law firm had bothered filing an appellate brief, it may have presented some reason why it was doing something other than an end run around the pending proceeding. But it chose not to do so, and lost the chance to defend the judgment in its favor.

Lessons:

  1. A court cannot hear a case if the same action is pending in a different Indiana court.
  2. A law firm-appellee should find the time to file an appellee’s brief.