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Soni v. Wellmike Enterprise Co. Ltd.

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Third Division

March 26, 2014

SURJIT P. SONI, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
WELLMIKE ENTERPRISE CO. LTD., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. GC045367, Jan A. Pluim, Judge.

Page 1478

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

The Soni Law Firm, M. Danton Richardson and Leo E. Lundberg, Jr., for Plaintiff and Appellant.

WHGG, Ellen J. Wang and John D. van Loben Sels for Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

KLEIN, P. J.

Plaintiff and appellant Surjit P. Soni (Mr. Soni) doing business as (dba) The Soni Law Firm (hereafter, Soni or the Soni firm) appeals a postjudgment order denying its motion for an award of attorney fees as against Wellmike Enterprise Co. Ltd. and Mike Chen (collectively, Wellmike).

After prevailing in its action against Wellmike to recover unpaid attorney fees, the Soni firm sought to recover attorney fees as the prevailing party, pursuant to the attorney fee provision in the retainer agreement. Mr. Soni contended he was a sole practitioner who retained other attorneys to represent his interests. The trial court denied recovery on the ground attorney fees were not recoverable because Soni operated as a law firm which was represented in this litigation by employees or associates of the firm, rather than by outside counsel. (Trope v. Katz (1995) 11 Cal.4th 274 [45 Cal.Rptr.2d 241, 902 P.2d 259] (Trope); Carpenter & Zuckerman, LLP v. Cohen (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 373 [124 Cal.Rptr.3d 598] (Carpenter).)

Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s determination Soni operated as a law firm and that the attorneys who represented the law firm in this action were its employees. Because the law firm was represented by its own employees or associates, the trial court properly held attorney fees were not recoverable by Soni. The order is affirmed.

Page 1480

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Soni performed legal services for Wellmike. Soni later sued Wellmike to recover unpaid legal fees, and sought damages of $28, 408. Soni fully prevailed. Following a nonjury trial, the trial court awarded Soni damages for breach of contract in the amount of $28, 384. The judgment entered February 9, 2012 provided attorney fees and costs were to be requested by formal motion.

On or about March 20, 2012, Soni filed a motion for attorney fees, seeking $120, 912 as the fees it allegedly “incurred in connection with this case.” Soni invoked paragraph IV.B of its Attorney-Client Agreement, which states in relevant part: “Collection Expenses – Collections expenses and/or legal fees incurred in the collection of overdue balances (including fees for THE SONI LAW FIRM attorney, law clerk and paralegal time, to the extent authorized by law) will be paid by the delinquent client. Such expenses and fees shall include those of our in-house personnel as well as those of any outside agency which we may employ.” (Italics added.)

Soni’s moving papers acknowledged the general rule that a party cannot recover fees for self-representation. However, Soni contended “Mr. Soni is a sole proprietorship and did not represent himself. Rather, he was represented by other attorneys and he is entitled to recover the fees for their work.”

In opposition, Wellmike argued that Soni’s attorney fee provision limited recovery of the fees of its own in-house personnel “to the extent authorized by law.” Here, Soni, the law firm plaintiff, represented itself through its in-house personnel, and therefore was prohibited from recovering attorney fees incurred in prosecuting its lawsuit. Wellmike contended Soni was trying to circumvent the prohibition on recovery of attorney fees for self-representation by claiming that as a sole proprietorship, the Soni Law Firm was not a law firm but merely a dba of Mr. Soni, and therefore any fees paid to attorneys Richardson, Lundberg and Perez were fees attributable to the representation of Mr. Soni rather than the Soni firm.

Wellmike cited the deposition testimony of Mr. Soni to show that attorneys Richardson, Lundberg and Perez were employees of the Soni firm and that they worked on this case for the interest of the firm. Wellmike further argued that in any event, the amount of the fee request was excessive.

On April 19, 2012, the matter came on for hearing and was taken under submission. Later, the trial court entered an order denying Soni’s motion for attorney fees, stating: “Although ‘The Soni Law Firm’ is identified as the fictitious business name for Mr. Soni, there is ample evidence that it operates

Page 1481

as a law firm and that the attorneys who represented the law firm in this action are its employees. [Citation.] Therefore, based on the rule set forth in Trope v. Katz (1995) 11 Cal.4th 274 [45 Cal.Rptr.2d 241, 902 P.2d 259] and Carpenter[, supra,] 195 Cal.App.4th 373, attorney’s fees are not recoverable because the law firm was represented by an employee or associate of the firm.”

This appeal followed.

CONTENTIONS

Soni contends he was not self-represented and therefore was entitled to an award of attorney fees as the prevailing party. Soni’s basic contention is that the trial court erroneously viewed Soni as a “firm, ” rather than as an individual doing business under a fictitious name, and treated the fiction of a dba as it if were a separate entity.

DISCUSSION

1. Standard of appellate review.

Generally, an order granting or denying an award of attorney fees is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard of review. (Carpenter, supra, 195 Cal.App.4th at p. 378.) However, the determination of whether the criteria for an award of attorney fees and costs have been met is a question of law for our de novo review. (Ibid.; Sessions Payroll Management, Inc. v. Noble Construction Co. (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 671, 677 [101 Cal.Rptr.2d 127].) As for any disputed factual issues, the trial court’s findings are ...


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