RALPH OLSZEWSKI v. JAMES F. JORDAN III, SC 19215

Judicial District of Hartford

 

      Attorney’s Fees; Dissolution of Marriage; Whether Attorneys Acquired an Attorney’s Charging Lien that Arose by Operation of Law when they Secured a Divorce Judgment.  James Jordan and Diane Jordan divorced in 2009.  During the divorce proceedings, James Jordan was represented by Carlo Forzani.  The judgment of dissolution provided that a portion of Forzani’s fees would be paid from the Jordans’ joint investment account.  Thereafter, Diane Jordan’s father, Ralph Olszewski (the plaintiff), brought this action to collect the outstanding balance that James Jordan owed him pursuant to a promissory note.  The plaintiff obtained a prejudgment attachment of the investment account and, after the trial court rendered judgment in his favor, he applied for a property execution.  Forzani and his law firm (the defendants) filed a claim for a determination of interests in the investment account, arguing that they had a claim that was prior in right to the plaintiff’s claim by virtue of an attorney’s charging lien that allegedly arose by operation of law as a result of the divorce action.  The trial court rejected that claim, finding that the recognition of an attorney’s charging lien in the context of a divorce action would violate public policy and rule 1.5 (d) (1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which prohibits the collection of an attorney’s fee that is contingent upon the outcome of a divorce action.  The defendants appealed, claiming that they acquired a charging lien for the full amount of their fees when they successfully obtained a divorce judgment that included a property distribution award.  The Appellate Court (144 Conn. App. 144) determined that, contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, an attorney’s charging lien is not absolutely prohibited as a matter of law in the context of a divorce action.  The court reasoned that recognizing a charging lien in a divorce action would not implicate rule 1.5 (d) (1) because the lien would not render the attorney’s fee contingent upon the outcome of the divorce action but would instead allow an attorney to secure payment for services rendered in connection with the action.  The court added that rule 1.8 (i) (1) generally permits the acquisition of charging liens without specifically prohibiting such liens in divorce actions.  It also emphasized that Connecticut courts have consistently held that an attorney acquires a charging lien on any funds due to the client at the end of the litigation provided that the funds were obtained through the attorney’s efforts and that there was an agreement between the attorney and the client that the fee would be secured by such funds.  The Appellate Court accordingly reversed the judgment and remanded for further proceedings, concluding that under some circumstances an attorney may acquire a charging lien in a dissolution of marriage action.  The Supreme Court will now determine whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the defendants were entitled to an equitable charging lien on marital assets for their attorney’s fees that arose by operation of law when they obtained a judgment for their client in the dissolution action.  If the court answers that question in the affirmative, it will also address whether the charging lien attached as of the date of the commencement of the action and takes priority over the claims of any creditors who subsequently secured an interest in the marital asset in which the defendants claim an interest.