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Webb v. Oxley

Decided: August 17, 1961.

WEBB ET UX.
v.
OXLEY



Appeal from the Circuit Court for Montgomery County; Pugh, J.

Brune, C. J., and Hammond, Prescott, Horney and Sybert, JJ. Sybert, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

Sybert

John E. Oxley, appellee, a Montgomery County attorney, was retained by John C. Webb and his wife, Helen H. Webb, appellants, to represent them in a land condemnation proceeding filed against the Webbs by the United States Government in the District Court of the United States for the District of Maryland in December, 1955. The record shows that Mr. Oxley is a reputable lawyer of 35 years' experience in general practice, including extensive trial work. He testified that he agreed to represent the Webbs after assuring himself that the Webbs' previous attorney was "no longer in the case", and had been discharged by them. In March, 1957, the parties agreed to a retainer and contingent fee arrangement under which Mr. Oxley should receive, after conclusion of the case, a flat fee of $500.00 and in addition 20% of any amount obtained in the suit for the property in excess of $9,750.00, the

figure already offered to the Webbs by the government. The $500.00 fee and expenses of litigation were to be deducted from the excess of the jury award above $9,750.00, before computation of the contingent fee.

The three day trial of the condemnation case was held on October 22-24, 1957, in the District Court. The jury's award for the property was $14,000.00, a figure far below the Webbs' asserted valuation of about $43,000.00.

Mr. Oxley was then discharged by the Webbs by letter dated October 26, 1957, in which Mr. Webb assured Mr. Oxley that "We do appreciate the work you have done for us and this action is not meant in any way to indicate a lack of confidence." The Webbs then retained other counsel to prosecute a motion for a new trial and an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals, both of which were unsuccessful.

There was subsequent correspondence between Mr. Oxley and the Webbs concerning the fee. On December 4, 1957, Mr. Webb, in a letter to Mr. Oxley, listed the expenses of litigation and computed the contingent fee due Mr. Oxley, over and above the flat fee of $500.00, as $448.00. He then stated: "This makes a total due you of $948. The question of a new trial has not been determined as yet. If a new trial is not taken, your fee will be forthcoming as the award is received. If a new trial is awarded and taken, the payment will be further delayed." In none of the correspondence appearing in the record is there any suggestion of dissatisfaction on the part of the Webbs with the competence of Mr. Oxley's representation of them.

After the Webbs lost their motion for a new trial and appeal, and received from the clerk of the District Court the $14,000.00 awarded by the jury, but did not pay his fee, Mr. Oxley sued the Webbs in assumpsit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. At the jury trial Mr. Webb, who is not an attorney, appeared in proper person. A jury verdict in favor of Mr. Oxley for $1130.00 resulted, the full amount of the fee plus interest. Mr. and Mrs. Webb appealed from the judgment entered on the verdict.

The brief filed by Mr. Webb on behalf of himself and Mrs. Webb is inartificially drafted and discursive. Stated concisely

(relatively speaking), the contentions presented therein appear to be as follows: (1) That the Circuit Court for Montgomery County did not have jurisdiction to hear and determine the case; (2) that the trial court erroneously sustained objections to appellants' attempt to prove negligence in the performance of a contract for legal services by asking appellee if he had ever read certain legal textbooks; (3) that the trial court erred by demonstrating prejudicial bias (a) in refusing to allow testimony by Mr. Webb concerning "the various sources that refused assistance in the location of lawyers qualified to serve as counsel or expert witness or other aid in this case"; (b) in asking Mr. Webb, in the manner of "stern cross-examination", certain questions relative to the non-payment of the fee to Mr. Oxley, and in ignoring the contention of the Webbs that Mr. Oxley had, prior to the trial of the condemnation case, without informing the Webbs, determined not to follow the trial strategy agreed ...


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