Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Special Division
JAMES E. BRADY, III, Appellant,
PATRICK B. STARKE, AND PATRICK B. STARKE, ATTORNEY AT LAW, P.C., Respondents.
from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The
Honorable Sandra Midkiff, Judge
Before: Cynthia L. Martin, Presiding Judge, Gary D. Witt,
Judge and Zel M. Fischer, Special Judge
Cynthia L. Martin, Judge
Brady ("Brady") appeals from the entry of judgment
in favor of Patrick Starke ("Starke") and Patrick
B. Starke, Attorney at Law, P.C. ("Law Firm") on
Brady's claim to declare a fee-sharing agreement
unenforceable, and on Starke's and Law Firm's
counterclaim for breach of contract. Because a valid and
enforceable fee-sharing agreement existed between the
parties, we affirm.
and Procedural Background
and Starke are licensed attorneys in Missouri. Starke has
practiced law for over thirty years, while Brady has been
admitted to practice law since 2009. From approximately May
2010 until July 2012, both attorneys operated out of the same
office building in Blue Springs, Missouri. Starke owns the
building and rented office space to Brady for Brady's own
law practice, The Brady Law Firm, LLC.
large, stand-alone sign sits in front of the office building
near the property's entrance from the road. The sign
reads "Starke Law Offices, " and lists the address
and a phone number. The phone number belongs to Starke. The
door into the building reads "Law Offices, " and
lists Starke's phone number. The names of other attorneys
occupying office space in the building are listed on the door
underneath Starke's phone number. Each attorney has the
designation "Attorney at Law" below their name, but
nothing indicates that the listed attorneys are separate,
unaffiliated law offices. This is the only public entrance into
entering the office building, there is a single, shared
reception area where a paralegal, Melodie Chrisman
("Chrisman"), would greet clients and visitors for
all the attorneys. Chrisman greeted Brady's visitors the
same as Starke's visitors. Chrisman answered phone calls
for all of the attorneys in the building, including Brady. It
was not uncommon for Brady's clients to call Starke's
phone number--the one posted on the sign and door--in order
to contact Brady. As with visitors, Chrisman treated callers
for Brady the same as she treated callers for Starke.
rental agreement between Starke and Brady was oral. Under the
terms of the agreement, Brady was to pay Starke $500 per
month in rent, as well as postage and copying expenses. In
addition to his office space and the reception area, Brady
enjoyed shared use of Starke's kitchen, conference room,
and other common areas.
provided Brady with clerical forms, such as client intake
forms and medical authorizations. In fact, Chrisman testified
that on one occasion, Brady used a provided medical
authorization form and listed "JAMES E. BRADY, III,
ATTORNEY AT LAW" in the first paragraph, but referred to
"Starke Law Offices" in the paragraph relating to
hoped that he would receive an overflow of Starke's
business by having an office in Starke's building. Starke
also wanted to help Brady build his law practice. To that
end, Starke passed cases to Brady when he did not have time
to pursue them or was otherwise not interested in pursuing
them. In such instances, Chrisman or other staff members
would call the client to say that Starke could not take their
case but that he was referring the case to "a young
attorney here in our office." Chrisman testified that
she would explain to the client that "[i]f there's a
problem, you know, let us know, you can call us back; we just
want to make sure that you're happy." Chrisman
stated that "[t]hat's kind of the way we addressed
all of our clients."
addition to the rental agreement, Brady and Starke orally
agreed to split any attorney's fees earned from the cases
they referred to each other. The "generating
attorney" would be entitled to 25% of the total fee
earned, with the remaining 75% going to the primary attorney.
Even after referring a case, however, Starke remained
available and responsible to the clients on those cases.
the time that Brady maintained an office in Starke's
building, Laura Ziegler ("Ziegler") came to Starke
for representation on a personal injury case. Starke had
previously represented Ziegler on several other matters.
After reviewing Ziegler's file, Starke decided to have
Brady take the lead on the case because Starke had a heavy
caseload. Starke met with Ziegler twice before passing the
case off to Brady. Starke introduced Ziegler to Brady while
Ziegler was in Starke's office. Starke testified that he
would have told Ziegler that he was available, and to call
him if there was a problem, because he almost always said
words to that effect when passing off a client. The trial
court found this testimony to be credible.
and Starke discussed Ziegler's case numerous times. Brady
sought and received advice from Starke on how to proceed,
particularly after the defendant failed to timely answer
Ziegler's petition. Starke advised Brady on default
judgment proceedings. Starke advised Brady to submit medical
evidence at the default judgment hearing and to seek $2
million in damages rather than $1 million. Starke recommended
that Brady not attempt to collect the default judgment until
after a year passed.
2012, Brady informed Starke that he was moving out of
Starke's office space. At this time, the attorneys signed
a letter acknowledging and memorializing their pre- existing
oral agreement to split fees earned on certain cases 25%-75%.
Specifically, the letter stated that Brady would pay Starke
25% of the legal fees earned in two cases, Ziegler and Byron
Chaney ("Chaney"), "for [his]
involvement." Additionally, Starke disclaimed any
interest he might have in the fees earned in a third case.
The letter also mentioned rent and expenses owed to Starke,
but stated that they could be paid out of the fees earned in
the Chaney case. Both attorneys signed the letter. Brady
later paid Starke for his portion of the Chaney fees,
including an amount for unpaid rent.
and Starke continued discussing Ziegler's case after
Brady moved out of Starke's building. Brady shared
information about the case with Starke and Starke continued
to offer advice to Brady about collecting the default
judgment. Brady and Starke met and discussed Ziegler's
case on October 31, 2012, the eve of the one-year anniversary
of the default judgment. Their collaborative discussions
about how best to proceed in collecting the Ziegler judgment
continued into the following year.
advised Starke that there was a reasonable chance
Ziegler's case would settle at a mediation scheduled in
April 2013. Ziegler's case did, in fact, settle as a
result of the mediation, generating an attorney's fee in
the amount of $380, 000. Based on the fee-sharing agreement,
Starke was entitled to $95, 000 of this fee.
initially held Starke's share of the Ziegler fee in his
trust account, but later distributed Starke's share of
the fee to himself after filing a petition seeking a
declaration that the fee-sharing agreement was unenforceable.
Starke and Law Firm filed a counterclaim for breach of
contract, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment
seeking to recover Starke's share of the Ziegler fee.
parties tried the case to the court, and requested findings
of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Rule
73.01(c). The trial court's judgment included
detailed findings and conclusions, and found in favor of
Starke and Law Firm on the counterclaim for breach of
contract and on Brady's request for a declaratory
judgment. The trial court awarded Starke $95, 000 in damages,
plus pre-judgment interest pursuant to section 408.020 from
May 2, 2013. The trial court also awarded post-judgment