King v. Fox

Decision Date13 June 2006
Citation851 N.E.2d 1184,7 N.Y.3d 181
PartiesEdward C. KING, Appellant, v. Lawrence A. FOX, Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Profeta & Eisenstein, New York City (Fred R. Profeta, Jr., of counsel), for appellant.

Richard M. Maltz, PLLC, New York City (Richard M. Maltz and David Hammer of counsel), for respondent.



The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has asked us, by means of three certified questions, whether New York law permits a client to ratify an attorney's fee agreement during a period of continuous representation; whether such ratification is possible if attorney misconduct has occurred; and whether a client can ratify an unconscionable fee agreement.


The 30-year relationship between the parties has been summarized by the Second Circuit essentially as follows. In November 1972, plaintiff Edward C. King, a musician and songwriter, became a member of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Upon joining the band, King contributed to writing, arranging and performing some of its most popular songs, including, "Sweet Home Alabama." In 1974, the band and its members entered into an exclusive recording agreement with MCA Records, Inc. under which MCA would collect royalties and pay them to the band. During the period from 1974 to 1975, artist's royalties exceeded $1,000,000 per annum. At that time, King received only writer's royalties since artist's royalties were being used to buy out Al Kooper, the band's manager.

Before King became a member, the band had recorded 24 songs at a studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In 1974, the band had King overdub1 guitar parts on 17 of these songs that eventually became known as the "Muscle Shoals Masters." The band subsequently transferred its rights in these masters to MCA. In May 1975, King left the band due to a deteriorating relationship with its leader, Ronnie Van Zant. King then sought to determine his right to royalties through the band's attorney, but was unsuccessful.

In August 1975, King sought the advice of a New York entertainment lawyer, who secured an advance on King's writer's royalties and retained one third of the advance as his fee. King believed that he was also due artist's royalties because the buyout of Kooper likely was complete. The entertainment lawyer advised King that he would need a litigator to determine his right to artist's royalties and referred King to Lawrence A. Fox, Esq.

In October 1975, King met with Fox in New York City. Fox explained that he was a personal injury lawyer who had little experience in entertainment law. His fee was not discussed at this meeting. Shortly after that meeting, Fox contacted the band's attorney, who (Fox testified) told him that King was not entitled to any royalties, that King owed the band money and that she would not cooperate in providing information. At a meeting the following month, Fox advised King that he planned to pursue discovery of the agreements among the parties to determine King's rights. At this meeting, Fox stated that he would represent King on a one-third contingency basis because, according to King, he was in "dire financial straits and had no money for a retainer." King testified that he was under the impression that the fee would be taken only from whatever accumulated royalties were recovered not from future royalties. No other fee arrangement was discussed at this meeting.

On November 26, 1975, Fox sent King a retainer letter that stated: "[The] fee for services in this matter will be a contingency fee, based upon any money recovered from the defendants. Our fee for representing you will be 1/3 of the recovery, whether by way of settlement, trial, judgment or other method." King signed the letter agreement and returned it to Fox.

On February 10, 1976, Fox obtained a copy of the exclusive recording agreement with MCA. The agreement required MCA to pay royalties directly to King and also provided that royalties would not be suspended in the event a member left the band. Thus, the agreement appeared to render MCA defenseless against King's assertion that he was entitled to royalties. On September 30, 1976, Fox initiated a lawsuit against MCA, seeking the unpaid (artist's) royalties (according to King, writer's royalties were discontinued by MCA after the initiation of the lawsuit). In January 1977, MCA answered and, in April 1977, it impleaded Sir Productions, Inc., the band's manager, who claimed that King owed it 20% of his royalties. King claims that the manager's entitlement to a portion of his royalties was the only issue in contention. Fox, on the other hand, asserts that MCA mounted a "vigorous defense" and that he had to use compulsory process in order to obtain discovery.

In August 1978, a proposed settlement of the litigation was reached. The settlement agreement provided for a lump sum payment of King's past-due royalties and periodic future royalties to be paid directly to King. MCA, however, retained 20% of the past-due royalties in escrow with its law firm, representing the amount of the cross claim interposed by Sir Productions. The escrowed amount was later reduced to 10% after Fox settled the Sir Productions claim.

King and Fox discussed the proposed settlement agreement by telephone. In that conversation, Fox advised King that under the fee agreement Fox would be entitled to one third not only of all past royalties recovered, but also of all future royalties. King recalled that he was "shocked and surprised" at this revelation but did not pursue the issue since obtaining the settlement funds was of "utmost importance" to him. At this time, King told Fox that his wife wanted her family's attorney in New Jersey, John K. Groon (now deceased), to review the settlement documents.

Meanwhile, Groon had sent a letter to Fox advising him that he was King's local counsel and that he would like to review the settlement documents. Fox wrote Groon that he had spoken to Groon's associate and that as far as they were both concerned, all questions were answered. Fox also stated that he should contact him to expedite the settlement and that time was of the essence:

"By November 11, 1978 I must serve a summons and complaint on Sir Productions, Inc., otherwise MCA will deposit the money into court as a stakeholder with the City of New York. If that happens, we will have to pay MCA's legal fees, the money will not earn interest, and when the matter is ultimately resolved it will take a long time plus a fee on Ed [King]'s behalf to receive the money back from the New York City Treasury."

In fact, this was a misrepresentation. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the monies were not to be deposited into court but would remain in escrow. On October 23, 1978, Fox sent Groon a second letter saying that "[t]he one third recovery we receive includes all royalty money Ed [King] is entitled to resulting from his involvment [sic] with [the band] as that was our agreement." This letter concluded with an additional request that Groon call Fox if further discussion was needed.

King signed the settlement documents at Groon's office. King asserts that Groon wanted to review all of the papers, but that Fox's statement that he had until November 11, 1978 to avoid the stakeholder proceeding caused King to panic and accept settlement, and that King therefore told Groon to have nothing more to do with the matter. On October 25, 1978, Groon sent a letter to Fox enclosing the executed settlement documents. Shortly thereafter, Groon died. After King received the settlement proceeds, he visited Fox at his New York office to discuss the fee arrangement. King relates that during his visit he was "blown away" when Fox showed him six crates of what Fox said were papers relating to his lawsuit. King asserts that Fox made him "feel embarrassed to bring up the fee arrangement" issue, which he did not.

After the 1978 settlement, MCA began to pay King both artist's and writer's royalties semiannually. The payments were sent to Fox who deducted his one-third share and remitted the remainder to King with a cover letter making a specific reference to the one-third payment to Fox's law firm for legal fees. In 1981, King requested that Fox represent him in another matter concerning the Muscle Shoals Masters at which time there was no discussion of fees. The parties presumed that Fox would take one third of whatever was recovered. The following year, Fox brought an action against MCA demanding the artist's royalties due to King. The matter was finally settled in 1989 and MCA began paying King royalties for the work done on the Muscle Shoals Masters. In the late 1980s, Fox also represented King in a dispute between the estates of former band members in federal District Court in Atlanta. Fox "traveled to Atlanta for three days, where he worked with King's local counsel" and participated in "settlement conferences on King's behalf until the matter was eventually resolved in or around 1989."

The fee arrangement continued uninterrupted from 1979 to 1987. The topic, however, arose again in 1986 when King mentioned it to Fox during a telephone conversation. King relates that when he mentioned the fee agreement, Fox stated that he fought hard to win back King's royalties and that King should be grateful. Fox allegedly went on to state that the fee arrangement was related to the 1978 settlement agreement which had been approved by the judge and that he was unable to modify it even if he wished. King contends that this statement caused him to believe that a court order obligated him to pay Fox the one third of his royalties. No such order exists. King further states that he was "strongly intimidated" from raising any further issues about the fee agreement. Fox denies making any statement that the fee agreement was connected to the 1978 settlement order.

In 1987, King wrote to Fox asking him to stop withholding one third of his writer's royalties, which he...

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