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Law Update

Law Firm Not Entitled To Directed Verdict On Consumer Protection
Act Claim Arising From Submission of Erroneous Bill For Legal Services

Becksted, et al v. J. P. Nadeau, et al , No. 2006-438 (June 26, 2007) 

Facts: The plaintiffs are carpenters who were hired by the defendants in June of 2004 to construct an apartment for Justin Nadeau, an attorney with the Nadeau Law Offices. In July, J.P. Nadeau, who is also an attorney with the law firm, began representing the plaintiffs in an unrelated matter.

The defendants paid the plaintiffs for their work until receiving the final invoice totaling $39,000, because the defendants disputed the amount of the final bill which they claimed exceeded the agreed-upon price for the work. The defendants also billed the plaintiffs $12,001.50 for 57.15 hours of legal work at the rate of $210 per hour.

The defendants informed the plaintiffs that they disputed the amount charged for the construction, and offered to waive their legal fees in exchange for the plaintiffs waiver of the $39,000 balance. In the meantime, the plaintiffs had completed their construction, and the defendants continued to represent the plaintiffs. The defendants sent the plaintiffs an updated bill for legal services in the amount of $15,708.

The plaintiffs, upon examining the defendants' original bill, determined that the total had been miscalculated and that they should have been charged approximately $5,000 rather than $12,001.50. They filed a complaint with the Attorney Dispute Resolution Committee (ADRC). As a result, the defendants recalculated the total due and sent a corrected bill in the amount of $8,589.

The plaintiffs, whose bill remained unpaid, obtained a mechanic's lien against the defendants' law office and filed a writ alleging breach of contract, quantum meruit and violations of the CPA. The CPA claim was severed from the remaining claims. At trial, the defendants moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the claims resulted from mere billing errors and did not constitute unfair or deceptive practices. The trial court granted the defendants' motion, ruling that the evidence did not support a finding that the defendants engaged in deceptive acts because the plaintiffs were not deceived by the bill, which was itemized and erroneous on its face, and because they did not substain any injury since they did not pay the bill.

Held:    Reversed and remanded. 

The Court held that a rational jury could find that the defendants had attempted to deceive the plaintiffs by intentionally inflating their bill for legal services, and then threatening to sue the plaintiffs, in order to persuade the plaintiffs to waive their bill. The Court noted that a jury could also find that the defendants made an honest error and that their conduct was not deceitful, but concluded that this determination should have been left for the jury.

The Court also held that the trial court erred in granting the defendants' motion for directed verdict based on the absence of actual damages. The Consumer Protection Act authorizes an award of "actual damages or $1,000, whichever is greater", in addition to costs and attorneys' fees. There is no requirement that the plaintiff prove actual damages.


Mike Wallenius




Attorneys at Law

1838 Elm Street, Manchester, NH 03104
Ph 603.634.4300 - Fax 603.626.3647

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