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Lewis v. Berkowitz & Shagrin, P.A.

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

September 25, 2014

RONALD E. LEWIS, JR., Defendant-Below Appellant,
v.
BERKOWITZ & SHAGRIN, P.A., Plaintiff-Below Appellee.

Submitted: June 2, 2014.

Upon Consideration of Appellant's Appeal of the Decision of the Court of Common Pleas.

Samuel L. Guy, Esquire, Attorney at Law, 1601 Concord Pike, Suite 38C, P.O. Box 25464, Wilmington, DE 19899, Attorney for Appellant.

Shauna T. Hagan, Esquire, Kelleher & Laffey, Attorneys at Law, 1509 Gilpin Avenue, Wilmington, DE 19806, Attorney for Appellee.

OPINION

MEDINILLA, J.

INTRODUCTION

Appellant Ronald E. Lewis, Jr. ("Son") appeals the decision of the Court of Common Pleas which granted a judgment in favor of Appellee Gerald Z. Berkowitz, Esq. ("Berkowitz"), arising from an unpaid attorney's fee. The Court of Common Pleas held that Berkowitz was not collaterally estopped from collecting the remainder of the unpaid fee from Son, despite the fact that Berkowitz had previously collected a portion of the fee from Son's father, Ronald "Butch" E. Lewis ("Father") in a prior action in the Justice of the Peace Court. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Court of Common Pleas is AFFIRMED.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On July 24, 2009, Son and Father cosigned a retainer agreement with Gerald Z. Berkowitz, of Berkowitz, Shagrin & Jones, P.A., for legal services related to Son's divorce matter.[1] When the legal representation ended, there remained an outstanding balance of $6, 685.00 in attorney's fees.[2] Pursuant to the retainer agreement, finance charges were assessed, and Father and Son were billed a total of $7, 123.46.[3]

On February 3, 2010, Berkowitz filed a debt collection action against Father in the Justice of the Peace Court for $7, 123.46 plus $40.00 in court costs (hereinafter "Father I").[4] Following trial, a judgment was entered against Father in the amount of $1, 625.00 plus costs and interest.[5] Berkowitz appealed the decision to the Court of Common Pleas, but thereafter filed a stipulation of dismissal before the matter was heard.[6]

On August 4, 2011, Berkowitz instituted a second action in the Justice of the Peace Court, this time against Son in an attempt to collect the outstanding balance (hereinafter "Son I").[7] At trial, Son argued that the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded Berkowitz from obtaining a judgment against him because a final judgment of $1, 625 had been obtained against Father in Father I. The Justice of the Peace Court agreed, applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and entered a judgment in favor of Berkowitz for $1, 625.

On August 7, 2012, Berkowitz appealed the Justice of the Peace Court decision in Son I to the Court of Common Pleas. On August 31, 2012, Son filed a Motion to Dismiss and argued collateral estoppel as the basis for dismissal.[8] The Court of Common Pleas heard oral arguments on September 28, 2012, and denied the motion in an opinion dated October 17, 2012, wherein it held that matters outside the pleadings required resolution before it could determine whether collateral estoppel barred the claim.[9]

At trial on June 25, 2013, the parties presented a stipulated record and agreed that the sole legal issue before the Court of Common Pleas was whether Berkowitz was collaterally estopped from pursuing his claim against Son.[10] The Court of Common Pleas held that Son failed to meet his burden of establishing the elements of collateral estoppel, and awarded ...


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