Court Finds Attorney Failed to Ensure Punjabi-Speaking Client Understood Attorney-Client Representation Agreement
There’s a growing need for having English-language legal representation agreements translated to languages spoken by the attorneys’ foreign clients to ensuring that foreign clients understand the scope and fees associated with an attorney-client relationship. In Schneider v. Jagar, the plaintiff filed suit seeking to recoup unpaid legal fees from a former Punjabi-speaking client who had filed for bankruptcy. As discussed below, the court did not look favorably upon the fact that the attorney did not have the representation agreement translated to his client’s native language, Punjabi, and denied the attorney’s appeal.
A key issue was the defendant’s inability to understand English. The defendant’s native language was Punjabi, and the defendant could not speak or read English. The defendant had never worked outside of the home and was not well-educated. The defendant married her husband in India, and they later moved to the United States.
Unfortunately, the defendant’s husband died shortly before the defendant gave birth to the couple’s daughter. Although the defendant’s husband had assets and a significant 401(k) plan with his employer, the husband’s children from a previous marriage challenged the validity of the defendant’s marriage to their father and disputed the defendant’s entitlement to the estate’s assets.
The plaintiff, who was the Punjabi-speaking defendant’s former attorney, represented the defendant in the probate proceeding for the defendant’s late husband for a period of five years.
Plaintiff’s Representation Agreements With Punjabi-Speaking Defendant
As with most attorney-client relationships, the parties entered into a Representation Agreement (“Agreement.”) The defendant signed three separate agreements during the course of their attorney-client relationship, all of which were written in English.
According to the first agreement, signed in 2005, the defendant agreed to pay the plaintiff his hourly billing rate of $300 per hour if she was not appointed the personal representative of her husband’s estate. The plaintiff admitted that he never discussed the details of this agreement with the defendant and did not know whether or not she understood the terms of the agreement.
The defendant also signed another Representation agreement in 2007 in regards to the probate matter proceeding to trial on the issue of the legitimacy of her marriage. At this time, the defendant stood to receive about $600,000 from her husband’s estate and the defendant agreed to pay the plaintiff 7.5% of whatever she received from the estate. The plaintiff noted in the Representation agreement his understanding that someone would translate it for the defendant given her limited English, and the Punjabi-speaking defendant signed the agreement indicating that her brother had translated the document to her. The plaintiff, however, did not discuss any of the terms with the defendant himself or take action to ensure her understanding of the agreement.
The defendant signed yet another representation agreement in 2009 in regards to the filing of a lawsuit against the defendant’s late husband’s 401k plan in order to compel the plan to turn over the proceeds to the defendant. Although the plaintiff did not request that anyone translate the agreement to her, the defendant signed the agreement. The plaintiff testified that he assumed that the defendant’s brother would translate this agreement from English to Punjabi like he did the last one.
Attorney Files Suit for Unpaid Fees.
After years of litigation, the defendant eventually recovered $450,000 of her husband’s 401K plan and approximately $600,000 from her husband’s estate. Although the plaintiff purportedly received some compensation from the defendant, he filed a lawsuit in state court for the remainder of the unpaid fees.
Punjabi-Speaking Defendant Files for Bankruptcy.
While the lawsuit was in the discovery phase, the defendant filed for bankruptcy. The plaintiff was the only creditor listed on the defendant’s bankruptcy schedule. The defendant also included a counterclaim against her former attorney for “overpayment” of fees to handle the probate matter.
The plaintiff promptly filed a complaint against the defendant objecting to her attempt to have her debt for unpaid legal fees discharged. The plaintiff claimed that the Punjabi-speaking defendant’s debt for his legal services should be excepted from discharge because the defendant never actually intended to pay the hourly component of his fees.
Trial on Plaintiff’s Creditor Complaint.
At the trial on the plaintiff’s complaint in the bankruptcy proceeding, the defendant testified through a Punjabi interpreter that her brother knew very little English and could only read a “little bit” of English. The defendant also testified that her understanding of the 2007 Representation Agreement was that she was obligated to pay the plaintiff 7.5% of what she recovered from the estate, but not the hourly rate as well. According to the defendant, the plaintiff was entitled to receive $45,000, but instead kept $200,000.
Bankruptcy Court Rules in Punjabi-Speaking Defendant’s Favor.
After trial and hearing additional arguments, the bankruptcy court issued a memorandum opinion in the Punjabi-speaking defendant’s favor. The court held that the plaintiff had failed to provide any information as to how he arrived at the amount of alleged unpaid legal fees. The court also found that the plaintiff had not met his burden of proof on any of his claims against the defendant. Specifically, the lower court held in part as follows: “…[g]iven the defendant’s lack of education and illiteracy in English, and the insufficient evidence regarding the strength of her brother’s command of the English language, [plaintiff] has not demonstrated that [defendant] fully understood the terms of the…Representation Agreements…,.”
9th Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Affirms Decision
After losing in the lower court, the plaintiff appealed to the appellate panel for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ultimately held that the bankruptcy court did not err when it granted the defendant’s motion for discharge of the creditor’s claims and denied the plaintiff’s claims. The court took a number of factors into consideration when making its decision. For example, the court held that it was not persuaded that the defendant’s brother competently translated the Representation Agreement from English to Punjabi to the defendant. The appellate court agreed with the bankruptcy court’s analysis that the plaintiff had not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the agreement had been fully translated from English to Punjabi to the defendant.
The appellate court held that “[a]s an attorney, it would have been better practice for [plaintiff] to ensure that his client understood how he was to be compensated.” The appellate court also took issue with the fact that the plaintiff failed to provide the bankruptcy court with the exact amount of damages he was seeking as well as the method by which he arrived at those calculations, and failed to provide any examples of the defendant’s allegedly false oaths to the bankruptcy court.
Multilingual Translation of Legal Representation Agreements from English to Any Language
As is evident from the case above, it is essential that attorneys ensure their foreign-born clients fully understand any and all attorney-client representation agreements, attorney fee agreements, and take steps to have any agreements translated into their client’s native language to prevent any uncertainty down the road. All Language Alliance, Inc. is able to assist attorneys with translating their legal representation agreements from English to Simplified Chinese, Russian, German, French, Traditional Chinese, Spanish, Scandinavian languages, and other foreign languages.
The case is Eugene Schneider v. Satya Devi Jagar, Bap. No. NC-15-1251-BSKu, decided on April 12, 2017 in the United States Bankruptcy Court Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit.
***This legal document translation blog post should not be construed as legal advice. You should always consult an attorney regarding your specific legal needs.***