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Storto v. Becker

June 25, 2003

JOSEPH P. STORTO, P.C., D/B/A STORTO, FINN AND TENUTO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
DIONNE R. BECKER, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 00-MR-973 Honorable Dorothy F. French, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gilleran Johnson

UNPUBLISHED

The instant controversy arises from an attorney fees dispute between the plaintiff law firm, Joseph P. Storto, P.C., d/b/a Storto, Finn & Tenuto, and its former client, the defendant, Dionne Becker. After the parties severed their attorney-client relationship, the plaintiff filed a petition seeking $1,823.92 in attorney fees. The defendant responded that her contract with the plaintiff law firm was void because the plaintiff law firm was not registered to practice law in Illinois as required by Supreme Court Rule 721(c) (166 Ill. 2d. R. 721(c)). She subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff thereafter filed a timely notice of appeal. We reverse and remand for additional proceedings.

On November 21, 2000, the defendant entered into a contract with the plaintiff to represent her in her post-dissolution proceedings against her former husband, James Becker. The plaintiff represented the defendant over the next 14 months. On January 10, 2002, the defendant filed a motion for substitution of attorneys and requested that Benjamin Hyink be allowed to file an appearance on behalf of the defendant. The trial court granted the motion and also granted the plaintiff leave to file a petition for attorney fees.

On March 20, 2002, the plaintiff filed a petition, as amended, seeking to collect $1,823.92 in attorney fees from the defendant. The petition noted that the defendant had already paid $21,136 in attorney fees in the course of the plaintiff's representation of her. On April 15, 2002, the defendant filed an answer to the petition, denying that the fees the plaintiff sought to recover had actually been incurred or were reasonable.

On June 21, 2002, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the plaintiff had never been registered to practice law in Illinois as was required by Supreme Court Rule 721 (166 Ill. 2d R. 721). Because the plaintiff was not registered to practice law, the defendant argued that the contract she had entered into with the plaintiff for legal fees was void. As such, she argued that she was not obligated to pay any of the plaintiff's purported fees.

On July 5, 2002, the plaintiff filed a response. The plaintiff argued that the defendant's argument was moot because, on June 24, 2002, it had paid its registration fees to engage in the practice of law for 1981 and all successive years through 2002. The plaintiff also argued that, even if it was not properly registered at the time in question, this did not affect the ability of its licensed attorneys to represent the defendant. Furthermore, the plaintiff argued that because Rule 721 was not enacted to protect public health and safety, the defendant could not seek to void her contract with the plaintiff due to its noncompliance with Rule 721.

On September 9, 2002, following a hearing, the trial court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment. The trial court held that no valid contract existed between the plaintiff and the defendant. The trial court explained that, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 721, no corporation that was not properly registered could practice law. Because the plaintiff was not properly registered, it was without authority to provide legal services. Because it was without authority to render legal services, the contract it had entered into with the defendant was not valid. Following the trial court's ruling, the plaintiff filed a timely notice of appeal.

At the outset, we note that the purpose of a motion for summary judgment is to determine whether a genuine issue of triable fact exists and that such a motion should be granted only when "the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law" (735 ILCS 5/2--1005(c) (West 2000)). Nickel v. Hollywood Casino-Aurora, Inc., 313 Ill. App. 3d 925, 928-29 (2000). An order granting summary judgment should be reversed if the evidence shows that a genuine issue of material fact exists or if the judgment was incorrect as a matter of law. Clausen v. Carroll, 291 Ill. App. 3d 530, 536 (1997). The disposition of a motion for summary judgment is not discretionary and the standard of review is de novo. Evans v. General Motors Corp., 314 Ill. App. 3d 609, 617 (2000).

The Illinois Supreme Court has promulgated certain rules on the discipline of attorneys and their admission to the state bar. These rules provide the requirements for those wanting to attain a license to practice law in the state. See 188 Ill. 2d R. 701. The rules also provide for additional requirements for those seeking to practice law through a professional corporation. See 166 Ill. 2d R. 721. For instance, Rule 721(a) requires that each corporate shareholder be licensed to practice law. See 166 Ill. 2d R. 721(a). Rule 721(b) requires that the corporation do nothing that would violate the standards of professional conduct applicable to attorneys. See 166 Ill. 2d R. 721(b). Rule 721(c) requires each corporation that seeks to practice law to register with the Illinois Supreme Court. See 166 Ill. 2d R. 721(c). Specifically, this section provides:

"No corporation or association or limited liability company shall engage in the practice of law in Illinois, or open or maintain an establishment for that purpose in Illinois, without a certificate of registration issued by this court." 166 Ill. 2d R. 721(c).

Additionally, each corporation must pay an initial registration fee of $50 (166 Ill. 2d R. 721(e)) and an annual renewal fee of $40 to maintain its certificate of registration (166 Ill. 2d R. 721(f)). Finally, "[a]ny violation of [Rule 721] by the corporation *** is a ground for the court to terminate or suspend the right of the corporation *** to practice law or otherwise to discipline it." 166 Ill. 2d R. 721(b). (We note that the Illinois Supreme Court has recently amended Rule 721. See Official Reports Advance Sheet No. 8 (April 16, 2003), R. 721, effective July 1, 2003. However, these amendments are not germane to the case at bar.)

The question we are confronted with herein is whether a law firm's failure to register as a corporation with the Illinois Supreme Court pursuant to Rule 721 provides a remedy to a former client of the law firm to void an otherwise valid contract with the law firm because of that Rule 721 violation. We note that no Illinois court has previously addressed this precise issue. However, our research reveals that when a lawyer violates a supreme court rule regarding the discipline of attorneys and their admission to the state bar, a client or interested party, before receiving relief, must demonstrate how he has been harmed by the violation of the rule. See People v. Brigham, 151 Ill. 2d 58 (1992); Murges v. Bowman, 275 Ill. App. 3d 153 (1995).

In Brigham, the defendant filed a post-conviction petition arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective because he was not on the master roll of attorneys at the time of his trial. Brigham, 151 Ill. 2d at 59. The trial court dismissed the defendant's petition, but the appellate court reversed, finding that the defendant had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. Brigham, 151 Ill. 2d at 59. The supreme court then reversed the ...


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