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Christensen Law Office, PLLC v. Olean

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

July 9, 2018

Christensen Law Office, PLLC, Appellant Respondent,
v.
Daniel Olean, Respondent Appellant, Daniel L. Blees, Respondent

          Pine County District Court File No. 58-CV-14-444

          Carl E. Christensen, Christensen Law Office, PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant Christensen Law Office, PLLC)

          Frederic W. Knaak, Holstad & Knaak, PLC, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent Daniel Olean)

          Kevin J. Dunlevy, Michael E. Kreun, Beisel & Dunlevy, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent Daniel L. Blees)

          Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Cleary, Chief Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         An attorney lien under Minn. Stat. § 481.13 (2016) does not attach to a client's homestead property unless the attorney has obtained a valid waiver of that client's homestead exemption under Minn. Stat. § 510.05 (2016).

          OPINION

          HALBROOKS, JUDGE

         In these consolidated appeals, appellant/cross-respondent Christensen Law Office, PLLC, challenges the district court's denial of its Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 motion on the ground that the district court erred by concluding that its attorney lien did not attach to respondent/cross-appellant Daniel Olean's homestead property. In his cross-appeal, Olean argues that the district court erred by granting summary judgment to Christensen Law on his breach-of-contract and fraud claims against Christensen Law. We affirm.

         FACTS

         Christensen Law began its representation of Olean in January 2013 in two appeals arising out of Olean's default on some promissory notes. Kanabec State Bank v. Olean, No. A13-0939 (Minn.App. Feb. 3, 2014), review denied (Minn. Apr. 15, 2014); Kanabec State Bank v. Olean, No. A13-0100 (Minn.App. Dec. 30, 2013), review denied (Minn. Mar. 18, 2014). The parties' retainer agreement provided that Olean would pay Christensen Law for legal services performed and all expenses incurred in its representation.

         Christensen Law's representation involved work on at least 11 parcels of Olean's real property. One parcel, legally described as "North Half of Southwest Quarter (N1/2 of SW1/4) of Section Twenty-eight (28), Township Forty-four (44), Range Twenty-one (21)," included Olean's homestead. On May 3, 2013, Olean conveyed the subject properties by warranty deed to Blees. Five days later, Blees conveyed the properties back to Olean on a contract for deed with Blees as vendor and Olean as vendee. Christensen Law represented Olean on these transactions.

         When Olean signed the retainer agreement with Christensen Law, he believed that only attorney Carl Christensen would be handling the appeals. When an associate attorney worked on the file, Olean was dissatisfied. Ultimately, Christensen Law withdrew from representing Olean on September 20, 2013.

         At the time that Christensen Law withdrew, Olean owed the firm $25, 352.57 in attorney fees and expenses. Because Olean failed to make payments, Christensen Law filed a complaint approximately one year later to establish an attorney lien under Minn. Stat. § 481.13, subd. 1(c) (2016), and to foreclose the lien on Olean's real property, including Olean's homestead, in the event that the other properties did not satisfy the lien first. The complaint alleged that Olean breached the retainer agreement. Olean filed an answer, denying the allegations in the complaint and asserting counterclaims of breach of contract and fraud.

         Christensen Law moved the district court to establish, in a summary proceeding, the lienholder, the amount of the lien, and the property to which the lien attached. The district court granted Christensen Law a $25, 352.57 attorney lien and ordered the lien enforceable "against any real property interest" held by Olean. The district court also ordered that Christensen Law "may apply to the Court to have its attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with this motion added to the judgment; plus any fees and costs incurred after the entry of judgment by service and filing of an appropriate Affidavit of Counsel and accompanying billing records." The district court awarded Christensen Law a judgment of $12, 520.61 for collection costs, including attorney fees, costs, and interest, reasoning that Christensen Law is entitled to collection costs "because Olean's representation agreement with Christensen Law Office PLLC provides for attorney fees, costs, and interest in the collection of any unpaid amounts to the firm."

         Olean appealed the district court's order granting Christensen Law's attorney lien, contending that the district court erred by ruling that the attorney lien is enforceable against any of his real-property interests. Christensen Law Office, PLLC v. Olean, No. A15-0019, 2015 WL 5312159, at *2 (Minn.App. Sept. 14, 2015). This court affirmed the attorney lien but reversed "that part of the judgment providing for the lien to attach to any real-property interest held by Olean" and remanded to the district court "to determine the proper subject of the lien." Id. at *3 (emphasis added). We noted that "[b]ecause Christensen Law opted to proceed under Minn. Stat. § 481.13, subd. 1(c), the judgment should have been limited to a lien against property involved in the appeals on which Christensen Law represented Olean." Id.

         On remand, Christensen Law moved for an order granting relief, specifically asking the district court to identify the property to which the attorney lien attached, to determine the priority of the attorney lien as it related to Blees's interest, and to enforce the attorney lien through judgment. Christensen Law also moved for partial summary judgment on its breach-of-contract claim against Olean. At the same time, Blees moved for an order of indemnification on the ground that Olean is obligated to defend him under the terms of the warranty deed and contract for deed.

         In a July 2016 order, the district court awarded Christensen Law a $20, 449.19 judgment, enforceable "against Daniel Olean's actual present real estate interests, and not to any property protected by a homestead exemption." (Emphasis added.) The district court did not rule on Christensen Law's motion for partial summary judgment.

         Christensen Law filed a letter with the district court requesting reconsideration of the July 2016 order, reasoning that the district court erroneously concluded that the attorney lien cannot attach to Olean's homestead and failed to rule on Christensen Law's attorney-lien-enforcement and breach-of-contract claims. The district court granted leave, and Christensen Law moved for summary judgment on its own breach-of-contract claim and on Olean's breach-of-contract and fraud counterclaims, and for Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 relief.

         In a May 2017 order, the district court granted summary judgment to Christensen Law on its breach-of-contract claim and on Olean's breach-of-contract and fraud counterclaims. The district court concluded that Christensen Law "can enforce its $20, 449.19 lien in a manner consistent with Minnesota Statutes Chapter 550." The district court also granted Blees's motion for indemnity from Olean and declaratory judgment.

         Blees moved to amend the May 2017 order, requesting that the district court convert the money judgment into a declaratory judgment that would attach to the contract for deed. The district court granted Blees's motion in a June 2017 order. In the same order, the district court sua sponte concluded that Christensen Law is not entitled to relief under rule 60.02, reasoning that "the subject of the lien is Olean's actual present real ...


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