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Shabbat Parashat Vayeitzei 5779

P'ninat Mishpat: Firing a Lawyer before He Finishes the Job

(based on ruling 77010 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The defendant (=def) was suing a leasing company and hired the plaintiff (=pl), a lawyer, to help. After negotiating the fee, they came to an agreement that pl would receive the higher between, 20% of the total ruling, and between 100% of the part of the award that exceeded 40,000 shekels plus VAT. Def received 67,049 shekels and pl is demanding his portion of the ruling. Def rejects the claim, because he has not yet been able to extract payment from his litigant, arguing that the portion for pl should come from money received. Additionally, def claims that he fired pl before the ruling was rendered, and so pl is not entitled to any pay.

 

Ruling: While there was no written contract, the emails that went back and forth between the parties serve as a proof of what was agreed upon. In an email sent on 11.10.15, pl wrote that the percentage he would receive would be of that which was awarded, not necessarily that which was received as payment from his litigant. The email ends off: “Please confirm acceptance of my proposal.” An email received half an hour later says that “Mr. X confirms the matter.” Def’s claim, that the email was a trap and that he had not noticed that element of the offer, is not acceptable (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 45:3).  

Regarding the claim that pl did not finish the job, it is indeed the case that def had been dissatisfied with pl’s work and initiated a process of firing him. However, the sides met, and pl explained the way he was working in a manner that calmed def. We do not find any proof that pl was let go (certainly no one fully took his place).

In any case, an employer is not allowed to fire a worker who had been hired for a set job once a kinyan had been made to hire him (Shulchan Aruch, CM 334:1). The Pitchei Teshuva (ad loc. 2) cites opinions that this is the case even if there is only a written contract, even if it is not signed. It seems to us that an agreement communicated by email similarly counts as a kinyan. Thus, it would require pl’s agreement to stop working for him, and there has not been proof of that.

Furthermore, def’s claim is that pl’s employment was terminated 5 months after it began and two months before the ruling was rendered. It is therefore not reasonable (as opposed to a reasonable but halachically incorrect claim) for def to not have offered pl significant payment for the work he did (even if we were to accept def’s claim that the agreement for payment was only after the receipt of payment by def’s litigant). Therefore, in addition to full payment, def will also have to pay pl’s legal fees related to this adjudication, as he did not act in good faith.
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