Superior Court Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo has awarded suspended lawyers Antonio M. Atalig and Reynaldo O. Yana $75,525 in attorneys' fees, but ordered the two to return $1.2 million plus interest to the estate of Angel Malite.
In his findings and final judgment issued on Tuesday, Govendo said after applying the factors listed in Rule 1.5 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, he finds that Atalig's and Yana's attorneys' fees charged in this case are excessive and unreasonable.
Govendo said he finds that a total of $75,525 in attorneys' fees is reasonable.
The judge explained in his findings the breakdown of the $75,525.
He said Atalig is awarded $3,000 for the work done prior to the initiation of administrative proceedings with the Marianas Public Lands Authority.
Govendo said Atalig is entitled to $72,525 and Yana is entitled to $24,175 for the work performed during the time period between the application to MPLA and the civil action (Attorney General's lawsuit against the Malite estate and MPLA to stop the payment).
Yana's share, the judge said, shall be paid from Atalig's share.
Govendo denied fees for Atalig's and Yana's representation in the civil case due to the attorneys' numerous breaches of ethics.
The judge ruled that the prior judgment of $1,288,500 awarded to Atalig and Yana is reduced to $1,212,975.
“It is hereby ordered that Atalig and Yana return $1,212,975 plus interest to the Estate of Angel Malite,” Govendo said in the final judgment.
Govendo made the findings after an evidentiary hearing he conducted on Feb. 3, 2012.
The hearing was held because the CNMI Supreme Court remanded to the Superior Court for a determination as to the reasonableness of attorneys' fees.
According to court records, after the Department of Public Lands paid the Malite estate $3,450,000 in settlement for a parcel of land, Atalig and Yana sought $1,138,500 in attorney's fees for their work securing the settlement.
After then Superior Court associate judge Juan T. Lizama awarded the fees to Atalig and Yana, Malite heirs filed a motion arguing that the fees were unjustified and needed to be returned.
In response, Govendo then ordered the two lawyers to temporarily return the money to the court pending a final determination on the appropriate fee award.
When Atalig and Yana refused, Govendo held them in civil contempt and threw them in jail until they complied. Govendo subsequently held that Atalig and Yana were not entitled to any attorney fees whatsoever.
Atalig and Yana appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court freed the two on Dec. 24, 2009.
In December 2010, the high court ordered the Superior Court to conduct a hearing on the appropriate amount of attorney's fees to be awarded Atalig and Yana for work they performed for the Malite estate.
The high court ruled that when Atalig and Yana failed to comply with Govendo's order, Govendo was permitted to find them in contempt and incarcerate them.
In his 17-page findings of fact and conclusions of law issued on Tuesday, Govendo discussed thoroughly the background of the case.
Govendo said Atalig represented the Malite estate for over 10 years, and it appears that for a majority of those years, 1999 until 2005, there was nothing being done-no filings or motions were taking place within the probate matter.
Govendo said he previously held that any contingent fee was necessarily excessive and unreasonable at the time the contingent fee agreements were entered.
“Therefore, the contingent fee agreements are invalid and unenforceable,” the judge said.
Govendo said Atalig asserts that the initial land compensation award was $3,682.30, and as a result of his efforts, the award increased to $3.4 million.
However, Govendo noted, obtaining land compensation for the Marianas High School property was inevitable.
“Atalig's brother sat on the board at the time the $40-million bond was issued. Therefore, no special skill was necessary in obtaining the land compensation award,” the judge said.
Atalig, according to Govendo, was in the right place at the right time.
Govendo said majority of the Malite heirs hired their own attorneys because of their lack of trust in Atalig and Yana.
The judge said a number of them retained Stephen Nutting to attempt to negotiate a settlement, and his negotiations with the Attorney General were successful.
“Thus, it is clear that neither Atalig nor Yana did anything to advance the Estate's position in the civil case,” Govendo said.
Atalig and Yana recently filed a joint motion asking the Supreme Court to stop an order issued by Superior Court associate judge David A. Wiseman that suspended them from practicing law in the local courts.
Last May 16, Wiseman ordered the suspension of Atalig and Yana from practicing law in the CNMI for misconduct with regards to their refusal to return $1.1 million in attorneys' fees that the two lawyers received from the Malite estate.