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Spencer v. Air Evac Ems, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

March 29, 2017



          Frederick S. "Rick" Spencer, for appellant.

          Quattlebam, Grooms & Tull PLLC, by: E.B. Chiles IV and Sarah Keith-Bolden, for appellee.

          PHILLIP T. WHITEAKER, Judge

         Frederick "Rick" Spencer appeals a Baxter County Circuit Court order dismissing his quantum meruit claim against Air Evac EMS, Inc. a/k/a Air Evac Lifeteam (Air Evac) for lack of jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. Because we agree with the circuit court that Spencer has failed to state a claim for unjust enrichment, we affirm.

         The facts are straightforward and arise from a workers' compensation claim. Greg Prock and Matt Edmisten were injured in a workplace explosion. Air Evac provided air ambulance service for Prock and Edmisten after the accident but did not receive compensation because the employer denied compensability. Rick Spencer is an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Arkansas. In 2008, Spencer began representing Prock and Edmisten in a workers' compensation action against their employer. The case proceeded all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which in 2014 found their injuries compensable. Edmisten v. Bull Shoals Landing, 2014 Ark. 89, 432 S.W.3d 25; Prock v. Bull Shoals Boat Landing, 2014 Ark. 93, 431 S.W.3d 858. After the supreme court decision, Air Evac received compensation from the employer. Spencer attempted to enter into an agreement with Air Evac for compensation for his legal services in obtaining payments from the employer for Air Evac's medical-care services, but Air Evac refused to voluntarily enter into such an agreement.

         In October 2015, Spencer filed a quantum meruit suit in circuit court against Air Evac to recover attorney's fees for his professional services performed in recovering payment for Air Evac's bills from Prock's and Edmisten's employer. Air Evac moved to dismiss on two grounds: (1) that the Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission) had exclusive jurisdiction over attorney's fees in workers' compensation matters and (2) that Arkansas law prohibits withholding attorney's fees from amounts paid to a medical provider unless the attorney can show that the medical provider voluntarily agreed to pay the fees, and Air Evac had not done so.

         Spencer responded to the motion to dismiss, arguing that his claim was an equitable action in quantum meruit and therefore was properly brought before the circuit court. As to Air Evac's argument that he was not entitled to compensation because no agreement had been reached, he argued that the equitable theory of quantum meruit allowed for actions to recover the reasonable value of services/work performed regardless of whether there was a contract between the parties. He argued that to allow Air Evac to benefit from his services without proper compensation ran afoul of public policy and served to dis-incentivize claimants' attorneys from zealously advocating for injured workers. He also argued that, because the parties had entered a joint petition to settle the claim, the Commission lost jurisdiction over the claim.

         A hearing on the motion to dismiss was held in which the parties further addressed the above arguments. After hearing the arguments of counsel, the circuit court issued a letter opinion on July 27, 2016, outlining its decision to grant Air Evac's motion to dismiss:

The Court grants [Air Evac's] Motion to Dismiss, specifically on the grounds stated in [Air Evac's] brief. On a Motion to Dismiss, the Court is to consider the facts alleged by [Spencer] to be true and grant the Motion only if, as a matter of law, [Spencer] has no basis to proceed. This Court finds that [Spencer] lacks any legal basis for the claim he asserts.
One of the fundamental principles of equity jurisdiction is that equity applies in those areas where the statutory law does not adequately provide a remedy. In this case, the Worker's Compensation Law fully addresses issues of attorney's fees in Worker's Compensation cases. While this Court may have jurisdiction to hear a properly pled matter in equity, this case is not properly heard in equity as there is law that fully addresses the subject matter.
[Spencer] makes an argument that the Court hear and decide this case based on a public policy argument that will encourage attorneys to more diligently pursue Worker's Compensation cases. Mr. Spencer is to be complimented for his zealous, long-term representation of his client over eight years in the original worker's compensation case. However, that is what every attorney should do. Public policy changes to established law should be left to the legislature to enact.

         A formal order echoing the letter opinion was filed on August 12, 2016. Spencer appeals the decision of the circuit court.

         Before we address the specific arguments that Spencer raises on appeal, we first address a jurisdictional issue. We note that Spencer filed two separate notices of appeal in this matter, and both designated the July 27, 2016 letter opinion, rather than the August 12, 2016 order, as the order being appealed. In the past, we have dismissed such appeals for lack of jurisdiction. See Clark v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2016 Ark.App. 286; Wilkinson v. Smith, 2012 Ark.App. 604. We have ruled that letter opinions do not constitute a judgment or decree; they merely form the basis on which the judgment or decree is subsequently to be rendered and are not conclusive unless incorporated in a judgment. Thomas v. McElroy, 243 Ark. 465, 420 S.W.2d 530 (1967); Moses v. Dautartas, 53 Ark.App. ...

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