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Trial ends in case over lawyer's fee

Carol Ann May can keep her million dollars, at least for a while. It likely will be months before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta decides whether May, of Naples, owes a $1-million fee to her divorce lawyer, Tampa's Stephen Sessums.

Although the trial ended Wednesday, written final arguments from both sides will take more than a month to deliver. Then, the judge will make a decision in a case that took longer than the divorce case that spawned it.

Sessums, a nationally recognized matrimonial lawyer, handled May's 1992 divorce from her husband, auto parts manufacturer Ed May. Mrs. May was awarded a $20-million settlement, at least three times the amount offered by her husband.

May paid $230,000 to Sessums in hourly charges and costs. But a clause in his contract said a final fee would be determined after the case. Sessums final fee was an additional $1-million. May refused to pay.

Florida Bar rules prohibit lawyers in divorce cases from making their fees contingent on how much they win for their client. Sessums contends his final bill was based only partly on the amount of money awarded his client. He flew in expert witnesses to defend his contract and his fee. May's attorneys produced their own legal experts, who said Sessums' fee was inappropriate.