When a lawyer's firm expels him and sends him home with a little less than $20,000 -- and soon thereafter pulls in a seven-figure fee in a case he worked on -- then the lawyer unquestionably has the right to be unhappy. But does he also have a right to a share of the fee?

That's the question the Mississippi Court of Appeals faced on Tuesday in Martindale v. Hortman Harlow, which began when a law firm expelled one of its members during the litigation of a big personal-injury case. One of the provisions in the firm's operating agreement established that an expelled member was to receive $1,100 for each percentage point of his ownership interest. In the expelled member's case, that added up to $19,800.

But not long after the member was expelled, the firm settled the personal-injury case and reaped a fee of more than $7.6 million.

By a 6-3 vote, the Court held that the firm had no obligation to share the fee with its former member. The majority, in an opinion written by Judge Maxwell, viewed the expulsion provision as unambiguous and concluded that the firm had satisfied that obligation by sending the former colleague home with a $19,800 check.

The dissenters didn't disagree with that conclusion, but they believed that other provisions rendered the contract ambiguous.