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Archive: 2017

Mootness Attorney Fee Awards

October 16, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal article by David F. Wertheimer and Justine S. Brenner, “Mootness Attorney Fee Awards: Will New York Prove Friendly Than Delaware?,reports on mootness attorney fee awards.  This article was posted with permission.  Reprinted with permission from the September 29, 2017 edition of the New York Law Journal © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.  The article reads:

Mootness attorney fee awards are an established fixture of Delaware's fee-shifting rules available to plaintiffs in corporate governance litigation. That is not true of New York law, but the legal landscape may change. Over the past few years, there has been a marked trend of corporate governance litigation involving Delaware corporations being filed outside of Delaware's Court of Chancery. New York is seeing its share of that exodus. Whether that share expands may depend, at least partly, on whether New York law on the award of mootness fees evolves to be more or less favorable than Delaware law. Moreover, it is New York law that matters because in corporate governance litigation, even though claims of director misconduct are determined by the law of a company's state of incorporation, New York law governs the award to plaintiffs of their legal fees. Central Laborers' Pension Fund v. Blankfein, 111 A.D.3d 40, 45 n.8, (1st Dep't 2013).

Delaware, like New York, follows the "American Rule," under which each party bears its own legal fees and expenses, subject to certain exceptions. One such exception Delaware recognizes under its Court of Chancery's broad equity jurisdiction is in corporate governance actions, when a plaintiff's efforts have yielded a "corporate benefit." Tandycrafts v. Initio Partners, 562 A.2d 1162, 1164-65 (Del. 1989). Mootness fees, which are within the scope of that exception along with attorney fee awards arising from settlements and judgments, are triggered by a defendant acting to "moot" a plaintiff's claim. Such fee awards can arise in various settings, such as a class action challenging the adequacy of merger disclosures when the target voluntarily amends its proxy to include new disclosures or a derivative action contesting supposedly excessive executive compensation that the company later reduces.

Under Delaware law, mootness fee awards are available in class and derivative corporate governance actions upon a showing of three elements: (1) the litigation was "meritorious when filed;" (2) the defendant took action which rendered the litigation moot and produced "the same or a similar benefit" as sought by the litigation; and (3) there exists "a causal relationship between the litigation and the action taken producing the benefit." Dover Historical Soc'y v. City of Dover Planning Comm'n, 902 A.2d 1084, 1092 (Del. 2006).

Unlike Delaware, New York's fee-shifting rules applicable to corporate governance actions are rooted in statute: §626(e) of the Business Corporation Law (BCL) governs the award of attorney fees in derivative actions; C.P.L.R. Rule 909 controls the award of fees in class actions. Neither rule explicitly references fee awards in mooted cases nor have mootness fee awards been the subject of much New York case law development. What few decisions that have been reported, however, suggest that New York's rules will be as stringent as those Delaware applies, if not tougher.

Awards in Derivative Actions

Less than a handful of reported decisions by New York courts have considered a mootness fee award in a derivative action under BCL §626(e) and none have approved such an award. From these decisions, two rules governing potential mootness fee awards can be gleaned, both of which are similar to the standard Delaware employs. What New York might say about the other elements of Delaware's rule remains the open question.

Turning first to the overlapping elements, under New York law, a plaintiff must establish that his pleadings properly alleged that he had standing to assert a derivative claim consistent with the substantive law of the state in which the corporation was organized. Blankfein, 111 A.D.3d at 45-46. Delaware imposes the same requirement. See Grimes v. Donald, 791 A.2d 818, 822-23 (Del. Ch. 2000), aff'd, 784 A.2d 1080 (Del. 2001).

Second, as with all fee awards under BCL §626(e), the plaintiff must show that he achieved a "substantial benefit," which may include a "common fund" or meaningful "corporate therapeutics." Sardis v. Sardis, 56 Misc. 3d 727, 739-40 (Sup. Ct. 2017); accord Seinfeld v. Robinson, 246 A.D.2d 291, 294-98 (1st Dep't 1998). Again, Delaware law requires the same. Tandycrafts, 562 A.2d at 1164-65.

Turning to the open issues, the first is Delaware's requirement that plaintiff establish that his complaint was "meritorious when filed," meaning that it could withstand a motion to dismiss. Chrysler v. Dann, 223 A.2d 384, 387 (Del. 1966). There is good reason to expect that New York courts would impose a similar requirement. Courts applying BCL §626(e) have refused to approve the award of attorney fees in settlements of derivative actions when the actions lacked merit. See, e.g., Montro v. Bishop, 6 A.D.2d 787, 787 (1st Dep't 1958), Kaplan v. Rand, 192 F.3d 60, 72 (2d Cir. 1999). Moreover, Delaware adopted its "meritorious when filed" requirement as a bulwark to deter "baseless litigation." Allied Artists Pictures v. Baron, 413 A.2d 876, 879 (Del. 1980). New York courts have acknowledged a similar goal of deterring strike suits and recognized that various features of derivative litigation—including the requirements for standing and demonstrating that a "substantial benefit" was achieved as a predicate for a fee award—are intended, at least in part, to achieve that goal. See Bansbach v. Zinn, 1 N.Y.3d 1, 9, 7 (2003) (standing); Freedman v. Braddock, No. 24708/92, 1997 WL 34850128 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 27, 1997) (substantial benefit). Accordingly, precedent and policy favor construing BCL §626(e) as imposing a "meritorious when filed" requirement.

A second open issue is the requirement of demonstrating a causal nexus between the plaintiff's litigation and the defendant's action mooting the suit. Under Delaware law, a plaintiff receives a rebuttable presumption that its lawsuit caused the defendant's action, imposing on the defendant the burden of showing that the lawsuit "did not in any way cause their action." Allied Artists, 413 A.2d at 880. Delaware adopted its rule on the pragmatic grounds that the defendant is in the best position to know the reasons for its own actions. Id.

It is far from certain, however, that New York courts would adopt Delaware's burden-shifting rule. For example, whereas Delaware applies its presumption to fee award requests in both the settlement and mootness contexts, id., New York courts, in the settlement context, have not employed a burden-shifting rule but instead require a showing that "plaintiffs achieved a 'substantial benefit.'" Seinfeld, 246 A.D.2d at 294; Seinfeld v. Robinson, No. 22304/90, 2001 WL 36023241 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. March 8, 2001) (burden rests on plaintiff to show entitlement to fees), aff'd, 300 A.D.2d 208 (1st Dep't 2002).

There is even less reason to apply a burden-shifting rule in mootness fee cases. As courts have observed, in contrast to settlements, fee awards in mootness cases can present a "particularly nettlesome task" of identifying the benefit obtained and its relation to the litigation. See In re First Interstate Bancorp Consol. S'holder Litig., 756 A.2d 353, 357 (Del. Ch. 1999), aff'd, 755 A.2d 388 (Del. 2000); cf. Blankfein, 111 A.D.2d at 49 (describing "causation of a substantial benefit" as a "complex issue" that is "likely to lead to protracted litigation"). Allowing a plaintiff to streamline that inquiry by presuming that chronology is equivalent to causation enshrines in doctrine what would otherwise be rejected as the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc. While Delaware has adopted such a rebuttable presumption on pragmatic grounds, its use comes at the price of enabling plaintiff to more easily claim an entitlement to fees. It thus undermines New York's policy of deterring "unwarranted litigation" by imposing on plaintiff the burden of "demonstrating that the action has caused a substantial benefit." Blankfein, 111 A.D.3d at 49 (in a mootness fee case, observing, in dicta, that plaintiff must demonstrate causation). New York courts may find Delaware's rebuttable presumption too steep a price to pay to simplify the fee award process, just as other courts have concluded. See, e.g., Lansky v. NWA, 471 N.W.2d 713, 714 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991) (rejecting presumption because it could encourage strike suits by failing to consider the facts of each case).

Awards in Class Actions

There is reason to believe that New York courts would assess mootness fee applications in class actions far differently than they might in derivative actions. Indeed, such fee awards may be unavailable in class actions.

That potentially differing treatment is due to the difference in the applicable statutory terms. Whereas BCL §626(e) permits a fee award if a derivative action "was successful, in whole or part," C.P.L.R. Rule 909 conditions the award of fees on a "judgment" having been "rendered in favor of the class." Accordingly, while a mooted derivative suit might be considered "successful" if it achieved a "substantial benefit," a mooted class action would not result in a "judgment" favorable to the class—even if, as consequence of the action having been filed, a "substantial benefit" was achieved. Thus, a strict construction of the statute might preclude the award of a mootness fee.

There does not appear to be any reported New York court decision directly addressing a mootness fee award in the class action context. Insight into the possible treatment of such an application, however, can be gleaned from the decision in La. Mun. Emps.' Ret. Sys. v. Cablevision Sys., 74 A.D.3d 1291 (2d Dep't 2010). That case arose from purported class actions brought on behalf of minority shareholders of Cablevision Systems, challenging a proposed stockholder buy-out by the controlling stockholders. The litigation settled once the offering price was increased, but the settlement was aborted because the acquisition never closed. At that point, the class actions essentially were moot. Despite the settlement's termination, class plaintiffs sought an award of counsel fees, which the trial court granted after finding that plaintiffs' efforts had yielded a substantial benefit. The Second Department reversed the fee award based on its finding that "the plaintiffs clearly did not obtain a judgment in favor of the class within the meaning of CPLR 909." Id. at 1293.

Although one decision does not necessarily sound the death knell on mootness fee awards in class actions, it illustrates New York courts' strict adherence to the American Rule in the absence of a recognized exception. See generally Flemming v. Barnwell Nursing Home and Health Facilities, 15 N.Y.3d 375, 379-80 (2010) (narrowly construing prior version of C.P.L.R. Rule 909).

Conclusion

When forum shopping, plaintiffs must consider not only whether the forum will be hospitable to the merits of their claims, but also to their counsel's fee requests. In corporate governance actions, plaintiffs should expect that New York's courts will evaluate mootness fee applications in derivative actions under standards at least as stringent as those in Delaware and may deny such applications entirely in class actions. Applying such standards should help prevent New York from becoming a second home for strike suits fleeing Delaware.

David F. Wertheimer is a partner at Hogan Lovells in New York. His practice includes private federal securities class actions and corporate governance litigation. Justin S. Brenner is a senior associate at the firm.

Nation’s Top Attorney Fee Experts of 2017

October 11, 2017

Every year, NALFA announces the nation’s top attorney fee experts and legal bill review programs.  Attorney fee experts are judicially qualified expert witnesses who provide expert testimony on the reasonableness of attorney fees and expenses.  Attorney fee experts are often retained by fee-seeking and fee-challenging parties to help prove attorney fees and expenses in court or arbitration. 

NALFA helps to organize and recognize attorney fee experts from across the U.S. and around the globe.  The following profile quotes are based on bio/CV, case summaries and case materials provided to NALFA.  Here are the nation’s top attorney fee experts of 2017:

John D. O’Connor: “Nation’s Top Attorney Fee Expert” – NALFA 2017
O’Connor & Associates
San Francisco, CA

Andy Jardini: “30 Years of Fee Audit and Expert Experience” – NALFA 2017
KPC Legal Audit Services
Glendale, CA

Gary Mason: “Highly Skilled on a Range of Fee and Billing Issues” – NALFA 2017
Whitfield Bryson & Mason
Washington, DC

Kerrie Rosati: “Great Skills Resolving Fee Disputes Between Parties” – NALFA 2017
DGT Costs Lawyers
Sydney, Australia

Robert Kaufman: “Experienced on Cumis Counsel Billings” – NALFA 2017
Woodruff Spradlin & Smart
Costa Mesa, CA

Glenn Newberry: “Understands Legal Billing Issues Across Borders” – NALFA 2017
Eversheds Sutherland
London, United Kingdom

George Indest: “Excellent on Attorney Fee Issues in Florida” – NALFA 2017
Health Law Firm
Altamore Springs, FL

Blog post note: Mari Henry Leigh of Leigh-galese Legal Cost Consulting in Barrington, IL stated she always follows best practices.  She also stated, through her attorney, that she does follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.  She declined to sign a professional pledge, stating that would endorse and promote NALFA.

Texas Energy Companies Can’t Block Rival’s Attorney Fee Win

October 6, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Jess Krochtengel, “Texas Energy Cos. Can’t Block Rival’s Atty Fee Win,” reports that a Texas appeals court affirmed a $280,000 attorneys’ fee award to Crawford Hughes Operating Co., rejecting arguments from a group of energy companies that formerly worked with Crawford that a trial court wrongly granted a new trial on the fee issue.

A panel of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals held Crawford’s pleadings support a recovery of defensive attorneys’ fees.  The court also determined it lacked jurisdiction to consider arguments from Anglo-Dutch Energy LLC, Explorer Investments LLC and Saxton River Corp. that a trial court had wrongly allowed Crawford a new trial on attorneys’ fees.

The trial court had initially ruled Crawford could not recover any fees despite winning a jury trial in a dispute between the energy companies over bills for operating expenses incurred under multiple joint operating agreements.  But it granted Crawford a partial new trial limited to the fee issue and ultimately awarded the company a total of about $280,000 in fees.

The Anglo-Dutch group had argued the new trial was improperly granted because there was no good cause to allow Crawford an opportunity to fix a “strategic mistake” in how it had initially requested attorneys’ fees.  But the appellate panel said its authority to review new trial orders is limited, and that the circumstances in the Crawford trial don’t merit appellate review.

“The working interest appellants’ arguments on appeal do not invoke any of the scenarios in which appellate review is permitted,” the court said.  “Because this challenge does not fall within one of the narrow exceptions identified by the Supreme Court of Texas, we lack appellate jurisdiction to entertain the working interest appellants’ challenge to the new trial orders.”

The dispute over operating expenses was tried in Harris County District Court in November and December 2014 and a jury awarded the Crawford entities about $44,000 in damages and $233,000 in legal fees.  The trial judge initially struck Crawford’s fee award, finding the group did not properly attribute the fees to reflect the different entities, claims and counterclaims involved in the case.  But Crawford asked the court to modify the judgment and requested a partial new trial limited to the amount of fees it could recover.  The trial court agreed, prompting an earlier appeal from the Anglo-Dutch parties.

In December 2015, the Anglo-Dutch group asked the Texas Supreme Court to block Crawford from getting a new trial on the attorneys’ fee issue.  They argued Crawford was trying to get a “mulligan” after making a strategic mistake in how it marshalled and presented its evidence.

When the case returned to the trial court, the parties stipulated the amount of fees Crawford Hughes Operating had incurred.  A modified final judgment issued in May 2016 awarded Crawford Hughes Operating about $42,000 in damages against Anglo-Dutch and $2,600 in damages against Explorer Investments and Saxton River.

The modified judgment awards Crawford Hughes Operating about $240,000 against Anglo-Dutch and $7,400 against Explorer and Saxton River for attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the case and another $31,000 in fees against Anglo-Dutch and $2,000 in fees against Explorer and Saxton River for what it incurred litigating its counterclaim.

The case is Anglo-Dutch Energy LLC et al. v. Crawford Hughes Operating Co. et al., case number 14-16-00635-CV, in the Texas Court of Appeals for the Fourteenth District.

Know the Statutory Limits on Attorney Fees

October 5, 2017

A recent CEB blog article, “Know the Limits on Attorney Fees” by Julie Brook explores the statutory limits on attorney fees in California and federal statutes.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys can’t always get what they want in attorney fees.  There are statutory limitations, fees subject to court approval, and fee agreements that violate public policy.

Statutory Limitations on Fees. In many instances the ability to negotiate attorney fees is prohibited or limited by statute.  For example:

  • Probate proceedings. Attorney fees in a probate proceeding are strictly statutory and don’t arise from contract.  See Prob C §§10800, 10810, 13660.  An attorney can’t charge more than the statutorily-permitted amount, but may agree to charge or receive less than that amount.
  • Indigent defendants. Attorney fees for counsel assigned to represent indigent criminal defendants are set by the trial court (Pen C §987.2) or by the court of appeals in appellate matters (Pen C §1241).
  • Judicial foreclosures. Attorney fees in judicial foreclosure matters are set by the trial court, regardless of any contrary provision in the mortgage or deed of trust. CCP §730.
  • Workers’ compensation. Attorney fees for representation in Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board matters are set by the Appeals Board (Lab C §5801) and by a court or Appeals Board in third-party matters (Lab C §3860(f)).  But fee agreements for a reasonable amount will be enforced if the amount agreed on coincides with the Appeals Board’s determination of a reasonable fee. Lab C §4906.
  • Contingent fees under federal law. An attorney-client agreement with a plaintiff under the Federal Tort Claims Act calling for a contingent fee in excess of 20 percent of any compromise, award, or settlement, or more than 25 percent of any judgment is not only void, but is an offense punishable by a fine of $2000, or 1 year in jail. 28 USC §2678. See also 42 USC §406 (maximum fee for representing plaintiff in Social Security Administration proceedings is 25 percent of past due benefits; attempt to collect fee in excess of maximum is misdemeanor).
  • Contingent fees in medical malpractice cases. Maximum fee limits have been set under Bus & P C §6146.

This is just a sampling—many statutes limit attorney fees.  When you take on a matter in an unfamiliar area of law, investigate possible limitations on the ability to negotiate fees.

Fees Subject to Court Approval. Court approval of fee agreements is required in some instances. For example:

  • fees for the compromise of the claim of a minor or a person with a disability (Prob C §3601(a));
  • fees for representing a special administrator (Prob C §8547); and
  • fee agreement in workers’ compensation third-party actions (Lab C §3860(f)).

Agreements Violating Public Policy or Ethical Standards. Attorney-client fee agreements that are contrary to public policy, even if not explicitly in violation of an ethical canon or rule, won’t be enforced.  Similarly, fee agreements that violate California Rules of Professional Conduct aren’t enforceable.  The Rules include prohibitions against charging an unconscionable fee (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 4–200), agreeing to share fees between an attorney and a nonattorney (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 1–320), and nonrefundable retainer fees that fail to meet the classification of a “true retainer fee which is paid solely for the purpose of ensuring the availability of the [Bar] member for the matter” (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 3–700(D)(2)).

SCOTUS to Address False Claims Act Fee Awards

October 2, 2017

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Marcia Coyle, “False Claims Act Cases Are Piled Up at SCOTUS: What to Watch,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court terms opens with several issues to be addressed by the nation’s highest court.  Among the issues is attorney fee awards in False Claim Act litigation.  The case under SCOTUS review:

U.S. ex rel. Grynberg v. Agave Energy Co. arrives at the high court after two decades of litigation.  The issue before the justices is whether the lower court had authority to award $17 million in legal fees to the defendant after deciding that the whistleblower’s claims were barred by a certain provision that can block a suit from someone who was not the first to bring the claims.  Ronald Barkley of Denver’s Anderson Barkley represents Jack Grynberg.  Michael Beatty of Denver’s Beatty & Wozniak is counsel to Agave.