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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.

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)).

Class Action Fee Awards Shaped by Circuits and Benchmarks

September 12, 2017

A recent NLJ article by Amanda Bronstad, “Class Action Fees Shaped by Circuit, Benchmark,” reports on attorney fee awards in class action litigation.  The article reads:

When it comes to attorney fees in class actions, it pays to be in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit — and it's tough to get what you want in the Second and Ninth circuits.  That's according to two leading academic research reports that federal judges increasingly cite in determining how much in fees to award plaintiffs attorneys who work on contingency.

New York University School of Law professor Geoffrey Miller and the late Theodore Eisenberg, a professor at Cornell Law School, authored one of the studies.  The second is a 2010 study conducted by Brian Fitzpatrick, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Both reports found that federal judges tend to determine a percentage of the settlement amount, then crosscheck it against the hours that plaintiffs attorneys spent multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate — called the lodestar.  They also found that as the size of the settlement goes up, the percentage of fees that judges award to plaintiffs attorneys goes down.  That's particularly true when it comes to the largest class action settlements.

But a lot depends on what circuit of the U.S. court of appeals the case ends up.  Here are some key points from the studies:

Fee awards aren't evenly spread out: The vast majority of class action fee awards come in the Second, Ninth, First and Seventh circuits, Fitzpatrick said.  He attributed much of that to the larger cities in those circuits — Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  "The lawyers are there, the defendants are often there, and I think judges with a lot of experience are often there, so that attracts these cases," he said.

Benchmarks might matter: The Ninth Circuit is one of the few circuits with a benchmark that judges cite in determining fees — 25 percent based on its 2011 holding in In re Bluetooth Headset Products Liability Litigation.  Fitzpatrick said "that really limits the number of times a court would award more than 25 percent.  It's working as a ceiling in the Ninth Circuit." Miller said having a benchmark didn't seem to matter when it comes to lower fee awards — his report found the Ninth Circuit stuck to 25 percent for the most part.

The Second Circuit has experience: The Second Circuit handled nearly a third of all the cases, according to the Eisenberg/Miller report.  Many are securities class actions.  The circuit doesn't have a benchmark, but it did set forth six factors for judges to consider in a 2000 ruling called Goldberger v. Integrated Resources.  It's the circuit in which a judge is most likely to reject the original fee request made by lawyers.  "It's a hard road to convince a district judge in the Second Circuit that your fee request ought to be accepted without question," Miller said.

One of the most generous circuits is the Seventh: That's due in large part to a 2001 decision in In re Synthroid Marketing Litigation, in which the Seventh Circuit downplayed the significance of using the percentage of the settlement fund by directing judges to look at market rates when assessing the lodestar component of an attorney fee request.  "They have said clearly you should not lower the percentage over the entire amount of the settlement," Fitzpatrick said.  "You should do it on a marginal basis.  I see more district courts doing it in the Seventh Circuit than anywhere else because of those admonitions."

National Law Journal Cites NALFA Program

September 11, 2017

A recent NLJ article by Amanda Bronstad, “Judges Look to Profs in Awarding Lower Percentage Fees in Biggest Class Actions,” quotes NALFA’s CLE program, “View From the Bench: Awarding Attorney Fees in Federal Litigation” in an article on class action fee awards.  The full article reads:

After reaching a $101 million class action settlement to resolve lawsuits brought over a chemical spill that contaminated a West Virginia river, the plaintiffs lawyers asked a federal judge to grant them 30 percent of the fund as contingency fees.

The judge praised their work but found that fee request to be just too high.  "Even without accounting for fund size, the empirical literature clearly demonstrates that a 30 percent fee is higher than that awarded in the vast majority of class actions," U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver of the Southern District of West Virginia wrote in a July order.  "Courts have found through empirical analysis that larger common funds typically have smaller percentage fees."

The empirical analysis Copenhaver referred to came from the findings of two leading academic reports — both cited in the opinion — that federal judges across the country have used for the past decade to guide them in decisions about attorney fees in some of the nation's largest class action settlements.

New York University School of Law professor Geoffrey Miller and the late Theodore Eisenberg, a professor at Cornell Law School, wrote one of the studies, an updated version of which is set to be published this year.  The second is a 2010 study conducted by Brian Fitzpatrick, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Both studies have provided critical assistance for federal judges, particularly when it comes to class action settlements of $100 million or more.  The concern for those on the bench is how to award plaintiffs lawyers for their work without granting them excessive fees and leaving class members in the lurch.

"Judges do take the role seriously," said William Rubenstein, a professor at Harvard Law School whose highly regarded "Newberg on Class Actions" has cited the Eisenberg/Miller and Fitzpatrick studies in his 11-volume treatise, alongside data he has used from a former publication called Class Action Attorney Fee Digest.  "And they understand they're a bulwark against excessive fees from the class members' money."

How to determine the exact amount has often been more art than science.  In a webinar earlier this year hosted by the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis, U.S. District Judge David Herndon of the Southern District of Illinois, who has handled several of the nation's largest mass torts and class actions, said a lot depends on the amount of recovery to the class.

"It just depends … on the case and what the benefit is that the lawyers have achieved by their work," he said at the webinar, called "View from the Bench: Awarding Attorney Fees in Federal Litigation."  "If it's reasonable, then you can approve the contingency, but if it's pretty far out of whack maybe you've got to have the lawyers justify the difference or perhaps go with the lodestar.  There are a lot of things to look at."

And there are outside concerns as well.  Judges have increasing scrutiny from appeals courts, which often take up the petitions of objectors to class action settlements, Rubenstein said.  "Public policy generally cautions against awarding too high a fee," Copenhaver wrote in the West Virginia water case.  "The court's challenge is to award a fee that both compensates the attorneys with a risk premium on their skill and labor and avoids a windfall."

Last month, plaintiffs lawyers in the case submitted a renewed motion for settlement approval that lowered their fee request to 25 percent — more in line with what Copenhaver had found was reasonable.

Judges often look to previous case decisions, or their own experience, to determine what amount is appropriate to award lawyers in class actions.  They also get a list of cases from the lawyers — but those often come with vested interests.  For a long time, there was limited statistical data on what other judges had done.  That's where Fitzpatrick said he and the Eisenberg-Miller team tried to give judges a starting point.

"We tried to give the judges the full data instead of just leaving them at the whim of the cherry-picked cases the lawyers give them," he said.  "The judges don't have to replicate what other courts have done, but they have the opportunity to stick within the mainstream of what their colleagues have done if they want it now that they have the power of empirical studies."

Miller said he came up with the idea while serving as an expert witness in cases.  When his first report with Eisenberg published in 2004, one year before the U.S. Class Action Fairness Act passed, the political atmosphere was rife with criticism about attorney fees in class actions.  At the time, only one group had looked at the data — but it wasn't really a controlled study.

"On the issue of fees, the data was there but hadn't been developed," he said.  Eisenberg wasn't an expert on class actions, Miller said, "but he was the leading person probably in the world who was doing empirical studies of legal material."  Their report looked at published data of class action settlements from 1993 to 2002.

By the time of their second report in 2009, which expanded the data through 2008, Miller and Eisenberg had some competition.  Fitzpatrick thought that their report, like those before it, relied too much on "ad hoc" data that focused primarily on bigger, published decisions.  "I really endeavored to find every last one to have the complete and representative picture," he said.

He came up with a wider range of class action settlements within a shorter period of time — just 2006 and 2007.  Combined, both reports have been cited by judges more than 100 times, Miller said.  And they often involve the biggest settlements in dollar amount, he said.  "The issue is that there aren't as many cases," he said.  "There's less data. And that puts an additional premium on getting what data there is, so that's one reason judges look to this research in big cases."

Another came in 2012, he said, when U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas, the former chairwoman of the Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, endorsed both studies in a case called In re Heartland Payment Systems Customer Data Security Breach Litigation: "District courts increasingly consider empirical studies analyzing class-action-settlement fee awards to set the appropriate percentage benchmark or to test the reasonableness of a given benchmark," she wrote.  "Using these studies alleviates the concern that the number selected is arbitrary."

Economies of Scale

Both studies have come out with slight differences in their specific findings.  But they came to the same conclusions: The vast majority of judges award fees based on a percentage of the total settlement amount — then cross-check that amount against the total number of hours the lawyers billed multiplied by the hourly rate, referred to as the lodestar.  There's a good reason for that trend.

"It's economies of scale," Miller said.  "Judges understand that to get a $1 billion settlement is not 1,000 times harder for an attorney to get a $1 million settlement.  It's a lot harder, but not 1,000 times harder."

Herndon, in the webinar, said that's just common sense.

"If they got a third of $1 billion, and compared to their lodestar, it would be an astronomical per hour figure," he said.  "There's some common sense in doing something like that, and I don't really have a particular feeling one way or the other, but I think there's certainly authority in the law for doing it."

In fact, many judges who cite the Eisenberg-Miller and Fitzpatrick reports look specifically to the data as it pertains to the size of the settlement in front of them and what the case is about.

But Fitzpatrick questioned whether judges were doing the right thing in lowering the percentages as the settlements get bigger.  "I think the judges are responding to perception when they do that and they're not responding to good economic policy analysis," he said.  "Because why would we want to punish lawyers with lower percentages for getting their clients more money?"

Not all judges agree with the conclusions made by the professors, who sometimes go up against each other as paid experts in individual cases.  In a $415 million settlement of "no poach" claims involving high-tech workers, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California weighed Fitzpatrick's report against the Eisenberg/Miller study in awarding $40 million in fees.  In that case, Fitzpatrick was a paid expert for the lead plaintiffs attorneys, while Rubenstein cited the Eisenberg-Miller report in a declaration filed on behalf of one of the lead firms that had submitted a separate fee request.

"The court finds the Eisenberg & Miller study more persuasive than the Fitzpatrick study," Koh wrote in a 2015 order, concluding that the "length and large sample size of the Eisenberg & Miller study suggest that its results are entitled to greater weight."

Fitzpatrick said he's working on an updated report, likely to be drafted next year.  "Whenever I hear from these judges, they say the same thing: We love your study but we need more recent data," Fitzpatrick said.  "So that's what I'm trying to give them."  But gathering the data takes a lot of time and money, he said.  He's hired research assistants to code all the data.

The latest Eisenberg-Miller report, co-authored with research scholar Roy Germano at NYU's law school, uses data through 2013.  Without Eisenberg, who died in 2014, Miller said he's not certain he'll keep publishing the report.  "I don't think I'll do it anymore," he said. "It is a lot of work."

How to Determine When Litigation Costs Include Attorney Fees

September 7, 2017

A recent Texas Lawyer article by Trey Cox and Jason Dennis, “How to Determine When Litigation Costs Include Attorney Fees,” covers attorney fee recovery in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Under the American Rule, a party may only recover attorney fees on certain narrow claims.  When a party has some claims that support the award of attorney fees and some claims that do not, then the party must segregate the recoverable attorney fees from the nonrecoverable attorney fees, as in Tony Gullo Motors I v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299, 311 (Tex. 2006).  The need to segregate fees is a question of law, and the courts of appeals apply a de novo standard of review.

Similarly, when a plaintiff has multiple related claims against multiple defendants, the plaintiff is required to segregate the fees owed by one defendant from any fees incurred while prosecuting the claim against any settling defendants, according to Stewart Title Guaranty v. Sterling, 822 S.W.2d 1, 11 (Tex. 1991).

Generally, where a party has failed to properly segregate their claims, and an award of attorney fees has been erroneously awarded, the case requires remand in order to determine what attorney fees are recoverable.  However, it is important to note that the subsequent decision in Green International v. Solis, 951 S.W.2d 384, 389 (Tex. 1997), did state that a failure to segregate fees "can result in the recovery of zero attorneys' fees."  The court did not explain the circumstances under which an award of zero attorney fees would result from a failure to segregate.  The evidence of unsegregated fees requiring a remand on the issue of attorney fees is more than a scintilla of evidence.

The party seeking fees may only present evidence relating to services that were necessarily rendered in connection with the claims for which attorney fees are recoverable, as in Flint & Associates v. Intercontinental Pipe & Steel, 739 S.W.2d 622, 624 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1987).  If a party tries to present evidence relating to services that were rendered in connection with claims that attorney fees are not recoverable, a party must object.  Failure to object to nonrecoverable attorney fees constitutes waiver (see Green International, at 389).  The issue of failing to segregate is generally preserved "by objecting during testimony offered in support of attorneys' fees or an objection to the jury question on attorneys' fees," as in McCalla v. Ski River Development, 239 S.W.3d 374, 383 (Tex. App.—Waco 2007).

Inexorably Intertwined Damages

In Texas, an exception to segregating evidence of attorney fees developed over the years.  Where the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction, and were so interrelated that their "prosecution or defense entails proof or denial of essentially the same facts," it was held that the segregation requirement could be avoided (see Stewart Title at 11).  The initial exception was phrased such that if an attorney could claim that the "causes of action in the suit are dependent on the same set of facts or circumstances, and thus are 'intertwined to the point of being inseparable,' the parties suing for attorney fees may recover the entire amount covering all claims."

After the holding in Stewart, which first acknowledged an exception to the requirement of segregating fees for claims that are intertwined, the courts of appeals were flooded with claims that recoverable and unrecoverable attorney fees are so intertwined that they could not be segregated. (See, e.g., Tony Gullo at 312.)  For many years after the recognition of the exception to segregation, parties tried to escape the segregation requirement by generically claiming that they could not segregate the claims.  They relied on the recognized exception to the duty to segregate when the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction and were so interrelated that their prosecution or defense entailed "proof or denial of essentially the same facts."

The Texas Supreme Court has now reined in this exception, providing that if attorney fees relate solely to a claim for which such fees are not recoverable, a claimant must segregate recoverable from unrecoverable fees, but when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim that they are so intertwined, they need not be segregated.

For example, the court explained that certain legal services such as: "requests for standard disclosures, proof of background facts, depositions of the primary actors, discovery motions and hearings, [and] voir dire of the jury" wouldn't be barred from recovering attorney fees just because they served multiple purposes.  However, the court was careful to point out that the mere presence of intertwined facts will not make tort fees recoverable. The new exception to the necessity of segregating fees is that "only when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim" then they can be considered as being so intertwined as to not need segregation.  The segregation requirement can be met by offering expert opinion as to how much time was spent in relation to the recoverable claims versus the unrecoverable claims.

Defending Against Segregation

Whether supporting or attacking an award of attorney fees, the expert must deal specifically with segregation of fees.  The party must segregate fees incurred in connection with nonrecoverable claims, claims against other parties, or other lawsuits.

Trey Cox is a partner at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst.  He has spent nearly 20 years helping clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to entrepreneurs, resolve large, complicated and often high-profile business disputes.  Jason Dennis is a partner at the firm.  He has trial and appellate experience representing a diverse group of clients from Fortune 500 companies, to bankruptcy trustees, to individuals both as plaintiffs and defendants.

Five Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses

April 4, 2017

A recent The Recorder article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses,” address ADR clauses in fee agreements.  This article was posted with permission.  The...

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