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Category: Fee Award

Federal Circuit Rejects Use of Laffey Matrix in Calculating Fee Award

May 21, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “DC Circ. Vacates $7M Atty Fee Award in Civil Right Row,” reports that a split D.C. Circuit panel tossed a nearly $7 million fee award in a long-running civil rights class action in Washington, D.C., finding a lower court used a matrix for calculating fees that improperly included attorneys based outside of the district and specialized in irrelevant legal areas.  A majority of the three-judge appellate panel held that the federal court in the District of Columbia erred by relying on a new fee calculation matrix proposed by the district that included attorneys practicing in rural Virginia and West Virginia as well as those who worked in areas of law such as real estate and wills, rather than focusing on attorneys practicing complex federal litigation within the district.

The new matrix runs counter to statutory requirements that those who file and prevail in civil rights cases should be able to collect attorney fees based on "rates prevailing in the community" for the "kind and quality of services furnished," according to the majority opinion.  The plaintiffs in the case had sought $9.76 million in fees under a different matrix, according to court documents.  "It is obvious that the rates charged for, say, simple wills are lower than those for complex federal litigation," the panel majority wrote, which vacated the award and remanded it to the lower court for a recalculation.  "Worse still, nothing in the record reveals what percentage of respondents in the ... custom cross-section of ... data were litigators."

The plaintiffs — parents of children in Washington who fit within the class — sought the fees after prevailing in a class action they initiated in July 2005, claiming that the district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to identify disabled children and to deliver adequate and timely education to a broader set of minors, according to the opinion.  The lower court in August 2017 awarded the plaintiffs $6.96 million in attorneys' fees, finding that the matrix proposed by Washington had a "statistically significant sample size" and "'more narrowly defined' experience categories," according to the opinion.

U.S. Circuit Judge David B. Sentelle dissented, holding that the appellate court could only toss the fee calculation matrix used by the lower court had it abused its discretion or clearly misapplied legal principles or demonstrated a "disregard" for the evidence entered in the case.  "The district court found another matrix to be more factually appropriate," Judge Sentelle wrote.  "The making of that factual determination, under the law in general and under the governing statute in particular, is the district court's province."

The case is DL et al. v. District of Columbia et al., case number 18-7004, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Texas Legislation Changes Fee-Shifting Provision in Dismissals

May 17, 2019

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Angela Morris, “Why Are Civil Defense Lawyers Thrilled the Texas House Passed This Bill?,” reports that, just as lawmakers are pushing to narrow Texas’ anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, the Texas House also passed a bill that would sweeten the deal for civil defense attorneys to make more use of a different type of motion to dismiss.

Under current law, this motion, known as the “91a motion to dismiss” because it’s located in Texas Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 91a, allows attorneys to argue for the dismissal of a case that has no basis in law or fact.  There’s a mandatory loser-pays provision that says the prevailing party collects attorney fees from the losing party.  Defendants have not used the motion too frequently because they don’t want to risk paying attorney fees to plaintiffs if they lose a dismissal fight.

House Bill 3300, which the Texas House passed 136-5, proposes a small but significant tweak to the law.  In the loser-pays provision, it changes the word “shall” to “may,” which gives a judge discretion to decide to award fees.  The bill heads to the Senate where, in the final weeks of the session, it must get a public hearing in committee, pass committee and pass the full Senate.

Texas Lawyer asked attorneys on Twitter whether this legislation, if passed, might lead defendants to file 91a motions to dismiss more often.  Here are a handful of the tweets we got in reply, edited for style and grammar.

“Yes — no question. Loser-pays is the only disincentive to filing a 91a motion in every case.  And defendants often waive their fee recovery from plaintiffs because courts are more likely to grant 91a dismissal if it doesn’t require saddling plaintiffs with fees,” tweeted Anne Johnson, a partner in Haynes and Boone in Dallas.

“As things stand, TRCP 91a creates a sort of game of chicken: A lot of defendants will file the motion but then pull it down before it is heard, unless they are almost 100% confident they will prevail.  With mandatory fees, the risk of paying the other side money is just too high,” tweeted Christopher Kratovil, managing member of Dykema’s Dallas office.

“As someone who works more in federal court — where 12(b)(6) reigns — I’ve always thought 91[a]‘s mandatory fee-shifting was a big problem.  This would be helpful.  I suspect more plaintiff oriented folks strongly disagree,” tweeted Raffi Melkonian, a partner in Wright, Close & Barger in Houston.

“I’m against the mandatory fees provision.  The fees usually aren’t too high, but it still discourages the use of an otherwise valuable tool,” tweeted Jadd Masso, a member of Clark Hill Strasburger in Dallas.

“This is a welcome change, though the Rule 91a standard itself should be clarified and improved,” tweeted Lee Whitesell, an associate with Hogan Lovells in Houston.

How Rohrmoos Ruling Could Change Attorney Fees in Texas

May 16, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Cassady, “4 Ways Rohrmoos Could Change Fee Fights in Texas,” reports that the Texas Supreme Court's recent opinion laying out what evidence is needed to prove up attorney fees already is being called by some practitioners the seminal case on the topic and one that could have a major impact on fee fights in the state.

In its Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare LLP ruling, issued, the court sought to dispel what it said was confusion on the part of lawyers and courts about two methods of calculating fees: the Arthur Andersen eight-factor test and the lodestar method.  It said the lodestar method — determining fees by multiplying the number of hours spent working on the case by a reasonable hourly rate — should be the starting point for calculating fees.

The state's high court intended the 56-page opinion to be a "big black-letter case," said Jadd Masso of Clark Hill Strasburger PLC, characterizing it as "the conclusion of an evolution on the part of the court" that encompasses its 2012 opinion in El Apple I Ltd. v. Olivas and its 2013 opinion in City of Laredo v. Montano.  Masso said the lengthy opinion amounts to a "treatise on attorneys fees in Texas."  "It is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to get fees is through the lodestar method," he said.  The El Apple decision was a signal from the court it wanted to encourage the use of lodestar, Masso said.  And with Rohrmoos, there's no more question about whether there's more than one way to prove up fees, he said.

Here are four ways that the ruling could change fee fights in Texas.

Detailed Billing Records Will Become the Norm

The Rohrmoos opinion didn't mandate real-time billing records to prove up attorney fees, but the court said they are "strongly encouraged to prove the reasonableness and necessity of requested fees when those elements are contested."  While most defense attorneys already do keep such records, the ruling will likely have a bigger impact on plaintiffs attorneys and others who work on a contingent fee or flat fee basis, said Frank Carroll of Roberts Markel Weinberg Butler Hailey.

"I think they have put the final nail in the coffin that anything short of contemporaneous billing records is sufficient," he said.  "People need to avoid the idea that 'this doesn't apply to me.'"  Carrol said lawyers doing simple, flat-rate cases for small amounts of money may not need to worry about keeping those records.  "But for everyone else: Proceed at your own peril if you don't follow the mandate of El Apple, City of Laredo, and this case."

Some defense lawyers, like Michelle Hartmann of Baker McKenzie, already are being pushed by clients into alternative fee arrangements rather than the hourly rate model.  "But we still enter all of the hours that go toward the case.  Not because we're going to bill the client for them, but to double check profitability and see if that was a good fit for both the client and the firm," she said.  "I think most defense attorneys do it now, even with flat-fee arrangements.  But this is a reminder you still need to keep good billing records."

Lawyers Could Face Lengthy Cross-Examinations on Fees

The attorney who represented UTSW in the Rohrmoos case, Wade Howard of Liskow & Lewis, said he tried at oral arguments before the high court to stress that putting hundreds of pages of detailed billing records before the jury would "do nothing" to help them determine what costs are actually reasonable and necessary.  Other practitioners have said that while the jury panel might not be going through those documents page by page, it does provide the other side "better ammunition to cross examine a lawyer," said Kelli Hinson of Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal LLP.

"They can then ask the tough questions, like, 'Why did you spend 50 hours on a motion for summary judgment that never got filed?' or 'Why were three attorneys doing this when one would have been sufficient?'" she said.  "So the jury gets the advantage of that even if they themselves don't pore through the record."  The Texas Supreme Court seemed to understand that the new guidance could have unintended consequences and warned in its Rohrmoos ruling that it was not "endorsing satellite litigation as to attorney's fees."

But courtroom opponents could easily use the records "as an opportunity to try and make the burden that the claimant has to meet even harder than this decision intended it to be," Hartman said.  And finding that sweet spot could be a years-long process, Hinson said.

"They said we don't want attorneys on the stand for days going through the bills bit by bit," she said.  "I think that's going to be where we struggle over the next few years — trying to find that fine line between what's enough and what's too much."

Outside Experts Could Be Used to Back Up Fee Requests

The ruling could also mean that attorney fees — which in many cases are the largest element of damages — will stop being treated like the "stepchild" of litigation, said John W. Bridger of Strong Pipkin Bissell & Ledyard LLP.  Bridger said that for years he's been advising other attorneys on the value of having an outside expert testify to the reasonableness of requested fees rather than the attorney on the case taking the stand.

For one, it can keep defense lawyers out of the sometimes awkward position of attacking the plaintiffs' attorney fees in front of a jury, and secondly, he said, it would encourage attorneys to spend more time developing the evidence to prove fees.  "This case only pushes us more and more toward outside experts, particularly where the attorneys' fees are larger than the amount in controversy," he said.

And the increasing amount of fees being sought is another reason calling in an outside expert could be worthwhile, said Kurt Kuhn of Kuhn Hobbs PLLC.  "It's inevitable that you're going to see people develop that evidence more. It clearly can't be an afterthought," he said.  "To get an outside expert is going to give you, in front of a jury, a little more credibility."

Counsel-to-Counsel Fee Agreements Could Proliferate

Hinson also speculated that the guidance could cause an uptick in attorneys agreeing to their respective fees ahead of time, keeping that issue out of litigation entirely.  "I do think it will be interesting to see if attorneys veer more that way so at least they know they won't get overturned for not having enough evidence," she said.

In the Rohrmoos opinion, the court "hints at" and "suggests" that stipulating to fees before trial in an agreement with opposing counsel could be a way to avoid contentious fee fights, Masso said.  Because the ruling could be interpreted as requiring "more work" on the part of attorneys trying to prove up fees, Masso said it's possible you'll see more negotiation and agreement on fees.  "This opinion makes the litigation of attorneys' fees a little more complex than it was before," he said.  "And there's no way that it doesn't result in that litigation getting a little more complex, and a little more involved and lengthy."

The cases is Rohrmoos Venture et al. v. UTSW DVA Healthcare LLP, case number 16-0006, in the Supreme Court of Texas.

Florida Legislation Changes Fee-Shifting Rule in Insurance Coverage

May 15, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Sistruck, “4 Things Attys Need to Know About Fla’s ‘AOB’ Reform Bill,” reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave the insurance industry cause for celebration when he said he would sign legislation aimed at curbing what carriers call an epidemic of abusive litigation by repair contractors seeking payment under property policies.  Here, Law360 breaks down four key provisions of the so-called Assignment of Benefits reform bill.

Fee-Shifting Switch

The bill passed by the Florida Legislature is expected to have a significant impact on long-standing insurance practices in the Sunshine State, where homeowners often assign their insurance benefits to contractors working on hurricane-damaged houses.  Once signed by the governor, it will take effect July 1.

In recent years, insurers have complained that some contractors have abused the Assignment of Benefits, or AOB, system by accepting assignments from policyholders and then performing excessive repairs or imposing inflated charges, leading to widespread coverage litigation.  Reform advocates have blamed that spike in litigation for increases in insurance premiums.  According to attorneys and experts interviewed by Law360, the surge in AOB actions was attributable in large part to Florida’s “one-way” attorney fee rule, which required an insurance company to pay an assignee’s costs to litigate a coverage suit, regardless of which side prevailed in court.

The new bill replaces that rule with a formula that allows for an award for either the assignee or the insurer — or neither — based on a comparison of a court’s judgment and pre-suit settlement offers.  That change doesn’t apply to policyholders who sue their insurers directly.  The formula for determining attorney fee awards compares the gap between the insurer's pre-suit settlement offer and the assignee's pre-suit demand, dubbed the "disputed amount," and the difference between the judgment obtained and the settlement offer.  If the difference is less than 25% of the disputed amount, the insurer is entitled to attorney fees.  If the difference is 25% to 49% of the disputed amount, neither party gets fees.  And if the difference is 50% or more, the assignee is entitled to a fee award.

Beth A. Vecchioli, senior director for government consulting at Carlton Fields, said the new fee shifting provision is an attempt to “level the playing field so everyone has skin in the game.”  “The current one-way attorney fee provision was always originally designed to help consumers who don't have the same financial resources as their insurers to go through litigation,” Vecchioli said.  “Once these assignments started popping up, though, the insurer was no longer in litigation against a consumer, but against another sophisticated commercial company.  It didn't seem fair or right that the insurance industry still had to deal with this one-way attorney fee provision in those situations."

However, Rob Friedman of Friedman PA, who represents policyholders, said that while the bill’s fee shifting provision applies only to contractors wielding AOBs, he is concerned that insurers may use their legislative success to try to curtail or eliminate the one-way fee rule in disputes with policyholders, too.  “[The one-way fee provision] has been one of the most important protections insurance consumers have under the law,” Friedman said.  “While this erosion of that protection is limited to assignment of benefits situations, I am concerned the industry is targeting the one-way fee provision more broadly.  This may be a slippery slope for the industry to push for doing away with that provision altogether or to erode it in other contexts as well."

Pre-suit Protocol

The new bill states that assignees must give insurance companies notice of intent to file a suit and cannot serve the insurer before it has a chance to make a coverage determination within the statutory time frame.  The insurer must respond within 10 days with a settlement offer or a demand for appraisal or other alternative dispute resolution.

Fred Karlinsky, co-chair of Greenberg Traurig LLP's insurance regulatory and transactions practice, said that in the past, some contractors have quickly filed suit before even giving insurers the chance to perform their own investigations.  “Under this legislation, we will hopefully avoid some of these 'gotcha'-type situations,” he said.  As Friedman sees it, though, the new raft of pre-suit requirements may discourage contractors, particularly smaller operations, from taking on repair jobs.  Companies will have to “lawyer up” at the outset of a job just to understand their rights and obligations under the AOB reform bill, he said.

“A small 'mom and pop' contractor isn't going to want to take on a $1,000 roof repair under an assignment of benefits if they have to hire a lawyer just to tell them what their rights and obligations are,” Friedman said.  “There are so many pitfalls in this statute that a contractor could wind up facing a coverage denial for violating any number of requirements."

Limiting AOBs

In another notable change, the bill opens the door for insurers to offer policies that cannot be assigned to a third party as long as they clearly provide notice to prospective policyholders of those restrictions and also offer assignable policies with the same coverage.  If an insurer opts to sell both types of policies, the restricted policy must cost less.  In addition, an insurer must notify its policyholders “at least annually” of the coverage options it is making available.

According to attorneys and experts, that provision provides clarity for the insurance industry, which had faced confusion about whether insurers can ever place restrictions on AOBs.  “This concept was originally developed by the [Florida] House under the theory that it is better for consumers to have more options than less,” said Vecchioli of Carlton Fields.  “They recognized that they couldn't completely restrict all assignments.  This is a smart, consumer choice-driven option, allowing insurers to offer both options."

Assessing the Impact

The new bill also contains a built-in mechanism for assessing the effectiveness of the AOB reforms.  Starting on Jan. 30, 2022, insurers must submit annual reports to Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation accounting for each “residential and commercial property insurance claim” paid under an AOB agreement in the preceding year.

According to attorneys and experts, those numbers will give the Florida Legislature concrete information to decide whether additional measures are needed to further rein in abuses of the AOB system.  The true test of the legislation will come when the next major hurricane or other catastrophe hits the Sunshine State, yielding huge quantities of AOB-related claims data, sources said.  "We would welcome the Legislature continuing to monitor AOB fraud and making any changes they feel are appropriate,” Greenberg Traurig's Karlinsky said.

DOJ Opposes Attorney Fees in Dial Soap Class Action

May 10, 2019

A recent NLJ story by Nate Robson and Amanda Bronstad, “DOJ Opposes $3.8M in Legal Fees in Latest Swipe at Plaintiffs Bar,” reports that the U.S. Justice Department announced it is opposing a class action settlement in New Hampshire federal court that grants a $3.8 million attorney fee award to plaintiffs’ lawyers who alleged Dial overstated the ability of its antibacterial soap to kill germs.

The government said in a prepared statement that the fee award “would afford little value to consumers while handsomely compensating attorneys.”  The department’s opposition to the class action settlement was filed as a statement of interest by trial attorneys in the consumer protection branch, a component of the civil division.  The government argued that the settlement fund of $7.4 million fails to adequately compensate consumers and that the injunctive relief, in the form of changes to the soap’s ingredients, is “virtually worthless.”

“A class action settlement that affords little meaningful consumer benefit while rewarding attorneys with sizable fees is inappropriate,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “Congress intended to prevent these types of unbalanced settlements with the Class Action Fairness Act.”  A final approval hearing is set for May 29.  Plaintiffs attorney Lucy Karl of Shaheen & Gordon and Robert Miller, of Sheehan Phinney, who represents Dial, did not respond to requests for comment. Both are in New Hampshire.

The Trump-era Justice Department has ramped up efforts to weigh in on pending class actions under the Class Action Fairness Act.  In a separate class action settlement with Lenny & Larry’s, the department in February criticized the purported $3.5 million settlement, preliminarily approved Nov. 1, for giving $1.1 million in legal fees to plaintiffs attorneys, while class members received up to $50 in cash or $30 worth of cookies.  Separately, the DOJ also filed a Feb. 4 amicus brief challenging a settlement over allegedly defective Tristar pressure cookers that gave $2.3 million to plaintiffs attorneys and discount coupons to class members.  The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, joined by 17 other states, has petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to unravel that deal.

Plaintiffs in the soap case, In re: Dial Complete Marketing & Sales Practices Litig., alleged that The Dial Corp. falsely advertised its “Dial Complete” hand soaps containing triclosan as more effective at killing germs over other brands’ soap.  Under a proposed settlement reached between the parties, Dial would pay $2.32 million to class members, with most class members receiving up to $8.10 in compensation for previous purchases of certain soap products, according to the statement of interest.  The settlement also provides for injunctive relief that would require Dial to refrain from using triclosan or claiming that its hand wash product “Kills 99% of Germs.”

Under the agreement, class counsel would seek a total of $3.825 million in attorney’s fees without opposition from Dial, including $1.9 million in fees specifically tied to obtaining the injunctive relief.  In its Statement of Interest, the United States argues that the injunction would provide no benefit to consumers, given that Dial years ago voluntarily made the same changes to its soap products that are required by the proposed injunctive relief.  Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan in such products in 2016.  The case is pending in U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, which must approve any settlement.

The government also complained about the use of cy pres in the settlement.  Under the deal, any unclaimed funds would go to the Ronald McDonald House Charities or Children’s Health Fund.  A footnote in the Statement of Interest said a cy pres distribution is “very unlikely,” given the government’s communication with the parties.  The settlement had no objectors.

The case got attention in 2017 when Dial appealed class certification based on the plaintiffs’ inability to identify class members, particularly in cases where people don’t keep receipts, like consumer products.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit refused to take up the interlocutory appeal, but, in a dissent, Judge William Kayatta warned his colleagues that the court’s recent precedent over how class members could be identified was destined to result in “further mischief” that could challenge the constitutional rights of defendants.