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Category: Fee Dispute

Third Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Fee Dispute Case

June 26, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “3rd Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Atty Fee Suit” reports that the Third Circuit should correct a mistake by a New Jersey federal court that allowed Texas law to be used to bless the collection of excessive attorney fees in pelvic mesh litigation against Johnson & Johnson and its Ethicon unit, two women have asserted.  According to a brief, the appellate court should recognize that if the underlying cases were filed in New Jersey, the attorneys should not be allowed to turn around and use Texas law to administer the settlements just so they could collect a higher percentage of the payouts, plaintiffs Debbie Gore and Doris Lance-Smith said.

"This manipulation of the process cannot be allowed by this court, as it would set a dangerous precedent that would allow contingency fee attorneys to file cases in New Jersey, then retreat to other jurisdictions in order to have the settlements 'administered' and 'approved' so that they can circumvent the New Jersey court rules and charge the clients excessive fees and expenses," the brief reads.  U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo in March nixed a proposed class action against Potts Law Firm, Nagel Rice LLP and other firms, saying Texas law governed the claims and permitted the fees.

The judge noted that "the complex settlement process, which plaintiffs consented to after ample opportunity for objection, was reached by negotiations between Ethicon and Texas law firms and was administered by the Texas state court and a Texas special master."  "Indeed, no New Jersey law firms or lawyers were even listed as receiving contingency-based attorneys' fees as part of plaintiffs' settlements," the judge said.  "As such, the state with the most significant relationship to the substantive claims at issue is Texas."

Gore, a Texas resident, and Lance-Smith, an Alabama resident, both retained Texas firms to pursue claims that they suffered injuries from allegedly defective pelvic mesh products, according to court documents.  While Gore and Lance-Smith each filed a master short-form complaint in New Jersey state court in 2014 as part of the litigation, Judge Arleo noted in March that "no litigation activities occurred" in the Garden State beyond those filings.

Fee arrangements in the case allowed the women's lawyers to receive 40% of their settlements, as Texas law has no particular cap on contingent fees, according to court documents.  Under a relevant New Jersey rule, an attorney can collect a fee of 33.33% of the first $750,000 recovered and then smaller percentages for subsequent amounts.  Those fees must be based on the "net sum recovered" after deducting expenses.

SCOTUS Stays Out of Fee Dispute in Humana ERISA Suit

June 22, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “High Court Stays Out of Fee Fight in Humana ERISA Suit” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court said it won't review the Fifth Circuit's finding that health insurer Humana doesn't have to foot a patient's six-figure attorney fees tab incurred in a suit over eating disorder treatment coverage.  The high court denied a petition from a plan beneficiary only referred to as Ariana M. that had asked the justices to review an appellate ruling that she wasn't entitled to attorney fees after she ultimately lost her attempt to get full coverage for a stay at a Utah treatment center.

A Texas federal court initially ruled in favor of Humana in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act case, and a Fifth Circuit panel later affirmed that decision.  Then in March 2018, a majority of the full Fifth Circuit breathed new life into the case when it adopted a lower standard for reviewing decisions by benefits plan administrators to deny coverage to workers.

Specifically, eight of 14 judges said in that 2018 decision that courts should apply de novo review — analyze a denial of benefits anew — unless the plan's documents explicitly give its administrator sole discretion to consider claims.  They overturned the court's 1991 Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. ruling, which held that de novo review applies to appeals challenging an administrator's interpretation of plan language but only lets courts analyze an administrator's interpretations of facts for abuse of discretion.

But even after Ariana M.'s case was kicked back down, Humana won summary judgment when the district court again said the insurer's denial was correct.  After she lost her bid to get about $140,000 in attorney fees, she again appealed to the Fifth Circuit.  The appellate court affirmed the second summary judgment ruling in Humana's favor, and also affirmed the denial of Ariana M.'s attorney fees bid.

She asked the high court for review earlier this year, arguing she could collect attorney fees under ERISA.  Ariana M.'s petition said the Supreme Court has already found that "an applicant need not be a 'prevailing party'" to be able to collect attorney fees under the applicable provision of ERISA.  She said she "need only achieve 'some success on the merits'" to be eligible for such fees.

Humana Does Want Attorney Fee Dispute in SCOTUS

June 8, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “Humana Says Atty Fee Fight Not Worth High Court’s Time” reports that health insurer Humana has urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to review the Fifth Circuit's decision rejecting a woman's push to make the company foot the bill for a six-figure attorney fees tab in a suit over coverage, saying her argument that the ruling created a circuit split doesn't hold water.

In a Friday brief, Humana Health Plan of Texas Inc. shot back at a petition from a plan beneficiary only identified as Ariana M. that had asked the high court to review an appellate finding that she wasn't entitled to attorney fees after she ultimately lost her attempt to get full coverage for a stay at a Utah treatment center.

Even though Ariana M. argued that the Fifth Circuit decision created a split with a First Circuit decision in which a separate plaintiff did get attorney fees, Humana said that there was no real appellate split. Unlike the First Circuit case, Ariana M. didn't win a remand back to a plan administrator, so the two cases are different, the insurer said.

And "even if there were a conflict, this case would present a particularly poor vehicle for resolving it," Humana argued.

"The unpublished decision below is fact-bound and does not bind any future panel or district judge in the Fifth Circuit (let alone any court outside that circuit)," Humana argued. "It therefore serves as no obstacle to future claimants."

Ariana M. had challenged a decision by Humana to stop paying for treatment of her eating disorder. The Southern District of Texas initially ruled in favor of Humana, and a Fifth Circuit panel later affirmed that decision, according to court documents.

But in March 2018, a majority of the full Fifth Circuit breathed new life into the case, adopting a lower standard for reviewing decisions by benefits plan administrators to deny coverage to workers.

Specifically, eight of 14 judges said in that 2018 decision that courts should apply de novo review — analyze a denial of benefits anew — unless the plan's documents explicitly give its administrator sole discretion to consider claims. They overturned the court's 1991 Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Company ruling, which held that de novo review applies to appeals challenging an administrator's interpretation of plan language but only lets courts analyze an administrator's interpretations of facts for abuse of discretion.

But after the Ariana M. case was kicked back down, Humana won summary judgment when the district court again said the insurer's denial was correct. And after Ariana M. lost her bid to get about $140,000 in attorney fees, she again appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which also affirmed the second summary judgment ruling in Humana's favor and affirmed the denial of Ariana M.'s attorney fee bid.

She asked the high court for review earlier this year, arguing she could collect attorney fees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Ariana M.'s petition said that the Supreme Court has already found that "an applicant need not be a 'prevailing party'" to be able to collect attorney fees under the applicable provision of ERISA. She said that she "need only achieve 'some success on the merits'" to be eligible for such fees.

Amar Raval, an attorney for Ariana M., said in a statement to Law360 on Monday that he disagreed with Humana's brief on the merits.

"This case shows the fundamental difficulty that people like Ariana face when they sue under ERISA," he said. "Even though the law does not require her to be a 'prevailing party,' courts have interpreted ERISA in such a way that it's difficult to ever get attorney fees. We hope to change that, and we are encouraged that the Supreme Court asked for more briefing in this case."

Article: Fee Sharing Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases

June 5, 2020

A recent The Legal Intelligencer article by Sarah Sweeney and Thomas Wilkinson of Cozen O'Connor, “Fee Division Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases” reports on the division of attorney fees between discharged counsel and new counsel in contingency fee matters.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When a client terminates, without cause, its legal representation in a contingent fee matter and subsequently retains new counsel from a different firm, the Rules of Professional Conduct related to the division and disbursement of fees impose certain requirements on the successor attorney.  The American Bar Association recently issued Formal Opinion 487—ABA Formal Opinion 487 (Fee Division with Client’s Prior Counsel), June 18, 2019—to identify the applicable rules, and to clarify the duties owed to the client by the successor attorney.

The opinion explains that Model Rule 1.5(e) (or its state equivalent) has no application to the division of fees in cases of successive representation.  Model Rule 1.5(e) applies to the division of fees between lawyers of different firms who are representing the client concurrently or who maintain joint ethical and financial responsibility for the matter as a whole.  Such situations are governed by Rule 1.5(b)-(c), which according to the opinion, require the successor counsel to “notify the client, in writing, that a portion of any contingent fee earned may be paid to the predecessor attorney.”

Specifically, Rule 1.5(b) requires attorneys to communicate the rate or basis of legal fees, and Rule 1.5(c) requires that the written fee agreement include the method of determining the fee.  Both subsections are designed to ensure that the client has a clear understanding of the total legal fee, how it will be computed, and when and by whom it will be paid.  When a client replaces its original counsel with new counsel in a contingent fee matter, the discharged attorney may have a claim for fees under quantum meruit or pursuant to a clause in the contingency fee agreement; and the successor counsel’s failure to communicate to the client the existence of such claim would run afoul of Rule 1.5(b)-(c).  Therefore, even if the exact amount or percentage (if any) owed to the first attorney is unknown at the time, it is incumbent on the successor attorney to advise a contingency client of the existence and effect of the predecessor attorney’s claim for fees as part of the terms and conditions of the engagement from the outset.

While the foregoing ABA guidance is reasonable, Model Rule 1.5(b) and (c) do not provide the most compelling basis to obligate successor counsel to advise the client of predecessor’s possible fee claim.  As explained in Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Opinion 2020-200: Obligations of Successor Contingent Fee Counsel to Advise Client of Potential Obligations to Prior Counsel, “a contingent fee agreement that fails to mention that some compensation may be due to, or claimed by, the predecessor counsel in circumstances addressed by this opinion is inconsistent with Rules 1.4(b) and 1.5(c),” which “mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that compensation may be claimed by Lawyer 1, and explain the effect of that claim on Lawyer 2’s contingent fee.” See also Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Comm. Op. 2004-1 (“In discharging the inquirer’s obligations under Rule 1.1 (competence) and Rule 1.4 (communication), the committee recommends that the inquirer have a thorough discussion with the client about the potentials for a fee and cost claim by the discharged attorney, and how such a claim, if made, might affect the inquirer’s representation of that client and/or the client’s ultimate distribution, if there is any recovery in the client’s case.”). Pennsylvania Rule 1.4(b) is identical to Model Rule 1.4(b).

The role of the successor attorney with respect to the discharged attorney’s claim for fees should also be set forth in the engagement agreement.  The opinion advises that the engagement agreement should expressly state whether the issue is one to be decided between the discharged attorney and the client or, alternatively, whether the successor attorney will represent the client in connection with the resolution of prior counsel’s fee interest.  If the latter, the successor attorney must obtain the client’s informed consent to the conflict of interest arising from his/her dual role “as counsel for the client and a party interested in a portion of the proceeds.” (emphasis in original)  In many situations, the fees paid to the discharged and successor attorneys may not affect the client’s ultimate recovery, and the client may make an informed decision to leave the matter for the two attorneys to determine among themselves.  In resolving any such dispute, both attorneys remain bound by Rule 1.6 confidentiality or pursuant to any confidentiality provisions in any underlying settlement agreement.

Upon recovery, the successor attorney must comply with Rule 1.15(d) by notifying the discharged attorney of the receipt of funds.  However, client consent is required prior to disbursement of any fees that may be payable to the discharged attorney.  If there is a disagreement about the discharged attorney’s claim or the amount owed, the successor attorney must hold the disputed fees in a client trust account under Rule 1.15(e) until the dispute is resolved.

The Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (board) has proposed that the guidance in the opinion be incorporated into the comment supporting Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 governing fees.  Recognizing that the opinion is not binding precedent, the board’s published notice for comment dated Dec. 7, 2019 stated that the opinion represents “helpful guidance to successor counsel and predecessor counsel in this common situation.  The original lawyer in a contingency-fee matter will often assert a lien on the proceeds.  But if the client retains new counsel, that client may not understand there is a continuing obligation to pay the original lawyer for the value that lawyer contributed or was entitled to under the original fee agreement.”

The board has proposed amending Comment [4] of Rule 1.5 to expressly reference the opinion.  The comment period has expired, so practitioners should proceed on the assumption that the board’s recommendation will likely be approved by the Supreme Court.  While adoption of the new proposed comment will not make compliance with all aspects of the opinion mandatory, practitioners would be wise to include a written notice to clients that a portion of the fee may be claimed by predecessor counsel.  In addition, successor counsel should confirm in writing any undertaking to resolve the prior counsel’s fee interest.  Since the opinion characterizes this as involving a conflict of interest requiring the client’s informed consent to a waiver, the successor firm should also confirm that consent in writing.  In this respect the opinion goes further than previous bar association ethics guidance in Pennsylvania.

Inclusion of an express reference to an ABA or other ethics opinion in the text of a comment to a disciplinary rule is highly unusual.  An alternative would have been to instead include a concise summary of that guidance.  In any event, the Disciplinary Board presumably felt it appropriate to supplement the guidance on this important topic to lawyers handling contingent fee cases because lawyers often fail to engage in earnest efforts to resolve the respective fee interests promptly after successor counsel is retained, leaving the unsuspecting client exposed to complications, potential litigation and delays over the allocation of fees and costs following an award or settlement.

When asked by a prospective client to replace the client’s counsel in a pending contingency fee case, attorneys and firms should be mindful of the duties imposed by the opinion on successor counsel, as well as the specific Rules of Professional Conduct in the relevant jurisdiction and any other applicable substantive law or authority.  In many cases compliance with the new guidance will require updating contingent fee agreements, as well as ensuring the client is adequately informed of the prior counsel’s fee interest and how it will be addressed in the event of a recovery.

Sarah Sweeney is professional responsibility and compliance counsel at Cozen O’Connor.  She serves as co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s professional guidance committee.  Thomas G. Wilkinson is a leader of the legal professionals practice group at Cozen O’Connor.  He is a member of the professional guidance committee and the ABA standing committee on professionalism.

Federal Judge: More Needed for $3B Fee Request in Opioid MDL

June 3, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Opioid MDL Judge Orders More Briefing on $3B Atty Fees” reports that an Ohio federal judge overseeing sprawling opioid multidistrict litigation adopted the recommendation of a Harvard Law School professor that more information is needed before he can approve a request for a common benefit fund setting aside $3.3 billion in attorney fees.  U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster ordered more briefing following a report from William B. Rubenstein, the professor who was brought in to assess the plaintiffs' request.  The judge issued a set of questions based on the report to the plaintiffs and other interested parties.

Rubenstein told the court in his report that the MDL's "truly unique" structure and nature means the court should proceed cautiously, saying the request for a common benefit fund "tests uncharted waters."  While a common benefit fund is usually put in place in anticipation of an aggregate settlement, at this point in the opioid MDL, it's unclear whether such a settlement is even feasible, what structure it would take, and which defendants will settle, Rubenstein said.

In addition, there are numerous different types of suits in the MDL, some with many plaintiffs and some with few, and dozens of defendants involved in different aspects of the pharmaceutical chain, Rubenstein said.  As such, smaller settlements that might be taxed to support the benefit fund could take very different forms, he said.  "A single common benefit assessment levied on multiple different types of settlements involving many different types of plaintiffs and multiple defendants runs the risk of being too crude an approach," he said.

That many of the plaintiffs include states, counties, cities and tribal governments could pose other difficult legal questions in establishing the fund, he added.  There are also ongoing settlement negotiations going on in the MDL that could be impacted by the establishment of such a fund, Rubenstein said, citing warnings from the National Association of Attorneys General, who suggested the fee might "disrupt" settlement negotiations "irreparably."

To resolve the issues involved, Rubenstein recommended the court seek briefing from the plaintiffs and other interested parties answering questions on how an aggregate settlement might take shape, how likely parties and lawyers in the smaller cases are to reach an agreement on how much to contribute to such a fund, and how much of the fund should go toward the attorneys, given the size of the MDL and the potential size of such a settlement.  Four attorneys general in October unveiled a proposed $48 billion deal with major drug companies and the nation's largest drug distributor, after which drug companies said 7% of the settlement would amount to more than $3.3 billion in fees.

The idea of a common benefit fund has come under fire in recent months. Opioid manufacturers and distributors — including Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corp. — pounced on the proposal in February, saying it was nothing more than a "transparent" attempt by lawyers on the plaintiffs' executive committee to grab settlement funds.

Rubenstein, who previously worked on the multimillion-dollar NFL concussion settlement and subsequent fee fight, was tapped in March by Judge Polster to help the court decide whether to approve the $3.3 billion in fees.  "A common benefit order is a widely accepted reality in complex MDLs based on the fundamental fairness of recognizing a distinction between those who work the soil and those who grab the fruit," Paul Geller of Robbins Geller, who represents plaintiffs in the MDL, told Law360.