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Category: Fee Dispute

Fee Allocation Dispute Action Filed Against Milberg

March 27, 2017

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Charles Toutant, “Milberg Targeted in $10.6 Million Legal Fees Fight Linked to Merck Drug,” reports that a Louisiana law firm's seeking $10.6 million in legal fees from class action firm Milberg for securities litigation against Merck & Co. painkiller Vioxx was moved to the District of New Jersey.  Milberg, formerly known as Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman, is accused in the suit of underpaying law firm Kahn, Swick & Foti of Madisonville, Louisiana, which received $400,000 for its work on the Vioxx securities case.

Kahn Swick claims in the suit that its fees from the Vioxx securities case were reduced by strategic measures undertaken by Milberg as the firm and two of its principals were indicted in 2006 on charges of paying kickbacks to class action plaintiffs.  Milberg principals Steven Schulman and David Bershad were each sentenced to six months in prison in that case.

The Vioxx securities suit, filed in 2003, sought to recover damages on behalf of shareholders for allegedly false statements the company made about Vioxx, a pain medication that was withdrawn from the market amid reports it caused heart problems.  In June 2016, U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler gave final approval to a settlement that included $830 million for class members and another $232 million in attorney fees and expenses.

The criminal indictment prompted challenges to Milberg's status as co-lead counsel in the Vioxx securities case, Kahn Swick said in its complaint.  Milberg retained Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello of Roseland as local counsel, and consented to the appointment of two New York firms, Bern­stein Litowitz Berger & Grossman and Brower Piven, as co-lead counsel.  As a result, Kahn Swick saw its role in the case reduced.

Kahn Swick filed its fee suit in state court in the Parish of Orleans, Louisiana, before it was removed to federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana and then to the District of New Jersey.  Milberg asserted in court papers that New Jersey is a suitable venue because a substantial portion of the events behind the claim occurred in that district.  Furthermore, an analysis of factors weighed in favor of transferring the case to New Jersey for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and in the interest of justice, the firm said.

The suit brings a petition for damages and seeks declaratory judgment and a preliminary and permanent injunction against Milberg.  Besides Milberg, the suit names Mark Whitehead III and the Whitehead Law Firm of Lafayette, Louisiana, as defendants. Whitehead and Milberg were co-liaison counsel in the Vioxx case in Louisiana state court.  Milberg claimed in its removal motion that Whitehead and his firm are fraudulently joined defendants because there is no reasonable basis to think the plaintiff will prevail against them.  Therefore, their citizenship must be ignored for removal purposes, Milberg claimed.

Milberg first approached Kahn Swick in 2003 and asked the firm to serve as its local counsel in Louisiana for Merck securities litigation, the suit claims.  The two firms entered into an oral agreement giving Kahn Swick 10 percent of Milberg's proceeds from the litigation, plus Kahn Swick's lodestar for its own work as liaison counsel.  The terms were placed in writing in 2005, according to Kahn Swick.

The Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation transferred the Merck securities case to New Jersey for pretrial proceedings before U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler.  After the settlement was reached, Special Master Layn Phillips was appointed to oversee the division of attorney fees.  Ultimately, Milberg was awarded $25 million.

Lewis Kahn of Kahn Swick said in a statement about the fee dispute, "We are pleased to be back in New Jersey, where we sought to have this contract dispute resolved initially through the court-ordered Special Master process, and look forward to moving forward to the merits of the case.  We believe our firm fulfilled our obligations under our written joint venture with Milberg and, notwithstanding Milberg's indictment and subsequent diminished role in the Merck litigation, believe that Milberg must honor this agreement."

Milberg, formerly known as a high-flying securities class action firm, was hurt badly by the 2008 financial crisis.  The firm notified the state of New York in late 2016 of its plans to lay off 32 employees by late December, according to a document filed with the state Department of Labor in September 2016.

London Arbitration Firm Recovers Costs from UAE Fee Dispute

March 13, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Jimmy Hoover, “London Arbitration Firm Recovers Costs From UAE Fee Spat,” reports that a London-based international arbitration firm won back nearly all of the costs it spent pursuing around $2 million in legal fees from its representation of a wealthy United Arab Emirates (UAE) family in a commercial contract dispute, when a U.K. court found the family was drawing out the appeal process to delay payment of the fees.

The England and Wales High Court ruled that Shackleton and Associates Ltd., a firm founded by sole shareholder and solicitor advocate Stewart Shackleton, is entitled to 80 percent of the costs incurred from a proceeding to enforce the fee award against the Bin Kamils, a wealthy business family in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.  The fee award, handed down by a London tribunal of the International Court of Arbitration in 2013, stems from Shackleton’s representation of the family in an earlier ICC proceeding over a cement plant joint venture gone bad in the Arab nation.

The evidence in the case suggests that “the defendants lacked any realistic defence to the enforcement of the [fee award] and that the steps they took in the proceedings were taken not in pursuit of a genuine defence but solely for the purpose of delaying payment to the claimant of the fees to which it had been held to be entitled,” Justice Nigel John Martin Teare said in a judgment.  “That takes the case out of the norm and is a very significant level of unreasonable conduct which undoubtedly justifies an order for indemnity costs.”

The underlying ICC arbitration involved a joint venture between the Bin Kamils and Cypriot company Terna Bahrain Holding Co. WLL involving a cement plant with a capacity of up to 1.8 million tons.  Terna, which purchased a 40 percent stake in an entity holding a 25-year lease of the property in Hamriyah Free Zone in Sharjah where the plant was being built, alleged that the Bin Kamils failed to procure permits to allow the construction of a cement import-export terminal.

A previous decision from the High Court maintained that Shackleton “had been most heavily involved in conducting the case on behalf of the Bin Kamils in the arbitration” but was “was not available to assist” with the Terna arbitration award after a falling-out with the firm Galadari & Associates in 2011.  On Monday, Shackleton disputed the court's characterization of a falling out with Galadri & Associates, insisting in an email to Law360 that the non-payment of fees was "the only reason" that his firm ceased acting in the summer of 2011.

Shackleton won an award for £1.4 million ($1.76 million) in fees plus interest from the ICC tribunal in 2013 after the Bin Kamils refused to participate in the proceeding other than to say that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction over the claims.  Challenging a Paris appeals court’s order granting “permission” to enforce the award, the family unsuccessfully applied to set aside the award, but the Cour de Cassation dismissed the application in March 2016.

“The impression one gains from this history is that the defendants were intent on delaying payment into court as long as was possible,” Justice Teare said.  The court did not assess Shackleton’s costs but noted that his normal hourly rate of £800, or roughly $1,000, was “more than double” of what appears to be the “guideline rate.”  Though the court can exceed the guideline rate for sufficiently complex cases, “proceedings to enforce an arbitration award do not fall into that category,” the judge said.

Is Highland Fee Dispute Arbitable?

March 10, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Martin O’Sullivan, “Arbitrator to Say If Highland Fee Dispute is Arbitrable,reports that a Delaware Chancery judge has declared that an arbitrator must decide whether a dispute over legal fees between a hedge fund manager and investors can be decided in arbitration, saying the investors and the fund agreed to the arrangement in a prior settlement.

Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III said that Highland Capital Management LP, which manages the shuttered Crusader Fund, and a committee of investors must go to arbitration to determine whether or not the issue of the investors’ obligation to advance legal fees for Highland can also be arbitrated, saying the parties agreed to as much in a settlement surrounding the wind-down of the Crusader Fund.

“Because I find the contract generally provides for arbitration of all disputes, this case must be stayed for a determination of arbitrability by the arbitrator,” Vice Chancellor Glasscock said.

In August 2008, Highland announced it was freezing the Crusader’s proceeds, preventing investors from withdrawing their money.  A subsequent settlement with investors to wind-down the fund allowed Highland to continue serving as fund manager and created an investor committee with powers over Highland.

Investors sued Highland in July, seeking to have the fund manager removed from the Crusader Fund.  Highland, which was removed as manager in August, filed counterclaims, seeking indemnification for the suit.  According to Vice Chancellor Glasscock, the wind-down settlement agreement “provides for arbitration of disputes” between the investors and Highland.

“The parties bound themselves to arbitration, broadly, of issues among them,” Vice Chancellor Glasscock said.  “They adopted the [American Arbitration Association] rules which provide that the arbitrator must determine arbitrability.”

The case is Redeemer Committee of the Highland Crusader Fund v. Highland Capital Management, case number 12533-VCG, in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware.

Texas High Court to Hear $42M Fee Dispute

March 6, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court to Hear $42M Atty-Client Fee Dispute,” reports that the Texas Supreme Court on granted a request from the owner of a water supply company, who argued a lower court ignored a jury's findings and wrongly granted a new trial to his two former lawyers in a contingency fee dispute lawsuit involving their right to a stake in his company.
In October 2013, a jury rejected the claims of solo practitioners Thomas C. Hall and F. Blake Dietzmann that they were entitled to $42 million in damages under a contingency agreement with Dean Davenport, who won full ownership of a water supply company in an underlying suit.  But about 105 days after rendering judgment, the trial court vacated the judgment and granted the attorneys' request for a new trial.  After an appellate court directed the trial court to provide specific reasons for granting a new trial, it did so in March 2015, holding that the agreement unambiguously provided that fees would be paid out of the ownership in any business recovered, and that the jury's findings weren't supported by the evidence, Davenport told the court.  The high court has scheduled oral arguments in the matter for March 23.

In his petition for writ of mandamus, filed in November 2015, Davenport told the high court it should take the case because the dispute raises the important issue of when a trial court should be allowed to grant a new trial.  In this case, Davenport argued, the trial court disregarded a jury's findings, misstated the record, ignored evidence, credited disputed testimony and “substituted its judgment and credibility decisions for the jury's” in granting his former attorneys' request for a new trial. 

Davenport also argued that the court should weigh in on the “narrow circumstances” under which lawyers and clients can become business partners under contingent fee agreements.  Rule 1.08(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct allows for that only if the transaction is fair, reasonable and fully disclosed; the client is given a chance to seek advice from outside counsel; and the client consents to it in writing. None of those safeguards were met in this case, Davenport told the court.

“Nonetheless, the trial court concluded as a matter of law — eleven months after a jury verdict in favor of the client (and after the trial court determined the fee agreement was ambiguous) — that the fee agreement was unambiguous and supposedly entitled the lawyers to become partners in businesses the client purchased in settling his lawsuit,” Davenport wrote.  “In so doing, the trial court ignored the plain language of the fee agreement at issue and the special rules and ethical principles underlying the interpretation of attorney-client fee agreements and attorney-client business transactions, as set forth in Levine, Anglo-Dutch, and Rule 1.08.”

In a February 2016 response arguing against granting the mandamus petition, Hall and Dietzmann told the court that Davenport wants the court to “greatly expand Texas law in ways that would substantially reduce the significance and reliability of all written contracts.”  Their agreement with Davenport, the attorneys told the court, “expressly contemplates paying fees out of the recovery of a business ownership.”

“The trial court did not clearly abuse its discretion by granting a new trial for the reasons stated. As it relates to the payment of attorneys’ fees out of the recovery of an ownership of a business, the agreement is unambiguous,” the brief reads.  “Furthermore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding the evidence was insufficient to support findings that Hall and Dietzmann had waived or should be equitably estopped from asserting their right to be paid under their unambiguous fee agreement with Davenport.”

Hall and Dietzmann filed suit in February 2012, claiming that after the settlements because Davenport was “paid” through his former partners' ownership interests in Water Exploration Co Ltd., they were owed a percentage of the company, instead of the about $400,000 in cash he paid them in December 2009.  They sought about $24.6 million in damages, equivalent to what they said would be the current value of their alleged ownership interest in WECO, plus $18 million in punitive damages.

But the jury found Davenport's contingent fee agreement with the two attorneys did not include a potential ownership stake in WECO, and found the attorneys had waived their rights to seek ownership of WECO and were each estopped from trying to claim a stake in the company.  Jurors also found both attorneys complied with their fiduciary duties to Davenport.

The case is In Re Dean Davenport et al., case number 15-0882, in the Supreme Court of Texas.

Fee Allocation Dispute in NCAA Antitrust Case

February 28, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal by Charles Toutant, “Suit Says Lawyer Has Been Shortchanged on Fees in $60M Video Game Settlement,” reports that a New Jersey lawyer claims in a suit that class action firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro shortchanged him on fees from a $60 million settlement of class action suits on behalf of college athletes over the use of their names and likenesses in video games.

Timothy McIlwain of Linwood claims Hagens Berman breached a contract between plaintiffs lawyers concerning sharing of fees in his suit against the firm and three principals, which was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.  In addition to the firm, the suit names managing partner Steven Berman and partners Leonard Aragon and Robert Carey as defendants.  Aragon said he had not had a chance to review the lawsuit, but said any claim contradicting a Northern District of California judge who awarded fees would be "frivolous."

The suit claims Hagens Berman breached a contract it entered into with McIlwain concerning division of fees from class action litigation against video game maker Electronic Arts and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Roughly 24,000 class members received payments averaging $1,600 each for appearing in a series of video games produced by EA between 2003 and 2014.  In July 2015 a U.S. judge in San Francisco approved the $60 million settlement, which was brought on behalf of college football and basketball players who said their rights of publicity were violated by unauthorized depictions of them in video games.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California awarded $5.7 million in attorney fees to Hagens Berman in the combined settlement of three suits against EA and the NCAA on Dec. 10, 2015.  The judge awarded $696,000 to McIlwain after concluding that his fee application sought payment for several items that were unrelated to the case.

But McIlwain's suit cites an agreement between plaintiffs firms in the video game litigation that called for the pooling of any fee award, and a division giving 60 percent to Hagens Berman and 40 percent to McIlwain and his co-counsel, the Lanier Law firm.  Berman agreed to those terms in a Sept. 24, 2013, email that is included in an exhibit to McIlwain's complaint.

McIlwain brings counts for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and interference with prospective economic advantage.  He seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as costs, interest and legal fees.

McIlwain filed suit in state court on behalf of former Rutgers University football player Ryan Hart in 2009.  EA removed the case to U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.  Around the same time, Hagens Berman's attorneys filed suit in the Northern District of California on behalf of Sam Keller, who was a quarterback at Arizona State University and the University of Nebraska.

McIlwain's case, Hart v. Electronic Arts, was dismissed by a federal judge in New Jersey who found EA's use of the plaintiff's likeness was protected by the First Amendment. But t hat decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Third Circuit, which sent the case back to District Court in May 2013.

Meanwhile, in Keller v. NCAA, EA appealed a District Court judge's ruling denying its motion to strike right-of-publicity claims asserted by Keller.  EA claimed that its use of the player's likeness and jersey numbers was a transformative use and therefore protected by the First Amendment.  But the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court in July 2013.

Lawyers for those cases and for a similar suit, O'Bannon v. NCAA, signed their fee-splitting agreement on Sept. 24, 2013.  And two days later, on Sept. 26, 2013, EA agreed at a mediation session to settle the three suits for $40 million.  In June 2014, the NCAA agreed to pay $20 million to settle the three suits.

Hagens Berman argued before Wilken that it should receive the largest portion of the fee award in the case because a ruling it obtained from the Ninth Circuit in Keller was the catalyst for the $60 million settlement.  McIlwain, for his part, maintains that a ruling he received from the Third Circuit in Hart was the catalyst for the settlement and, therefore, he is entitled to over $4 million in fees.

But Wilken said in a Dec. 10, 2015, order that the right-of-publicity claims raised under California law in Keller exposed EA to the greatest liability.  That finding weighed in favor of a finding that the Keller case made the most significant contribution to the settlement, Wilken said.

Aragon, who is in Hagen Berman's Phoenix office, said his firm has not been served with the complaint yet, but added that the fee distribution was resolved by Wilken.  "Any attempt to bypass the court's order is frivolous.  If we are served, we will move to dismiss the case and will seek fees and costs against Mr. McIlwain."

Aragon said the email cited by McIlwain was "part of a much larger agreement and that agreement never came to fruition.  I would suggest to him that he re-read Judge Wilken's order and dismiss his case."

The litigation was notable because it marked the first time the NCAA paid for the use of the name, image and likeness rights of student athletes.  "Many students received thousands of dollars from the NCAA as a result of the Hagens Berman's work, and the settlement was universally well received by the athletes," he said.