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Category: Fee Jurisprudence

Ohio Supreme Court Cuts $4M in Fees; Redefines Lodestar

March 26, 2020

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Alex Ebert, “$4M Attorney Fee Award Cut in Half by Ohio High Court,” reports that a nearly $4 million payday for a prevailing group of attorneys was lopped in half by the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled an “enhancement” that doubled the winning lawyers’ fees went too far.  Ohio’s lodestar calculation, the method for determining a reasonable attorneys fee, already factors in the complexity and time of litigation, and the expertise of the attorneys involved, the court said in its opinion issued.

A state trial and appellate court were wrong to look to these factors and double the more than $1.99 million in attorneys fees awarded to Phoenix Lighting Group LLC’s lawyers, the high court said.  The legal team won the lighting business a $5,518,335 judgment following years of litigation over claims that its value was reduced by unlawful actions by a competitor, Genlyte Thomas Group LLC, dating back to incidents that occurred in 2009.

“Today’s decision communicates the Ohio Supreme Court’s desire to limit an attorney’s ability to receive an enhancement in attorney fees in cases where his or her performance was exceptional or where the attorney, for the best interest of the client, took on a case with exceptional risk,” Phoenix Lighting Group’s attorney Jeffrey Witschey, a partner with Akron-based Witschey Witschey & and Firestine Co., LPA, said in an email.

“The danger with the decision is the potential chilling effect on attorneys taking cases for clients that are unable to financially support long legal battles with wealthier opponents,” he said.  The court made the “right decision and established appropriate limitations that will make enhancements rare in Ohio and require the rare enhancement to be based on objective evidence that is reviewable on appeal,” Genlyte Thomas Group’s attorney Benjamin Sasse, a partner in Tucker Ellis LLP’s Cleveland office, said in an email.

The court shouldn’t increase the fees just because the payoff took a long time, the justices said.  “Enhancements to the lodestar should be granted rarely and are appropriate when an attorney produces objective and specific evidence that an enhancement of the lodestar is necessary to account for a factor not already subsumed in the lodestar calculation,” Justice Melody Stewart wrote in the majority opinion signed by seven justices.

Justice Sharon Kennedy issued a concurring opinion that agreed with Stewart but said trial courts must weigh each reasonable-fee factor individually, and not believe all factors are bound-up perfectly in the lodestar analysis.  Justice Patrick Fischer also a separate concurring opinion saying that courts must also be mindful of the “time value of money” in cases that take years to resolve.  The underlying issues in this matter began in 2004.  “Prevailing plaintiffs who have paid their attorneys over the course of the lawsuit and attorneys working on a contingent-fee basis have been deprived of the use of their money throughout the lawsuit,” Fischer said in his concurrence.

Full Federal Circuit Urged to Fix Divergent Attorney Fee Ruling

March 3, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dani Kass, “Full Fed. Circ. Urged to Fix Divergent Attorney Fee Ruling,” reports that the Federal Circuit deviated from nearly every other circuit court and U.S. Supreme Court precedent when it upheld a ruling that a settlement precluded BigCommerce Inc. from collecting attorney fees, the e-commerce company said in a bid for rehearing.  BigCommerce maintains that it was the prevailing party in its litigation with Diem LLC, as while Diem’s underlying patent infringement claims were settled, a contract dispute that came out of the deal was decided entirely in BigCommerce's favor.  Nearly every other circuit has allowed companies to prevail even if some claims are settled, the petition for rehearing by the panel or en banc states.

Diem, a nonpracticing entity, had accused BigCommerce of infringing its website-generation and -hosting patent with the storefront manager service offered on BigCommerce's website.  As part of a settlement, Diem and Commerce entered into a contract under which the district court would look only at whether Diem had a particular infringement theory in its original infringement allegations.  If so, BigCommerce would have to license the patent for $30,000, and if not, the case would be dismissed with prejudice, according to BigCommerce's appeal.  The district court ruled in favor of BigCommerce and dismissed Diem's suit.

BigCommerce maintains that it's the prevailing party because it escaped the litigation without having to license the patent it was accused of infringing, pay anything to Diem, or change its products or services.  Both the district court and Federal Circuit have disagreed.  The rehearing petition turns on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buckhannon Board & Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, which struck down the so-called catalyst theory.  Under that theory, a party was considered “prevailing” if its lawsuit caused the defendant to voluntarily change conduct.

BigCommerce said that during oral arguments, the panel claimed it was being asked to stray from the justices' 2001 ruling, but the company said that’s not true.  In 2016's CRST Van Expedited Inc. v. EEOC, the justices said they hadn’t set a “precise test” on how to determine whether a party has prevailed, the petition states.

According to BigCommerce, the Federal Circuit read a test into Buckhannon that “virtually every circuit has squarely rejected.”  It provided examples from the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh circuits to back up that argument.  Buckhannon is just about the catalyst theory and “has no relevance” in a case that doesn't invoke that theory, the petition states.

“BigCommerce never cited any BigCommerce-led action that induced a voluntary change in Diem’s conduct in support of its ‘prevailing party’ arguments in the lower court or before this court,” the petition states.  “In fact, Diem refused to voluntarily do anything BigCommerce requested.  A district court had to retain enforcement jurisdiction over the parties’ settlement agreement, resolve the parties’ dispute, rule in favor of BigCommerce, rule against Diem, which finally caused the dismiss[al] of this case with prejudice.”

The 2006 Federal Circuit case cited by the district court when denying fees, Exigent Tech. Inc. v. Altrana Solutions Inc., was also decided incorrectly, BigCommerce said.  In that case, the court said merits-based relief is required to become a prevailing party, which BigCommerce said contradicts the high court’s ruling in CRST.  If the Federal Circuit doesn’t adjust its holding, then the term "prevailing party" will mean one thing under the Patent Act and something else under every other law, which can’t stand, BigCommerce said.

Article: Some Litigation Too Complex for AI Attorney Fee Predictions

March 2, 2020

A recent Law 360 article by Paul Aloe, “Discrimination Cases Are Too Complex For AI Fee Prediction,” responses to another Law 360 article, “Legal Prediction is Demanding But Not Impossible.”  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

A recent Law360 guest article by Joseph Avery criticizing the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Lisa Balducci v. Brian M. Cige shows a profound misunderstanding of the opinion and the nature of hourly fee retainers.  The article overlooks that even with artificial intelligence, an experienced litigator cannot safely predict the hourly fee of a litigated case.

That is especially so with respect to cases under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, or NJLAD, with which Balducci v. Cige dealt.  Those cases are often highly charged and emotional — and the length and work required is very difficult to predict.

Some cases resolve quickly, many after protracted litigation.  The New Jersey Supreme Court was entirely correct that predicting the cost and length of a new case is "a difficult, if not impossible, task" and thus lawyers are not obligated to provide a calculation of the entire fee that will be incurred at the outset of the litigation.

The decision itself recites factors that make that so, including whether the cases is settled or tried, "the nature and length of the discovery process, the number of depositions conducted and expert witnesses retained, the overall complexity of the litigation, and many other factors."

The opinion in Balducci v. Cige makes complete sense in the context of which it was decided.  This was a NJLAD case, and the courts below found that the attorney had assured the client that she would not have to pay the hourly rate, even though the retainer said otherwise.

There is also an indication in the decision that the attorney admitted padding his invoices.  When the client became dissatisfied with the attorney, and exercised her right to terminate the attorney, the attorney then presented her with a bill for $270,791, which she likely had no means to pay.

This of course is not the typical hourly arrangement, where a client receives a regular invoice, calculated on the hours expended, and pays that invoices as the litigation progresses.  In that situation, if the client chooses to terminate the lawyer, the client is free to do so.  In this case, the billing contradicted the oral assurances that the fee would be paid by the client, which undermined her right to change attorneys.

Discrimination cases are very different than the typical hourly fee arrangement.  Discrimination cases are often brought with the expectation that the fee will be paid by the defendants, either as part of a settlement or at trial, which appears to be the situation in this case, even though the actual retainer agreement said otherwise.

Of course, NJLAD cases present special circumstances that do need to be considered.  While it is often the case that the attorney receives his or her fee from the defendants as part of a settlement or judgment, that is not always the case.

The case can be lost at trial, the plaintiff might decide to no longer pursue the case, the court might award some but not all of the fees incurred, the plaintiff might win a judgment that includes fees, but the defendants might go bankrupt or otherwise be unable to pay it.  Although New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(b) only provides "[w]hen the lawyer has not regularly represented the client, the basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated in writing to the client before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation," it is entirely appropriate that the retainer agreement in a NJLAD case spell out exactly when and under what circumstances a client may personally have to pay the fees.

Some situations where fees are not recovered may be the fault of neither the lawyer nor the client.  For example, where the defendant goes bankrupt rather than paying a judgment.  Other situations may be more complicated, as when the client loses the ultimate case, which could be the result of the client not being credible, the handling of the case by the attorney, or both.  These situations are not easy to spell out, but it is important at the outset for the lawyer and the client to have an understanding of who is bearing this risk.

Balducci v. Cige, however, presents a particularly important ethical issue, because the client was exercising her right to terminate counsel.  The rules of professional ethics afford clients the unfettered right to discharge counsel, but in this case, it seems the retainer was used in such a fashion as to undermine that right.

Of course, there are situations where a client, just before receiving a settlement, might choose to terminate the attorney.  Another factor is that where the client discharges the attorney, but continues the case, and ultimately receives an attorney fee award, the award would presumably compensate both the old and the new attorney.  A still further situation may be where a client, having commenced a NJLAD case, decides to no longer pursue it.  These types of cases in particular are difficult cases for the plaintiff.

The defense is often able to suggest that the underlying problem was with the plaintiff, not the defendant, and even where that is not the defense, since the NJLAD deals with unlawful discrimination, the pursuit of the case may be very painful for the plaintiff.  Clients of course should be free to discontinue suits, but the discontinuance leaves the attorney without a fee.

Again, if the client were regularly paying an hourly fee that decision would be entirely up to the client.  But where the parties have agreed that the fee will be paid by the defendants, the parties need to consider what occurs if the client decides to discontinue the suit.

All of these are difficult issues.  The New Jersey Supreme Court wisely directed the appointment of an ad hoc committee to address the ethical issues raised in its decision.  In the NJLAD situation, many of those ethical issues are difficult and complex.  Requiring attorneys to use artificial intelligence to make predictions is rightfully not endorsed, and deemed nearly impossible, by the court.

Paul Aloe is a partner at Kudman Trachten Aloe LLP in New York, NY.

Article: Five Lessons for Recovering Attorney Fees in Texas

February 24, 2020

A recent BizLitNews article by Amanda Taylor, “Recovering Attorney’s Fees in Texas: Five Lessons,” reports on attorney fee recovery in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Obtaining an award of attorneys’ fees might be the final step in a long-waged litigation battle but to do so successfully requires careful planning and diligence from the outset of a case.  The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the evidence required to obtain and affirm such an award.  Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, 578 S.W.3d 469 (Tex. 2019).  The Texas Supreme Court also recently confirmed that these evidentiary standards apply equally when fees are sought to be recovered as a sanction.  Nath v. Texas Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 710 (Tex. 2019).  To best serve a client’s interests of recovering attorneys’ fees in Texas, whether as a prevailing party or as a sanction, lawyers should adhere to five lessons from Rohrmoos.

Lesson One:  Confirm a legal entitlement to recover fees.  “In Texas, as in the federal courts, each party must pay its own way in attorney’s fees … unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 484.  Certain claims, such as a breach of contract claim brought under Chapter 38 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, entitle a prevailing party to recover attorneys’ fees.  Other claims, such as a common law fraud claim, do not afford such a remedy.  In establishing your initial case strategy, it is important to consider which claims will and will not allow for recovery of fees, and advise your client about the pros and cons of pursuing each claim accordingly.  Also, be aware of fee-shifting procedural tools (such a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act) and various Texas statutes and rules that allow for recovery of fees as a sanction (such as Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapters 9-10, and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215).

Lesson Two: Keep accurate, contemporaneous billing records.  Although billing records are not absolutely required to prove the amount of reasonable and necessary fees, it is “strongly encouraged” to submit such proof in support of attorneys’ fees.  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 502.  It is much easier to review, summarize, and testify about the work performed (often years later) if you have been diligent in your billing practices throughout.  Time should be kept in a manner that demonstrates the “(1) particular services performed, (2) who performed those services, (3) approximately when those services were performed, (4) the reasonable amount of time required to perform the services, and (5) the reasonable hourly rate for each person performing the services.”  Id.  It is also advisable to keep time in a manner that is specific enough to cover the topic but without legalese and without so much detail that heavy redactions become necessary.  Fact finders prefer to read invoices in plain English without the interruption of hidden text.

Lesson Three:  Your fee agreement does not control the amount awarded.  “[A] client’s agreement to a certain fee arrangement or obligation to pay a particular amount does not necessarily establish that fee as reasonable or necessary.”  Id. at 488.  Translation: even if you have agreed to handle the matter for a flat fee or contingency fee, you still must demonstrate that the amount of fees sought for recovery are reasonable and necessary based on the work performed and the time incurred.  Regardless of the fee arrangement with your client, keeping accurate and contemporaneous billing records is important.

Lesson Four: Remember to timely designate fee experts.   “Historically, claimants have proven reasonableness and necessity of attorney’s fees through an expert’s testimony—often the very attorney seeking the award.”  Id. at 490.  “[C]onclusory testimony devoid of any real substance will not support a fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Because expert testimony will be required, the attorney must remember to designate herself and any other attorney who will offer an opinion about the reasonableness and necessity of the fee amount(s) as an expert witness in compliance with the scheduling order or discovery control plan governing the case.

Lesson Five: Understand the “Texas two-step” calculation method.  At step one, calculate the “base” or “lodestar” amount by multiplying the “reasonable hours worked” by a “reasonable hourly rate.”  Id. at 498.  This is an “objective calculation” that yields a “presumptively reasonable” amount.  Id. at 497-98, 502.  The determination of what is a reasonable market rate and what is a reasonable amount of time will typically include consideration of the following factors: (1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill required to perform the legal service properly, (4) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, (5) the amount involved, (6) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services, (7) whether the fee is fixed or contingent and the uncertainty of collection, and (8) the results obtained.  Id. at 500.  At step two, “adjust[] the base calculation up or down based on relevant considerations … [that were not] subsumed in the first step.”  Id.  “If a fee claimant seeks an enhancement, it must produce specific evidence showing that a higher amount is necessary to achieve a reasonable fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Remember that only “rare circumstances” justify such an adjustment.  Id. at 502.

Following these five lessons from the outset of a case will be beneficial to the expert testifying about the amount of fees at the end of a case.  More importantly, it will benefit your client’s best interest in obtaining a monetary award and being able to have that award affirmed on appeal.

Amanda G. Taylor is a Board-Certified Civil Appellate attorney who practices from the Austin, TX office of Butler Snow LLP.  Her practice is focused on shaping successful case strategy for litigation clients from the outset of litigation through the end of an appeal.  She also frequently represents clients in matters regarding the Texas Citizens Participation Act (Texas’ anti-SLAPP statute).

Article: The Need For Attorney Fee Expertise

February 20, 2020

A recent AI article by John D. O’Connor, “The Need For Attorney Fee Expertise (pdf),” reports on the need for attorney fee expertise to prove reasonable attorney fees and proper billing practices in underlying litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Most corporate clients today have access to excellent litigation counsel in each particular area of concern.  However, as attorney fee disputes are increasingly becoming a by-product of the main litigation event, few clients and few otherwise excellent litigators truly understand when and how to use attorney fee experts.

Although the “American Rule” provides that each litigating party bears its own fees, there are exceptions to this rule.  Successful class actions; employment and governmental discrimination cases; eminent domain suits; RICO claims; and other cases result in legally-sanctioned attorney fees claims.  Promissory notes, guarantees, real estate purchase agreements, and corporate acquisition contracts often contain attorney fee clauses.  High-stakes insurance coverage litigation usually features a battle over fees incurred in the underlying case(s).  It is common for a case with a small monetary award to result in an extremely high request for fees.

Typically in fees proceedings, the party with a claim to fees files a motion detailing the amount it requests, accompanied at a minimum by a Declaration of the main litigating attorney attaching a statement of his billings, detailing hours and rates for which payment is sought.  The main billing attorney will normally justify the requested billing rate, which can be his actual rate or a rate claimed to be prevailing in the community for one of similar skill and experience. The motion, usually accompanied by a brief summarizing the law of fees in that type of case, includes the statutory or contractual authority for same.

When the responding party files its submission, the contours of the ultimate dispute take shape.  It is common for the respondent to challenge the billing rates as unduly high; the number of lawyers assigned as excessive; the hours spent as inefficient; the number and length of conferences and meetings as unnecessary; the billing form as improperly “blocked” and “vague” in description; many of the tasks billed as being unwisely or improvidently chosen; certain work as not related to prevailing claims; and generally excessive fees for the type of litigation involved.  Often this opposition is accompanied by a request for limited discovery regarding fees.

As objections are detailed in various cases, the challenging lawyer is usually able to write an impressive brief in support.  These objections can be made without an expert witness, except as to prevailing billing rates, which the responding lawyer is qualified to opine.  The responding party will have made a serious mistake, however, if it did not bolster its objections with a detailed opinion of an experienced fee expert.  Often, the reviewing Court has witnessed the work of the petitioning lawyers and formed a positive opinion of them. Indeed, the reviewing Court in the underlying case would often have ruled in favor of the petitioner and against the respondent.  Even if not, the respondent must labor against the human assumption that established, competent lawyers have billed in accordance with community standards.

However, surprisingly, it is common for responding parties to put forth objections without an expert.  We have seen cases where fees sought into eight figures, where no expert has been retained, with unenviable results. Most experts have the capability of presenting a computer analysis isolating hours and tasks, which can claim to isolate amounts of “block” entries, incompensable “clerical” time, and other practices.  Such a presentation, though, is often superficial, and may not impress a reviewing Court seeking a principled basis upon which to reduce fees for the prevailing party.

Whatever the case, any attack on the requested fees should call for a rebuttal by a qualified attorney fee expert on behalf of the petitioner.  However, this guideline is frequently observed in the breach.  Even if the Court had been inclined to a favorable opinion of the petitioning firm, even a superficial attack on the petitioning lawyers’ fees can be facially effective, and thus the petitioner would need to blunt effectively any such attack.

A qualified expert can help by suggesting needed discovery from the responding party of information regarding that party’s billings which supports the petitioner’s request.  More importantly, an expert employed correctly will go beyond the glittering generalities put forth in these disputes.  They would show why a particular billing rate is justified with specific reference to specific firms doing nearly identical work or why a particular task was necessarily and properly time-consuming.

Most reviewing Courts are experienced at resolving factual disputes based on a presentation of specific compelling facts.  A wise litigation party, in short, should employ an expert to do just that. 

John D. O’Connor is a NALFA member and the Principal of O’Connor & Associates in San Francisco.  For more on John D. O’Connor, visit www.joclaw.com.