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Category: Fee Jurisprudence

NALFA Podcast with Law Professor Charles Silver

March 17, 2017

NALFA hosts a podcast series on attorney fee issues.  We talk with thought leaders, attorney fee experts, and attorney fee newsmakers who’ve helped shape and influence the jurisprudence of reasonable attorney fees.  NALFA interviews members, faculty, judges, law professors, in-house counsel, and others on a range of attorney fee and legal billing issues.

NALFA’s second podcast featured an interview with Charles M. Silver, Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.  The NALFA podcast with Professor Silver focused on his empirical research on the setting of attorney fees in securities class actions and economic principles at play in civil litigation.  The podcast discussion centered on fee calculation methods, judicial procedure for awarding fees, and private contingency fee agreements. 

Professor Silver also discussed the politics of class actions and the dynamics of the tort reform lobby.  In addition, Professor Silver also offered several recommendations for the class action world, including employing a more real world, market based approach to awarding fees in class actions.

“These podcasts are the perfect broadcast format to discuss attorney fee and legal billing issues,” said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  “In addition to his research, Professor Silver talked about a range of issues including the creation of a data set for judges to draw upon when awarding fees, fee allocation issues in MDLs, and setting attorney fees early in the class action process,” Jesse said.  Click on the link below to listen to the NALFA podcast:

https://soundcloud.com/thenalfa/nalfa-podcast-with-law-professor-charles-m-silver

Federal Circuit: EAJA Fee Awards Must Use Local Rates

March 16, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Chuck Stanley, “Fed. Circuit Says EAJA Legal Fees Must Use Local Costs,” reports that awards for attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) must be calculated based on the location where the work was done, a Federal Circuit panel said in a precedential ruling.

The federal circuit rejected a veteran’s widow’s claim that ambiguity in the statute allows her to adjust upward the hourly rate for calculating attorneys’ fees in a benefits suit based on the consumer price index (CPI) in Washington, D.C., where the case was heard but little other work was done.

Instead, the panel ruled that Paula Parrott should have provided individual rates for work done in Dallas, San Francisco and Washington in order to win an adjustment from the statutory rate of $125 per hour, rather than using the CPI for a single city or the national CPI to calculate a single rate.

The decision upheld the Veterans Court’s decision to award Parrott fees based on the statutory rate because she failed to provide rates for each city where work had been done on the case.

“We think the local CPI approach, where a local CPI is available … is more consistent with EAJA than the national approach.  We therefore hold that the Veterans Court did not err in ruling that the local CPI approach represented the correct method of calculating the adjustment in Ms. Parrott’s attorney’s hourly rate,” the decision states.

Parrott had claimed more than $7,200 in legal expenses in a suit over benefits for her husband, a deceased veteran, based on an upward adjustment from the statutory hourly rate based on the cost of living in Washington, D.C.  Language in the EAJA, which provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to victorious parties fighting agency action, stipulates that a $125 cap on hourly rates can be adjusted upward due to an increase in the cost of living.

But Parrott argued the statute is ambiguous regarding the method used to calculate such an increase.  She further claimed the Veterans Court was obliged to accept her cost estimate because ambiguity in a statute related to veterans benefits must be construed in favor of the veteran.

However, the panel ruled the EAJA is not ambiguous because using the national CPI rather than local numbers would incentivize more attorneys to accept cases challenging government agencies in low-cost areas rather than pricier areas.  Further, the panel found Parrott’s claim the Veterans Court was required to side with her is not applicable to the EAJA since it is not a veterans benefit statute, but applies to all litigants against executive agencies.

The case is Parrott v. Shulkin, case number 2016-1450, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Attorney Fees Not Subject to Damages Cap in Wage Case

March 8, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Zack Needles, “Attorney Fees Not Subject to Damages Cap in Wage Case, Court Says,” reports that attorney fees can be awarded under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL), even if they cause the total recovery to exceed a voluntary $25,000 damages cap, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in a case of first impression.

Under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1, a plaintiff can elect to limit the maximum amount of damages recoverable to $25,000 in exchange for looser evidence admission requirements at a trial following compulsory arbitration.  In a published opinion in Grimm v. Universal Medical Services, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously ruled that such a cap does not preclude an award of attorney fees under the WPCL that pushes the total recovery above $25,000.

The decision affirmed a Beaver County trial court's award of $43,080.66, comprising an $11,683.92 jury award, plus $2,920.98 in liquidated damages and $28,475.76 in attorney fees and costs under the WPCL.  The appeals court upheld Beaver County Court of Common Pleas Judge James J. Ross' ruling, which reasoned that attorney fees in excess of the damages cap should be permitted because "a prevailing plaintiff in a [WPCL] claim must be made whole and not be required to expend his or her award to pay his or her attorney."

Judge John T. Bender, writing for the Superior Court, agreed with Ross' rationale, noting that Rule 1311.1 is intended to streamline litigation in order to make it more economically feasible for plaintiffs, while the WPCL is meant to allow plaintiffs to collect unpaid wages and compensation without having to spend their entire recovery on legal fees.

"In this way, both Rule 1311.1 and the WPCL aim to make litigation more accessible and affordable to aggrieved litigants, particularly those with meritorious claims," Bender said.  "In this case, we believe we are promoting this overarching policy by interpreting 'damages recoverable' in Rule 1311.1(a) to exclude attorneys' fees under the WPCL."  Bender was joined by Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Carl A. Solano.

In Grimm, plaintiff Jeffrey P. Grimm sued defendants Universal Medical Services Inc. and Roderick K. Reeder, alleging breach of contract against Universal for failure to reimburse business expenses and a WPCL claim against both defendants on the same basis, according to Bender.

The case proceeded to compulsory arbitration, with an award in favor of the defendants.  Grimm appealed to the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, electing to cap damages at $25,000 under Rule 1311.1, and the case proceeded to a jury trial, Bender said.

The jury awarded damages to Grimm in the amount of $11,683.92 and, finding that Universal acted in bad faith in failing to reimburse him, the court added 25 percent, or $2,920.98, to the jury award, resulting in a total of $14,604.90, according to Bender.  Grimm then sought attorney fees in the amount of $25,946.25 and litigation costs in the amount of $2,529.51 under the WPCL.

While the defendants argued that the phrase "damages recoverable" in Rule 1311.1 encompassed attorney fees, Grimm contended that attorney fees are payments in addition to a jury award intended to make the plaintiff whole.

Bender noted that Ross, in his analysis, looked first at the analogous 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Allen v. Mellinger, in which then-Justice Ralph Cappy wrote in a concurring and dissenting opinion that delay damages in cases involving bodily injury, death or property damage under Pa.R.Civ.P. 238 should not be subject to the statutory cap of $250,000 when the state is a defendant in a bodily injury claim.

In the 2005 case LaRue v. McGuire, as Ross also noted in his opinion, the Superior Court relied on Cappy's reasoning in Allen to find that delay damages under Rule 238 were not subject to the Rule 1311.1 damages cap.

While the defendants attempted to distinguish Grimm from Allen and LaRue by arguing that delay damages are an extension of compensatory damages intended to make the plaintiff whole, while attorney fees serve no such purpose, Bender disagreed.

"It is clear that the award of attorneys' fees under the WPCL accomplishes the purpose of making a plaintiff whole, just like the delay damages in Allen and LaRue," Bender said.

When Someone Else Pays the Legal Bills

March 7, 2017

A recent CEBblog article by Julie Brook, “When Someone Else Is Paying Your Fees,” writes about when a third party pays some of all of your legal fees in California.  This article was posted with permission. The article reads:

When, in a noncontingent matter, a third party is paying all or some of the attorney fees for your client, do you know how to deal with the issues that can arise?  Short answer: Address them upfront in your fee agreement.  Here are sample provisions to get you started.

You should be aware that Cal Rules of Prof Cond 3-310(F) requires informed written consent of your client when someone else is paying for his or her attorney fees.  In explaining this requirement to your client, advise him or her of the potential problems that might arise with this arrangement.

Here are two alternative sample provisions you can use in your fee agreement, depending on whether the third person will be a party to the agreement:

[Alternative 1: If the person/entity responsible for payment of fees and costs isn’t a party to the fee agreement]

Another person or entity may agree to pay some or all of Client’s attorney fees and costs.  Any such agreement will not affect Client’s obligation to pay attorney fees and costs under this agreement, nor will Attorney be obligated under this agreement to enforce such agreement.  Any such amounts actually received by Attorney, however, will be credited against the attorney fees set out in this agreement [or delivered to Client if there is no balance due Attorney].  The issue raised by having a third party pay the fees is the potential or perceived potential that the third party may try to influence the prosecution of the case to minimize costs or to achieve other goals.  However, the fact that another [person/entity] may agree to pay some or all of Client’s attorney fees will not make that [person/entity] a client of Attorney and that [person/entity] will have no right to instruct Attorney in matters pertaining to the services Attorney renders to Client.  Unless Client gives written permission to discuss all or a portion of Client’s matters with [the person/the entity] paying all or a portion of the attorney fees, Attorney will not disclose any confidential information to [him/her/it].  By signing this agreement, Client consents to this arrangement and acknowledges that Attorney has advised Client of the advantages and disadvantages of this arrangement.

[Alternative 2: If the person/entity responsible for payment of fees and costs will be a party to the fee agreement]

[Name] agrees to pay attorney fees for services performed and costs incurred in the representation of Client under this agreement.  [Name] acknowledges that [his/her/its] agreement to pay attorney fees and costs does not make [him/her/it] a client of Attorney.  Unless Client gives written permission to discuss all or a portion of Client’s matters with [name], Attorney will not disclose any confidential information to [him/her/it].

Alternative 1 avoids potential ethical issues posed by such arrangements by making it clear that the party paying the bills isn’t the client and isn’t party to the confidential attorney-client relationship.

But if you want a remedy against the third party if he or she stops paying, you must have an agreement with that individual or entity.  One way to do that, illustrated in Alternative 2, is to make the payor a party to the fee agreement.  It’s best, however, to have a separate written agreement with the payor rather than having him or her sign the same engagement letter as the client; this will preserve the attorney-client privilege of the fee agreement with the client.

Also, consider doing the following when a third party is paying the bills:

  • Give notice of fee dispute arbitration.  Even though the party assuming responsibility for payment doesn’t become your client in the sense of directing the representation or becoming privy to confidential information, you should send notice of the right to compel arbitration of a fee dispute to this individual or entity as well as to the client. Wager v Mirzayance (1998) 67 CA4th 1187.
  • Refund advanced fees at end of case.  To the extent funds advanced by a third party remain after the case is concluded, you should refund the balance to the payor, not the client.  See California State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2013-187.

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.

Insurer Fights Fee Discovery in Texas

February 22, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court Told to Nix Attys’ Fee Discovery Ruling,” reports that National Lloyd's Insurance Co. urged the Texas Supreme Court to upend a lower...

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