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Category: Fee Jurisprudence

How to Determine When Litigation Costs Include Attorney Fees

September 7, 2017

A recent Texas Lawyer article by Trey Cox and Jason Dennis, “How to Determine When Litigation Costs Include Attorney Fees,” covers attorney fee recovery in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Under the American Rule, a party may only recover attorney fees on certain narrow claims.  When a party has some claims that support the award of attorney fees and some claims that do not, then the party must segregate the recoverable attorney fees from the nonrecoverable attorney fees, as in Tony Gullo Motors I v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299, 311 (Tex. 2006).  The need to segregate fees is a question of law, and the courts of appeals apply a de novo standard of review.

Similarly, when a plaintiff has multiple related claims against multiple defendants, the plaintiff is required to segregate the fees owed by one defendant from any fees incurred while prosecuting the claim against any settling defendants, according to Stewart Title Guaranty v. Sterling, 822 S.W.2d 1, 11 (Tex. 1991).

Generally, where a party has failed to properly segregate their claims, and an award of attorney fees has been erroneously awarded, the case requires remand in order to determine what attorney fees are recoverable.  However, it is important to note that the subsequent decision in Green International v. Solis, 951 S.W.2d 384, 389 (Tex. 1997), did state that a failure to segregate fees "can result in the recovery of zero attorneys' fees."  The court did not explain the circumstances under which an award of zero attorney fees would result from a failure to segregate.  The evidence of unsegregated fees requiring a remand on the issue of attorney fees is more than a scintilla of evidence.

The party seeking fees may only present evidence relating to services that were necessarily rendered in connection with the claims for which attorney fees are recoverable, as in Flint & Associates v. Intercontinental Pipe & Steel, 739 S.W.2d 622, 624 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1987).  If a party tries to present evidence relating to services that were rendered in connection with claims that attorney fees are not recoverable, a party must object.  Failure to object to nonrecoverable attorney fees constitutes waiver (see Green International, at 389).  The issue of failing to segregate is generally preserved "by objecting during testimony offered in support of attorneys' fees or an objection to the jury question on attorneys' fees," as in McCalla v. Ski River Development, 239 S.W.3d 374, 383 (Tex. App.—Waco 2007).

Inexorably Intertwined Damages

In Texas, an exception to segregating evidence of attorney fees developed over the years.  Where the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction, and were so interrelated that their "prosecution or defense entails proof or denial of essentially the same facts," it was held that the segregation requirement could be avoided (see Stewart Title at 11).  The initial exception was phrased such that if an attorney could claim that the "causes of action in the suit are dependent on the same set of facts or circumstances, and thus are 'intertwined to the point of being inseparable,' the parties suing for attorney fees may recover the entire amount covering all claims."

After the holding in Stewart, which first acknowledged an exception to the requirement of segregating fees for claims that are intertwined, the courts of appeals were flooded with claims that recoverable and unrecoverable attorney fees are so intertwined that they could not be segregated. (See, e.g., Tony Gullo at 312.)  For many years after the recognition of the exception to segregation, parties tried to escape the segregation requirement by generically claiming that they could not segregate the claims.  They relied on the recognized exception to the duty to segregate when the attorney fees rendered were in connection with claims arising out of the same transaction and were so interrelated that their prosecution or defense entailed "proof or denial of essentially the same facts."

The Texas Supreme Court has now reined in this exception, providing that if attorney fees relate solely to a claim for which such fees are not recoverable, a claimant must segregate recoverable from unrecoverable fees, but when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim that they are so intertwined, they need not be segregated.

For example, the court explained that certain legal services such as: "requests for standard disclosures, proof of background facts, depositions of the primary actors, discovery motions and hearings, [and] voir dire of the jury" wouldn't be barred from recovering attorney fees just because they served multiple purposes.  However, the court was careful to point out that the mere presence of intertwined facts will not make tort fees recoverable. The new exception to the necessity of segregating fees is that "only when discrete legal services advance both a recoverable and unrecoverable claim" then they can be considered as being so intertwined as to not need segregation.  The segregation requirement can be met by offering expert opinion as to how much time was spent in relation to the recoverable claims versus the unrecoverable claims.

Defending Against Segregation

Whether supporting or attacking an award of attorney fees, the expert must deal specifically with segregation of fees.  The party must segregate fees incurred in connection with nonrecoverable claims, claims against other parties, or other lawsuits.

Trey Cox is a partner at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst.  He has spent nearly 20 years helping clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to entrepreneurs, resolve large, complicated and often high-profile business disputes.  Jason Dennis is a partner at the firm.  He has trial and appellate experience representing a diverse group of clients from Fortune 500 companies, to bankruptcy trustees, to individuals both as plaintiffs and defendants.

In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees

August 21, 2017

A recent Corporate Counsel article by Daniel K. Wiig, “In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees,” writes about attorney fee entitlement for in-house counsel work.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When weighing his post-Senate career options, then-U.S. Sen. Howard "Buck" McKeon rejected an offer from a prominent law firm, opting not to "live his life in six-minute increments."  Indeed, it is with fair certainty to state a top reason lawyers in private practice transition to in-house is to escape the billable hour.  And while the imminent death of the billable hour may have been highly exaggerated (again and again), it remains the predominate metric for private-practice attorneys handling commercial work to track their time and collect fees.

Numerous reports suggest the in-house lawyer is "rising," with companies opting to retain more and more legal work within their law departments, and decreasing the amount of work they disseminate to outside counsel.  Sources cite various reasons from cost to the intimate knowledge in-house lawyers possess regarding their employer vis-à-vis outside counsel.  Whatever the genesis, it reasons that in-house lawyers morphing into the role traditionally held by outside lawyers should assume all such components of the role, which, when possible, can include recovering attorney fees for actual legal work performed, as noted in Video Cinema Films v. Cable News Network, (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2003), (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2004), and other federal and state courts.

Recovering attorney fees is that extra win for the victorious litigant, whether provided by statute or governed by contract.  It leaves the client's bank account intact (at least partially) and gives the prevailing attorney additional gloating rights.  For the in-house lawyer, recovering attorney fees can also occasionally turn the legal department from a cost center to a quasi-profit center.  In-house lawyers can and should collect attorney fees.

To be clear, recovering attorney fees is not available for in-house lawyers functioning in the traditional role of overseeing outside counsel's work.  As noted in Kevin RA v. Orange Village, (N.D. Ohio May 4, 2017), a court will not award fees to in-house lawyers that are redundant, i.e., those which reflect work performed by outside counsel.  Indeed, when in-house counsel is the advisee of litigation status rather than drafter of the motion or attends the settlement conference as one with authority to settle rather than to advocate more advantageous settlement terms, she functions as the client rather than lawyer, of which attorney fee are unavailable.

Unlike their counterparts in private practice, in-house counsel do not have set billing rates, although an exception may exist if internal policies permit the legal department to invoice the department that generated the legal matter.  Even in such a situation, as with law firm billing rates, the actual fees/rates are considered by the court but not determinative in awarding fees, as noted in Tallitsch v. Child Support Services, 926 P2d. 143 (Colo. App. 1996).  In determining what constitutes an appropriate and reasonable attorney fee award, courts frequently apply the "reasonably presumptive fee" or the "lodestar" method.  Under the lodestar method, as explained in Earth Flag v. Alamo Flag, 154 F.Supp.2d 663 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), fees are determined by "multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate."

Reasonableness is a question of fact for the trial court.  In determining a reasonable hourly rate, federal courts look to those reflected in the federal district in which they sit, while state courts consider the prevailing rates in their respective city and geographical area.  Courts will also consider other factors such as the complexity of the case, the level of expertise required to litigate the matter, and the fees clients in similar situations would be willing to pay outside counsel in determining the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  Determining whether the tasks performed by the in-house lawyer were reasonable is left to the court's discretion.

Recognizing legal departments do not necessary operate in lockstep fashion as a law firm, courts will consider the "blended" rate in the lodestar calculation.  Here, a court will combine or "blend" the reasonable rates for associates, partners, counsel and paralegals in their locale to devise the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  The premise is in-house lawyers generally take on less defined roles in litigating a matter than their counterparts in private practice, performing a combination of litigation tasks that may be more clearly delineated among law firm staff.

In order to successfully receive an award of attorney fees, the in-house lawyer must maintain a record akin to a law firm's billing sheet of her time spent on the matter, as reflected in Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 34 F.3d 1148 (2d Cir. 1994).  Consequently, an excel spreadsheet, or similar document, enumerating the time and task, with as much detail as possible, is required to sustain a court's scrutiny in looking for tasks that were "excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary," as noted in Clayton v. Steinagal, (D. Utah Dec. 19, 2012).  Moreover, the in-house attorneys who worked on the matter must execute affidavits attesting to the accuracy of their time records, and include the same in their moving papers.

As the legal profession changes and corporate legal departments retain more of their work, in-house should take advantage of statutory or contractual attorney fees provisions, notably for the litigation they handle internally.  In so doing, the in-house lawyer may find a number of benefits, such as approval to commence litigation that they may have otherwise shied away from because of the possibility to recoup attorney fees and the benefit of essentially obtaining payment for the legal work performed.

Daniel K. Wiig is in-house counsel to Municipal Credit Union in New York, where he assists in the day-to-day management of the legal affairs of the nearly $3 billion financial institution.  He is also an adjunct law professor at St. John's University School of Law.  Wiig successfully moved for in-house attorney fees in Municipal Credit Union v. Queens Auto Mall, 126 F. Supp. 3d 290 (E.D.N.Y. 2015).

A New Standard for Attorneys’ Fee Awards in Copyright Cases

August 4, 2017

A recent article in Law 360 by Barry I. Slotnick and Tal E. Dickstein of Loeb & Loeb LLP, “A New Standard for Attorneys’ Fee Awards in Copyright Cases,” reports on the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees in copyright litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc. on the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees in copyright litigation.  Because copyright litigation is often expensive, and the opportunity (or risk) of an attorneys’ fees award plays a significant role in deciding whether to bring (or settle) a case, the decision was much anticipated among the media and entertainment industry as well as the copyright bar.  While the court’s decision — which directs lower courts to give significant weight to a losing party’s objectively unreasonable litigation position — is likely to deter some amount of meritless copyright litigation, the inability to collect a fee award from an impecunious litigant sometimes requires resort to other methods of deterrence.

The Need for a Uniform Standard

The Supreme Court last addressed the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees under Section 505 of the Copyright Act in 1994.  The court in Fogarty v. Fantasy Inc. held that courts must treat prevailing defendants the same as prevailing plaintiffs when deciding whether to issue an attorneys' fee award, but it offered little guidance on the standard to be applied in making that decision.  In the absence of a definitive standard, the lower courts have looked to a footnote in Fogarty that identified several nonexclusive factors used in deciding whether to issue a fee award: frivolous, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both factual and legal), and the need for compensation and deterrence.

Without clear direction from the Supreme Court as to how these factors were to be weighed, the courts of appeal differed widely in how they considered attorneys' fee motions.  Some adopted a presumption in favor of fee awards, others endorsed a case-by-case determination, focusing on the four Fogarty factors, while others permit district courts to look to as many as a dozen other factors.  The Second Circuit, for its part, focused primarily on the reasonableness of the losing party’s position.

Kirtsaeng’s Journeys to the Supreme Court

When the Supreme Court granted certiorari, it punched Supap Kirtsaeng’s ticket for a second trip to the high court.  His first visit stemmed from a textbook arbitrage business that he launched while studying at Cornell University.  Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign-edition textbooks in his native Thailand, shipped them to the United States, and resold them for a profit.  When the textbook publisher, John Wiley, sued for copyright infringement in the Southern District of New York, Kirtsaeng relied on the first-sale doctrine, which permits the resale of copies of copyrighted works.  The trouble for Kirtsaeng was that most courts, including the Second Circuit, had held that the first-sale doctrine did not apply to copies made outside the United States.  Kirtsaeng litigated the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, which handed him a 6-3 victory, ruling that the first sale doctrine does, in fact, apply to copies made outside the United States.

Although he prevailed in the Supreme Court, the district court denied Kirtsaeng’s attempt to recover his attorneys’ fees — including more than $2 million spent on the Supreme Court appeal — finding that none of the other Fogerty factors outweighed John Wiley’s reasonable litigation position.  The Second Circuit affirmed, and Kirtsaeng again successfully petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

Objective Unreasonableness Given Significant Weight

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a unanimous court, first rejected Kirtsaeng’s contention that fees should be awarded where a lawsuit has clarified the boundaries of the Copyright Act.  That standard was both unworkable, because the ramifications of a case might not be fully known until far in the future, and unlikely to encourage meritorious litigation, because a fee award would be tied more to a litigant’s appetite for risk rather than the reasonableness of its litigation position.

Instead, the court held that substantial weight should be given to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s litigation position.  That approach would best promote the purposes of the Copyright Act — encouraging creative expression, while also allowing others to build on existing works.  An emphasis on objective reasonableness would, according to the court, “encourage parties with strong legal positions to stand on their rights and deters those with weak ones from proceeding with litigation.”

While objective (un)reasonableness will play an outsized role in deciding wither to shift fees, the court explained that district courts must still consider fee motions on a case-by-case basis, considering all of the circumstances.  The court identified two scenarios in particular that could warrant fees despite the losing party’s reasonable position — where the loser engaged in litigation misconduct, or where a party engaged in repeated instances of infringement or overaggressive assertions of copyright claims.

Other Methods of Combating Frivolous Copyright Litigation

In many cases, the Supreme Court’s decision will no doubt discourage meritless litigation.  A plaintiff whose copyright ownership is questionable, or who has scant evidence of infringement, is unlikely to file suit, out of fear that it will have to pay the defendants’ attorneys’ fees.  And a defendant who has no colorable defenses is unlikely to put up much of a fight, lest it be forced to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, on top of a damages award and the costs of any injunctive relief.

But this is true only where a party has something to lose from an adverse fee award.  All too often, it seems, individuals with little or no resources bring frivolous infringement claims against well-known celebrity or entertainment-industry defendants, in the hopes of extracting a nuisance settlement, or of surviving to a jury trial where they rely more on sympathy than evidence.  For these impecunious plaintiffs — who are often assisted by contingency counsel — the risk of an attorneys’ fee award is not an effective deterrent, because they are essentially judgment-proof.

One method of combating this type of frivolous litigation is to seek sanctions against the plaintiffs’ counsel under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which prohibits filings that lack evidentiary or legal support, or under or Title 28, Section 1927 of the US Code, which targets unreasonable and vexatious litigation.  Unlike an attorneys’ fee award under Section 505 of the Copyright Act, which can be issued only against a party, a sanction under Rule 11 or Section 1927 can be imposed on counsel.  And while courts are sometimes reluctant to sanction lawyers for fear of chilling meritorious litigation, in truly egregious cases, seeking sanctions against counsel may be the only way to avoid having to litigate meritless copyright infringement claims.

Barry Slotnick and Tal Dickstein are partners in Loeb & Loeb's New York office.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Used Wrong Method to Calculate Fee Award

July 27, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Melissa Daniels, “10th Circ. Nixes $17.3M Fee Award in Royalties Settlement,” reports that a Tenth Circuit panel set aside a $17.3 million attorneys’ fees award in a published decision that found the district court incorrectly calculated the award in a $52 million settlement over gas well royalty payments by failing to use the lodestar method of calculation.

Class counsel in the Oklahoma federal court action moved for a fees award of 40 percent, but two class members objected to the request.  The court settled on an award of about $17.3 million, or a third of the fund, plus an incentive award of half a percent for lead plaintiff Chieftain Royalty Company.

The panel reversed the awards and remanding the case.  In a 26-page opinion, the panel observed that class counsel didn’t provide necessary records about their hours to be used in a lodestar calculation, which could end up preventing it from getting fees at all.  Any figures about hours worked were “mere estimates,” the panel said.

“The district court will have to decide in the first instance whether any award can be made in light of the absence of contemporaneous time records,” the panel said.  “It is unfortunate that class counsel did not do the necessary homework on Oklahoma law.”

Chieftain had filed the state-law putative class action against EnerVest Energy Institutional Fund in 2011, alleging the oil and gas company underpaid lease royalties on gas from wells in Oklahoma.  The $52 million settlement, meant to benefit around 21,000 class members, netted final approval about four years later.

The panel said that while the circuit had no binding precedent on whether federal courts must follow state laws governing how to calculate attorney fees, it found a consensus among five other circuits who’ve considered the issue.  “When state law governs whether to award attorney fees, all agree that state law also governs how to calculate the amount,” the panel said.

The decision also nixed the $260,000 incentive award for Chieftain, saying the percentage-based award is unsupported by the record.  “When discussing the time [Chieftain president Robert] Abernathy had expended on the case, counsel did not provide detailed contemporaneous records but offered only approximations and generalities,” the panel said.

The case is Chieftain Royalty et al. v. EnerVest Energy et al., case number 16-6022, in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Attorneys Garner $125M in Second VW Settlement

July 26, 2017

A recent Courthouse News story by Nicholas Iovino, “Attorneys Awarded $125 Million for Second VW Settlement’,” reports that a federal judge awarded $125 million in fees and costs to lawyers who secured a second settlement in Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating scandal.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved the $1.2 billion settlement in May, one of two deals worth nearly $16 billion, to settle claims in Volkswagen’s installation of emissions test cheating software in some 580,000 diesel-powered vehicles sold in the United States.

“The settlement not only provides class members with significant value, but class counsel obtained the settlement swiftly,” Breyer wrote in his 7-page ruling.  He noted that the second deal was approved less than 18 months after lead class counsel Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein was appointed by the court.

It was the second big payday for attorneys in the multidistrict consumer class action.  Breyer in March awarded counsel $175 million for securing a $14.7 billion deal for 500,000 2.0-liter engine vehicles.  In that settlement, Volkswagen agreed to spend $10 billion on vehicle buybacks and emissions-reducing repairs, and $4.7 billion to regulators for air quality improvement programs.

The 3.0-liter engine deal approved in May comes with a value of at least $902 million for consumers, along with payouts to U.S. and California for air pollution mitigation.  Under the settlement, Volkswagen could have to pay an extra $4 billion if it can’t come up with regulator-approved, emissions-reducing repairs for 58,000 newer-model cars by deadlines in October, November and December this year.

The requested $121 million in attorneys’ fees accounts for 13.4 percent of the estimated $902 million value of the settlement, “well below the Ninth Circuit’s 25 percent benchmark for common fund cases,” Breyer wrote in the Friday ruling.  He found the attorneys’ request for an additional $4 million in expenses was reasonable and granted it.

Volkswagen has paid more than $20 billion in U.S. civil settlements and criminal fines so far for installing of emissions-cheating software in some 11 million vehicles worldwide, and U.S. prosecutors have criminally charged six of its executives with conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Also, Breyer approved a third partial consent decree in which Volkswagen agreed to pay a $93.8 million fine to California’s air quality regulator, the California Air Resources Board.  That money will go to the state’s Air Pollution Control Fund, according to the consent decree.

On top of that, Volkswagen will pay California another $60 million, in $10 million installments over six years, to reimburse it for the costs of securing three consent decrees.  The third consent decree also requires Volkswagen make changes to its corporate governance structure, maintain an approved whistleblower system, and hire third-party testers and auditors to evaluate its emissions compliance.

The plaintiffs’ steering committee said in a statement that it appreciated the court’s consideration of its fee request and was “gratified” to be implementing the two class-action settlements.

More than 10,000 of 30,000 filed claims have been paid for the 3.0-liter settlement in less than two months, and more than $540 million in payment offers have been made, according to class attorneys.

“We negotiated these agreements to hold Volkswagen accountable for its breach of consumer trust, and we hope that all class members choose to take advantage of the benefits detailed in these settlements,” the class attorneys said in a statement.  “These legal fees are in addition to the compensation Volkswagen has already agreed to pay under the terms of the settlement, and will not be deducted from any class member’s recovery amount.”

One Year Later: Kirtaeng v. Wiley

June 20, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Bill Donahue, “2nd Circ. To Reduce Fee Award in $655M Madoff Settlement” reports that a year later, experts say the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kirtsaeng v. John...

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Fee Request Challenge Sought in IP Suit

June 2, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Nicole Narea, “Stanford, ThermoLife Seek To Slash Fee Award in IP Suit” reports that Stanford University and ThermoLife International asked a California federal court to...

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