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Category: Fee Jurisprudence

Know the Statutory Limits on Attorney Fees

October 5, 2017

A recent CEB blog article, “Know the Limits on Attorney Fees” by Julie Brook explores the statutory limits on attorney fees in California and federal statutes.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys can’t always get what they want in attorney fees.  There are statutory limitations, fees subject to court approval, and fee agreements that violate public policy.

Statutory Limitations on Fees. In many instances the ability to negotiate attorney fees is prohibited or limited by statute.  For example:

  • Probate proceedings. Attorney fees in a probate proceeding are strictly statutory and don’t arise from contract.  See Prob C §§10800, 10810, 13660.  An attorney can’t charge more than the statutorily-permitted amount, but may agree to charge or receive less than that amount.
  • Indigent defendants. Attorney fees for counsel assigned to represent indigent criminal defendants are set by the trial court (Pen C §987.2) or by the court of appeals in appellate matters (Pen C §1241).
  • Judicial foreclosures. Attorney fees in judicial foreclosure matters are set by the trial court, regardless of any contrary provision in the mortgage or deed of trust. CCP §730.
  • Workers’ compensation. Attorney fees for representation in Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board matters are set by the Appeals Board (Lab C §5801) and by a court or Appeals Board in third-party matters (Lab C §3860(f)).  But fee agreements for a reasonable amount will be enforced if the amount agreed on coincides with the Appeals Board’s determination of a reasonable fee. Lab C §4906.
  • Contingent fees under federal law. An attorney-client agreement with a plaintiff under the Federal Tort Claims Act calling for a contingent fee in excess of 20 percent of any compromise, award, or settlement, or more than 25 percent of any judgment is not only void, but is an offense punishable by a fine of $2000, or 1 year in jail. 28 USC §2678. See also 42 USC §406 (maximum fee for representing plaintiff in Social Security Administration proceedings is 25 percent of past due benefits; attempt to collect fee in excess of maximum is misdemeanor).
  • Contingent fees in medical malpractice cases. Maximum fee limits have been set under Bus & P C §6146.

This is just a sampling—many statutes limit attorney fees.  When you take on a matter in an unfamiliar area of law, investigate possible limitations on the ability to negotiate fees.

Fees Subject to Court Approval. Court approval of fee agreements is required in some instances. For example:

  • fees for the compromise of the claim of a minor or a person with a disability (Prob C §3601(a));
  • fees for representing a special administrator (Prob C §8547); and
  • fee agreement in workers’ compensation third-party actions (Lab C §3860(f)).

Agreements Violating Public Policy or Ethical Standards. Attorney-client fee agreements that are contrary to public policy, even if not explicitly in violation of an ethical canon or rule, won’t be enforced.  Similarly, fee agreements that violate California Rules of Professional Conduct aren’t enforceable.  The Rules include prohibitions against charging an unconscionable fee (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 4–200), agreeing to share fees between an attorney and a nonattorney (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 1–320), and nonrefundable retainer fees that fail to meet the classification of a “true retainer fee which is paid solely for the purpose of ensuring the availability of the [Bar] member for the matter” (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 3–700(D)(2)).

Investor Seeks Attorney Fees in Compensation Savings Matter

September 26, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Vince Sullivan, “Puma Investor Seeks Fees for $20M in Director-Pay Savings,” reports that a shareholder of Puma Biotechnology Inc. filed suit in Delaware seeking the payment of attorneys’ fees and expenses for his efforts in pursuing changes to the compensation packages of non-employee directors, which he says ultimately saved the company more than $20 million.  In a complaint, shareholder Paul Alan Leafstedt said Puma made changes to its director compensation plans that saved the company millions after he sent a demand letter to the board in February, but the sides could not work out a deal on compensation for attorneys he brought on in the effort.

As a result of Leafstedt’s demand letter, the company engaged an independent compensation consultant and amended its director packages to reduce awards to non-employee directors significantly.  The demand letter was spurred by the board awarding itself what Leafstedt described as “grossly excessive levels” of compensation that were allegedly nine times greater than what was appropriate.

Puma also capped director stock award and allowed shareholders to provide input on compensation procedures at annual meetings.  The company also added information about the program into its proxy statement, which were reviewed by Leafstedt’s attorneys before filing, and instituted additional corporate governance reforms relating to pay practices.

“Plaintiff’s efforts directly conferred a substantial and quantifiable benefit to Puma and its stockholders — with the compensation reductions and limits alone amounting to a savings of up to $20 million over the next five years,” the complaint said.  Leafstedt cites Delaware law that allows for fee awards where a corporate benefit results from a meritorious demand on the board in asking for attorneys’ fee and expenses related to the effort.

The compensation packages for non-employee directors of the company resulted in average annual awards in the amount of more than $1.4 million each, with each director receiving a $50,000 cash retainer and options to purchase 10,000 shares of Puma stock.  Directors who sat on a committee of the board were granted an additional option for 10,000 shares, while committee chairs could buy up to 20,000 shares.  Each newly appointed director would also receive a one-time option to buy 30,000 shares.

“The demand letter asserted that the compensation program constituted a waste of corporate assets, a breach of fiduciary duty and an unjust enrichment for the non-employee directors who agreed to accept the excessive levels of compensation they granted themselves,” the complaint said.

Puma made changes to the program that cap the annual compensation for non-employee directors at $1 million and shifted the stock option award metrics from a specific number of shares to a dollar amount.  So directors still receive a $50,000 cash retainer each year, but the annual stock option award is capped at $300,000, and committee service retainers have been switched to cash amounts ranging from $20,000 to $5,000.  Newly appointed directors will have the option to purchase stock up to an amount of $700,000.

These changes resulted from negotiations between the company and Leafstedt’s attorneys and were accomplished in May without the need to file a lawsuit.  Leafstedt filed the current complaint because the parties could not come to an agreement on reasonable attorneys’ fees for achieving the benefit that will save Puma more than $20 million over the next five years.

“Plaintiff’s counsel has expended considerable time and expense, completely at risk of loss and without remuneration, in pursuit of making the demand and subsequent negotiations, the resolution of which conferred substantial benefits to Puma and its stockholders,” the complaint said.  Leafstedt is asking for an equitable apportionment of attorneys’ fees and payment of legal expenses incurred in the pursuit of the demand and the negotiations, as well as the costs of bringing the current action.

The case is Leafstedt v. Puma Biotechnology Inc., case number 2017-0659, in the Court of Chancery for the State of Delaware.

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.

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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