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Category: Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR

Article: Attorney Fee Collection Suits Bring Mixed Results

December 4, 2018

A recent New York Law Journal article by Christine Simmons, “Collection Lawsuits Bring Mixed Results in Law Firms; Quest for Fees,” reports on attorney fee collection lawsuits by law firms.  The article reads:

It’s the time of year when may law firm managers are fretting about collections—and maybe even thinking of taking clients to court over unpaid bills.  But while suing ex-clients to recover legal fees has become increasingly common, recent court decisions show that such lawsuits can be a gamble.

Take two recent cases, one brought by Arent Fox and another by Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf.  In the Windels Marx case, a Manhattan judge wound up sanctioning the firm for its lawsuit—potentially a substantial penalty—prompting Windels Marx to file a notice of appeal.  Arent Fox, meanwhile, saw its breach of conflict claims dismissed against two of three defendants it targeted in a breach of contract suit over fees.  While law firms often do obtain judgments against former clients in collection suits, the rulings show that success is hardly guaranteed, even when the firms are sophisticated business litigators.

Windels Marx was seeking $380,833 in unpaid legal fees in its collection suit against several entities in Manhattan Supreme Court.  The midsize law firm in New York had defended a housing entity and a former officer in a civil lawsuit over control of several housing development fund corporations.  Those funds own and manage residential real estate in West Harlem that is rented out to low-income tenants, according to court papers.  Windels Marx, in court papers, said it was also retained to advise in multiple government investigations.

Windels Marx withdrew from the civil case and then sued its former client and the related housing development funds that it was adverse to in the underlying case, seeking unpaid fees.  Ultimately, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Gerald Lebovits granted summary judgment to the four housing development fund entities sued by Windels Marx.

Knocking out the breach of contract claim against the four funds, the judge took issue with the fact that the officer who signed the firm’s retainer agreement, Joednee Copeland, was not authorized to retain the firm on behalf of the funds.  Copeland was previously president of the entity, formerly represented by Windels Marx, that had sought to control the four housing development funds.

The firm’s “billing records show that, at the time that plaintiff drafted the agreement, it knew that Copeland had been terminated from her position,” said Lebovits, in decision posted Nov. 7.  In denying Windels Marx’s other claims against the four housing development funds, Lebovits said the law firm’s invoices showed work adverse to the interests of the housing development funds.

Lebovits granted only a default judgment of $380,833 for Windels Max against the entity that retained the firm and did not respond to the suit.  It’s not clear whether that entity is still active or has assets to cover the judgment.  Copeland, the president of the entity who signed the firm’s retainer agreement, has been criminally charged in Manhattan Supreme Court under felony counts, according to court records.

In allowing the housing development funds to pursue fees against Windels Marx, the judge said the funds’ “request for sanctions, in the form of payment of their attorney fees, incurred in defending this action … is amply justified, not merely by the lack of merit in [Windel Marx’s] complaint, but by [the law firm’s] attempt to collect attorney fees for work directly adverse to defendants’ interests.”  The judge referred the decision on the amount of fees to a special referee.

William Fried, a Herrick Feinstein partner who represented the housing development funds pro bono, said his firm spent between $50,000 and $100,000 on the case.  “We’re going to be seeking every dime that we spent,” he said.  “We’re pleased with the judge’s decision. We thought the lawsuit never had any merit from day one,” Fried said.  Windels Marx filed a notice of appeal Thursday, stating in court documents that attorneys’ fees were not warranted because Herrick Feinstein worked on a pro bono basis.

In the Arent Fox matter, the law firm saw a mixed result in a recent court ruling, holding on to some claims against an ex-client.  The firm sued three car dealership entities, JDN AA, LLC; Subaru 46 LLC; and DCN Automotive LLC, seeking $278,128 in legal fees.  The firm had represented JDN AA in a lawsuit against Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. challenging the attempted termination of JDN AA’s Audi dealership, according to court documents.

The ex-clients sought to dismiss Arent Fox’s claim for breach of contract, claiming the firm did not allege there was an executed retainer agreement between the parties.  They argued that the March 2014 “engagement agreement” was with only one of the defendants, JDN AA, and was not signed, and that a 2015 “conflict waiver” letter did not involve all defendants and related to one specific engagement.

In a decision last month, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen knocked out a breach of contract claim against two of the three defendants. Cohen said two defendants, Subaru 46 LLC and DCN Automotive LLC, are not referenced by name in any of the engagement documents submitted by Arent Fox.  Nor did Arent Fox submit any evidence that describes the terms of any alleged contract between Arent Fox and either of those entities, the judge said.  Cohen, in his November decision, called the firm’s allegations against the two entities “conclusory.”

Nevada High Court Upholds Gordon & Rees Win in Fee Dispute Case

November 2, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Aebra Coe, “Nevada High Court Affirms Gordon & Rees Win in Fee Dispute” reports that the Nevada Supreme Court has upheld a jury verdict awarding Gordon & Rees LLP more than $250,000 in a fight with a former radio station client over thousands in unpaid legal fees.  The state's highest court affirmed a unanimous verdict in favor of Gordon & Rees in its battle to ward off a legal malpractice counterclaim and recoup $106,500 in unpaid legal fees as well as other litigation expenses totaling $251,600 from its former client, Edward Stolz, who owns several radio stations and other businesses.  It is believed to be the first time in Nevada a court has awarded fees and costs to a self-represented litigant. 

The court rejected Stolz’s assertion that the lower court should have applied California, not Nevada, law because the underlying lawsuit — in which Stolz was accused of not paying for the rights to the music his radio stations broadcasted — was filed in California and because Gordon & Rees is headquartered in the state.

Instead, the appeals court agreed with the law firm’s assertion that Nevada law applies because several of Stolz’s businesses are in the state, because his initial consultation was in the Las Vegas office of the firm with a Nevada bar-licensed attorney, and because it was in the state that the conduct Stolz takes issue with occurred.

The legal malpractice counterclaims stem from Stolz’s allegation that Gordon & Rees failed to disclose to him, in writing, that it represented his insurer and thus could not represent him in the lawsuit over his radio stations’ use of music if the insurer, Hartford, refused to assume his defense in the lawsuit, which it did.  Instead, that information was conveyed verbally, according to court documents.

“We conclude that the district court correctly applied Nevada law. The incident in question — whether Gordon & Rees should have disclosed the Hartford conflict in writing before representing Stolz — occurred in Nevada.  The fee agreement, in fact, was signed by the managing partner in Gordon & Rees's Las Vegas office,” the high court’s opinion said.  Additionally, the appeals court found that the lower court did the right thing when it awarded Gordon & Rees attorneys' fees and costs in the case, despite the fact that the law firm represented itself, something that is often a disqualifying factor for obtaining fees and costs in Nevada.

The reason the court came to that conclusion is because Stolz signed a contract with the firm stating outright that Gordon & Rees could collect fees and costs if litigation were to occur over its representation of the business owner.  “Here, the district court found that there was a contract between the Stolz companies and Gordon & Rees providing that Gordon & Rees could obtain attorney fees in the event there was a dispute to enforce the agreement.  Thus, the district court awarded fees because Stolz agreed to pay those fees, even if Gordon & Rees was representing itself," the opinion said.

The cases are Royce International Broadcasting Corp. et al. v. Gordon & Rees LLP, case numbers 72148 and 74272, in the Supreme Court of the State of Nevada.

Connecticut High Court Sides with Company in Fee Dispute

September 28, 2018

A recent Connecticut Law Tribune story by Robert Storace, “Connecticut Supreme Court Sides with Gaming Company in Battle with Ledyard Over Legal Fees in Casino Dispute,” reports that the Connecticut Supreme Court has overturned a Connecticut Appellate Court ruling in which the town of Ledyard was seeking attorney fees incurred for litigation in a dispute over whether WMS Gaming Inc. should have to pay the town personal property taxes on slot machines at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Connecticut Appellate Court agreed with a lower court that Ledyard, a small northeastern Connecticut town, was entitled to an undetermined amount of legal fees.  The legal fees were incurred because Ledyard and Rocky Hill-based WMS Gaming disagreed on whether Ledyard was entitled to $18,251 in unpaid personal property taxes, interest, cost and penalties for having the slot machines it owned and leased at the casino, which is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.  Eventually, the two sides entered into a stipulated agreement over the personal property taxes, but the issue of the legal fees Ledyard spent defending the matter remained in dispute.  It’s not clear how much the small town spent on legal fees.

In a 5-0 ruling on Sept. 4, the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with WMS Gaming and reversed the lower appellate court’s ruling that had found Ledyard was entitled to legal fees.  Before a hearing to determine the amount of the attorney fee award, WMS Gaming raised a challenge before the Connecticut Appellate Court.  WMS Gaming was challenging a Superior Court decision that it could find WMS Gaming liable for the town’s attorney fees in a federal action.  The town then moved to dismiss the WMS Gaming appeal, claiming the appellate court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.

Ledyard claimed the gaming company didn’t appeal from a final judgment because the trial court had not yet determined the amount of attorney fees due to the town.  The appellate court then granted the town’s motion and dismissed the WMS Gaming appeal.  The gaming company then appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

In the 13-page decision, Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson, who wrote the opinion, said the trial court’s decision with respect to attorney fees “pursuant to [Connecticut General Statutes] 12-161a resolved the only remaining dispute between the parties and did not support a previously rendered judgment. … Accordingly, we conclude that the appellate court improperly dismissed the defendant’s appeal for lack of a final judgment.”  The Supreme Court remanded the case to the appellate court with orders to deny Ledyard’s motion to dismiss WMS Gaming’s appeal and for further proceedings.”

In addition, the Supreme Court wrote that the Appellate Court “improperly relied on a footnote” in another legal case in how and when attorney fees should be awarded.

Judge Erred By Limiting Attorney Fees in Probate Matter in California

September 7, 2018

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Judge Erred By Limiting Fee to 10 Percent of Minors’ Recovery,” reports that the law firm founded by veteran personal injury Ian “Buddy” Herzog was shortchanged by a Los Angeles Superior Court who awarded it only 10 percent of the $18 million settlement it negotiated for its minor clients, despite a contingency fee agreement calling for 40 percent, the Court of Appeal for this district has held.

The unpublished opinion was filed Wednesday.  In it, Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild of Div. One noted that under Probate Code §3600 and §3601, a court, in approving the compromise of a minor’s claim, must determine what are “reasonable” attorney fees, and pointed to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955, which sets forth guidance for trial judges in determining reasonableness.  A 10 percent fee, she said, was unreasonable in light of the contingency fee agreement, the risk the company took in taking the case on a contingency basis, and other factors.

Herzog, Yuhas, Ehrlich & Ardell of Santa Monica represented the wife and four minor children of Rainer Schulz in a wrongful death suit, after the wealthy German businessman crashed his Cessna 750 jet while attempting to land at a small German airport.  The action against various companies was brought on a products liability theory.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey apportioned $1 to Schulz’s widow, Silke Schulz, and the remainder of the $18,125,000 to the couple’s four minor sons.

He did not credit the contingency fee agreement which the widow and the chief executive of a company the Schulzes owned negotiated with the Herzog firm.  Under it, the firm was to receive 31 percent of the proceeds if the case were settled at least 30 days before trial and 40 percent after that point.  Although settlement came a few days before trial, the Herzog firm indicated its willingness to accept a 31 percent share.

Fahey said:  “Turning to the issue of attorney’s fees, the Court is not bound by a contingency agreement when considering the best interests of the minors.  Attorney fees must be carefully scrutinized and adjusted if warranted.  Here, the attorneys hired by Silke did a good job in investigating this case.”  He added:“But paying these attorneys their requested $5 million in fees out of the settlement proceeds would be excessive, to the substantial detriment of Rainer’s sons and contrary to this Court’s duty [to] assure that no injustice is done to them.”

Two of the Schulzes’s sons have permanent disabilities as a result of being born prematurely.  Rule 7.955(a)(2) sets forth: “The court must give consideration to the terms of any representation agreement made between the attorney and the representative of the minor.…”

Rule 7.955(b) lists 14 non-exclusive factors for courts to consider when determining what fee will be reasonable, including the amount of the fee in proportion to the value of services, the experience of the attorney and the amount of time and labor involved.

Rothschild declared: “We conclude the trial court gave too little consideration to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(a)(2).…In addition, the court did not acknowledge the factors listed in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(b).  Although these factors are not mandatory, they provide a guide to the considerations relevant to determining whether a fee protects the interests of a minor while allowing an attorney to obtain a fair recovery.”

She continued: “All of these factors support a recovery greater than 10 percent.  One of the two attorneys who primarily worked on the case, Ian Herzog, had 47 years of experience in aviation accident cases, and the other, Thomas Yuhas, had 37 years of experience.  Both attorneys also have many years of experience as pilots, which undoubtedly gave them insight as to the causes of the crash.  In this case, both sides agree that the risk of loss was substantial.  When viewed from the perspective of the time it was signed, the representation agreement thus realistically evaluated the high risk that there could be no recovery at all or one substantially lower than was achieved.”

She noted that the firm advanced more than $300,000 in costs.  In determining the potential for a minor being taken advantage of, the rule counsels, the court should look to the “relative sophistication of the attorney and the representative of the minor.  Rothschild said that Silke Schulz is a highly sophisticated executive who took over the company after her husband’s death.  And who made an informed decision to enlist the services of a firm willing to take the case on a contingency basis.

The jurist noted that rule 7.955 had superseded prior local rules setting the baseline contingency award for minor clients, often at 25 percent.  She drew an analogy to class action attorney fee awards, which have a 25 percent starting point in the Ninth U.S. Circuit and some California courts.  She wrote: “We acknowledge that what is reasonable in applying the factors in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955 in any particular case may comprise a range of percentages.  Under the facts of this case, however, 10 percent was not within that reasonable range.  Although the trial court would be acting within its discretion to award less than 31 percent, we note that 31 percent is not out of line with awards in class actions, which, like this case, involve attorney fees to be paid by a protected class and that require court approval.”

The case is Schulz v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., B277493.

Wachtell Billing Practices Come Under New Scrutiny in CVR Case

September 5, 2018

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Wachtell Billing Practices Come Under New Scrutiny in CVR Case,” reports that on raising the stakes in its long-running legal malpractice suit against Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, CVR Energy is now alleging the elite law firm engaged in unethical billing practices by basing its legal fees on the amount charged by investment banks.  “This Kafkaesque method of billing was never disclosed to CVR and Wachtell has gone to great lengths to avoid scrutiny, by clients, the bar and the public of its billing practice,” CVR alleged in a proposed amended complaint that would seek punitive damages against the law firm.

CVR, a refining and fertilizer business controlled by Carl Icahn, is suing Wachtell for legal malpractice in the Southern District of New York.  In the 2013 suit, which Wachtell has strongly contested, CVR alleges the firm failed to advise that CVR would face claims by Deutsche Bank AG and The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for $36 million under the terms of engagement letters with the banks.  CVR hired the banks as financial advisers in an unsuccessful attempt to fend off a 2012 acquisition by Icahn.  CVR’s counsel, Herbert Beigel, wrote to U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan, seeking permission to add claims for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and to seek punitive damages.  He said the additions stem from information “we learned late in discovery.”

As American Lawyer previously reported, Wachtell has a unique billing structure.  Instead of charging by the hour, the firm charges fees for deals that range from 1 percent to 0.1 percent of the transaction amount, according to the 2012 fee agreement at issue in the malpractice case brought by CVR against Wachtell.  A “Billing and Retention Policies” document sent to CVR—and cited in CVR’s proposed new complaint—states that Wachtell provides a “distinctive service,” marked by extraordinary expertise and sophistication that doesn’t lend itself to hourly fees.

“We must base our fees not on time but on the intensity of the firm’s efforts, the responsibility assumed, the complexity of the matter and the result achieved,” the firm asserts.  The document adds: “While our fees are not based on the amount involved in a matter, experience indicates that merger and acquisition and takeover fees have typically ranged [from] 1 percent or more on matters under $250 million and 0.1 of 1 percent or less on matters over $25 billion.”

But CVR, in its new court papers, said contrary to the terms of its engagement letter, Wachtell billed CVR $6 million based on the amount of the success fees invoiced by Goldman and Deutsche in connection with the company’s response to Icahn’s 2012 tender offer, “resulting in a much larger fee than the law firm promised to charge or it was otherwise entitled to—and the firm did so without informing CVR.”  Under CVR’s argument, a $6 million fee would represent 16 percent of the banks’ $36 million fees to CVR.  However, this formula does not appear in CVR’s publicly filed court papers.  CVR’s amended complaint and Beigel’s letter to the court are redacted.

CVR’s court papers do say that Wachtell’s fees, like the fees of Goldman and Deutsche, were higher for failing than succeeding.  “Even though Wachtell is hired by its client to, among other things, get the best deal for its client when engaging investment bankers … for takeover ‘defense’ assignments, Wachtell is perversely incentivized to negotiate engagement letters that benefit the investment bankers, not its client, which is exactly what happened with CVR,” Beigel alleges.

CVR argues that the basis for Wachtell’s fee was unethical and in violation of the attorney ethics rules in that it was excessive and not aligned with CVR’s interests.  The more fees Goldman and Deutsche would receive, the higher Wachtell would bill for its services, “thus creating a material conflict of interest on the part of Wachtell,” the company claims.  CVR also claims Wachtell’s fee was not based on “the amount involved” in the Icahn tender offer, and contrary to the terms of its engagement letter, the fee was not based on “the result achieved” or the “responsibility assumed.”

The company said it’s entitled to the return of fees paid to Wachtell and to recover from Wachtell punitive damages, as its conduct “constituted gross, wanton or willful fraud.”

Wachtell has fought the malpractice allegations since the 2013 suit was first filed and even brought a state court suit against CVR and Icahn for abuse of process and breach of protective order.  In federal court last month, Wachtell’s counsel, Shuster, said the firm believes Icahn brought the case out of animosity.  “He does not like Wachtell.  It was brought as payback.”