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Category: Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR

Fee Allocation Dispute Action Filed Against Milberg

March 27, 2017

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Charles Toutant, “Milberg Targeted in $10.6 Million Legal Fees Fight Linked to Merck Drug,” reports that a Louisiana law firm's seeking $10.6 million in legal fees from class action firm Milberg for securities litigation against Merck & Co. painkiller Vioxx was moved to the District of New Jersey.  Milberg, formerly known as Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman, is accused in the suit of underpaying law firm Kahn, Swick & Foti of Madisonville, Louisiana, which received $400,000 for its work on the Vioxx securities case.

Kahn Swick claims in the suit that its fees from the Vioxx securities case were reduced by strategic measures undertaken by Milberg as the firm and two of its principals were indicted in 2006 on charges of paying kickbacks to class action plaintiffs.  Milberg principals Steven Schulman and David Bershad were each sentenced to six months in prison in that case.

The Vioxx securities suit, filed in 2003, sought to recover damages on behalf of shareholders for allegedly false statements the company made about Vioxx, a pain medication that was withdrawn from the market amid reports it caused heart problems.  In June 2016, U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler gave final approval to a settlement that included $830 million for class members and another $232 million in attorney fees and expenses.

The criminal indictment prompted challenges to Milberg's status as co-lead counsel in the Vioxx securities case, Kahn Swick said in its complaint.  Milberg retained Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello of Roseland as local counsel, and consented to the appointment of two New York firms, Bern­stein Litowitz Berger & Grossman and Brower Piven, as co-lead counsel.  As a result, Kahn Swick saw its role in the case reduced.

Kahn Swick filed its fee suit in state court in the Parish of Orleans, Louisiana, before it was removed to federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana and then to the District of New Jersey.  Milberg asserted in court papers that New Jersey is a suitable venue because a substantial portion of the events behind the claim occurred in that district.  Furthermore, an analysis of factors weighed in favor of transferring the case to New Jersey for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and in the interest of justice, the firm said.

The suit brings a petition for damages and seeks declaratory judgment and a preliminary and permanent injunction against Milberg.  Besides Milberg, the suit names Mark Whitehead III and the Whitehead Law Firm of Lafayette, Louisiana, as defendants. Whitehead and Milberg were co-liaison counsel in the Vioxx case in Louisiana state court.  Milberg claimed in its removal motion that Whitehead and his firm are fraudulently joined defendants because there is no reasonable basis to think the plaintiff will prevail against them.  Therefore, their citizenship must be ignored for removal purposes, Milberg claimed.

Milberg first approached Kahn Swick in 2003 and asked the firm to serve as its local counsel in Louisiana for Merck securities litigation, the suit claims.  The two firms entered into an oral agreement giving Kahn Swick 10 percent of Milberg's proceeds from the litigation, plus Kahn Swick's lodestar for its own work as liaison counsel.  The terms were placed in writing in 2005, according to Kahn Swick.

The Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation transferred the Merck securities case to New Jersey for pretrial proceedings before U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler.  After the settlement was reached, Special Master Layn Phillips was appointed to oversee the division of attorney fees.  Ultimately, Milberg was awarded $25 million.

Lewis Kahn of Kahn Swick said in a statement about the fee dispute, "We are pleased to be back in New Jersey, where we sought to have this contract dispute resolved initially through the court-ordered Special Master process, and look forward to moving forward to the merits of the case.  We believe our firm fulfilled our obligations under our written joint venture with Milberg and, notwithstanding Milberg's indictment and subsequent diminished role in the Merck litigation, believe that Milberg must honor this agreement."

Milberg, formerly known as a high-flying securities class action firm, was hurt badly by the 2008 financial crisis.  The firm notified the state of New York in late 2016 of its plans to lay off 32 employees by late December, according to a document filed with the state Department of Labor in September 2016.

Nortel Creditors Challenge $4M in Fees in Chapter 11 Case

March 20, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Matt Chiappardi, “Nortel Creditors Seek $4M Cut to Indenture Trustee Fee Bid,” reports that two hedge funds that held senior notes issued by a Nortel Networks Inc. unit pushed the Delaware bankruptcy court to cut their indenture trustee’s roughly $8 million attorney fee request in half, arguing that Delaware Trust Co. didn’t properly discharge its duties.

During a daylong hearing in Wilmington, PointState Capital LP and Solus Alternative Asset Management LP argued that roughly $4 million of Delaware Trust’s fee request comes from work connected to the defunct telecom’s official committee of unsecured creditors, the massive allocation dispute to decide how to divide $7 billion in sale proceeds among Nortel’s global units, fighting to protect its legal fees, or other duplicative efforts, none of which benefited the noteholders directly.

The hedge funds argued that as an indenture trustee, Delaware Trust has a duty of undivided loyalty to its constituency, but didn’t manage its professionals in such a way that limited the scope of their work to tasks directly benefiting the noteholders, and is looking for an outsized fee that doesn’t comport with its role in the case.

Arguing for the hedge funds, attorney James C. Tecce of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP stressed that the dispute was not about the “qualifications, caliber or integrity” of the counsel Delaware Trust retained, but how the trustee chose to utilize them and whether the fee request, some of which could be taken out of their recoveries, now pending is reasonable.

“This is not an objection we took lightly,” Tecce told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross.  “The duty was not properly discharged … [professionals] were not managed in a way to avoid duplicating expenses.”  Delaware Trust countered that its fee bid was indeed reasonable, calling the Nortel case “unprecedented, complex and massive,” and arguing that it, and its predecessor Law Debenture Trust Co. of New York, “carried the torch” for the noteholders throughout the eight-year-long case.

Decisions about where to focus efforts were prudently made on a day-to-day basis throughout the case, and that work ultimately led to the noteholders receiving a full recovery on their roughly $300 million in claims, Delaware Trust attorney Daniel A. Lowenthal of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP said in court.  “The irony is that now that they are receiving a 100 percent recovery, they now object to the amount of the work done,” Lowenthal said.  “These are the same holders who demanded we not sit on the sidelines.”

The issue stems from an objection the hedge funds lodged against Nortel’s Chapter 11 plan, which Judge Gross confirmed in January, not to the strategy itself, but to the fees, and how it plays out could have wide-reaching implications for indenture trustee fees in bankruptcy cases.

Indenture trustee attorney fees that are not covered by a debtor’s estate are typically paid by the noteholders or charged against their recoveries, but the hedge funds argue that the full amount of such costs are not reasonable when the indenture trustee is also working as a member of a statutory committee with different or overlapping constituents.

The hedge funds additionally argue that the indenture trustee is mischaracterizing its arguments, claiming that they object to its decision to sit on the unsecured creditors committee when they only take issue with charging fees for work there.  They also contend that the indenture trustee hadn’t kept the hedge fund in the loop about the expenses, only springing them at the end of an eight-year case.

Delaware Trust took issue with that argument, asserting that the noteholders were informed about the expenses at periodic intervals during the case.  Judge Gross did not rule, but did question whether the hedge funds were engaging in a “hindsight exercise.”  He said he would issue a decision in writing shortly.

The fee dispute is only one of several vestiges left hanging after Nortel came to a major peace deal that allowed for confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan earlier this year for a case that has been pending since 2009.  The major sticking point was how to divide more than $7 billion raised in asset sales, a good potion of it intellectual property transactions, among the various Nortel units around the globe, a dispute that was adjudicated through an unprecedented simultaneous cross-border trial in Delaware and Toronto in 2014.

Professional fees throughout the case have been estimated to exceed $2 billion, making it one of the most expensive Chapter 11 cases in history.  The case is In re: Nortel Networks Inc. et al., case number 1:09-bk-10138, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.

London Arbitration Firm Recovers Costs from UAE Fee Dispute

March 13, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Jimmy Hoover, “London Arbitration Firm Recovers Costs From UAE Fee Spat,” reports that a London-based international arbitration firm won back nearly all of the costs it spent pursuing around $2 million in legal fees from its representation of a wealthy United Arab Emirates (UAE) family in a commercial contract dispute, when a U.K. court found the family was drawing out the appeal process to delay payment of the fees.

The England and Wales High Court ruled that Shackleton and Associates Ltd., a firm founded by sole shareholder and solicitor advocate Stewart Shackleton, is entitled to 80 percent of the costs incurred from a proceeding to enforce the fee award against the Bin Kamils, a wealthy business family in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.  The fee award, handed down by a London tribunal of the International Court of Arbitration in 2013, stems from Shackleton’s representation of the family in an earlier ICC proceeding over a cement plant joint venture gone bad in the Arab nation.

The evidence in the case suggests that “the defendants lacked any realistic defence to the enforcement of the [fee award] and that the steps they took in the proceedings were taken not in pursuit of a genuine defence but solely for the purpose of delaying payment to the claimant of the fees to which it had been held to be entitled,” Justice Nigel John Martin Teare said in a judgment.  “That takes the case out of the norm and is a very significant level of unreasonable conduct which undoubtedly justifies an order for indemnity costs.”

The underlying ICC arbitration involved a joint venture between the Bin Kamils and Cypriot company Terna Bahrain Holding Co. WLL involving a cement plant with a capacity of up to 1.8 million tons.  Terna, which purchased a 40 percent stake in an entity holding a 25-year lease of the property in Hamriyah Free Zone in Sharjah where the plant was being built, alleged that the Bin Kamils failed to procure permits to allow the construction of a cement import-export terminal.

A previous decision from the High Court maintained that Shackleton “had been most heavily involved in conducting the case on behalf of the Bin Kamils in the arbitration” but was “was not available to assist” with the Terna arbitration award after a falling-out with the firm Galadari & Associates in 2011.  On Monday, Shackleton disputed the court's characterization of a falling out with Galadri & Associates, insisting in an email to Law360 that the non-payment of fees was "the only reason" that his firm ceased acting in the summer of 2011.

Shackleton won an award for £1.4 million ($1.76 million) in fees plus interest from the ICC tribunal in 2013 after the Bin Kamils refused to participate in the proceeding other than to say that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction over the claims.  Challenging a Paris appeals court’s order granting “permission” to enforce the award, the family unsuccessfully applied to set aside the award, but the Cour de Cassation dismissed the application in March 2016.

“The impression one gains from this history is that the defendants were intent on delaying payment into court as long as was possible,” Justice Teare said.  The court did not assess Shackleton’s costs but noted that his normal hourly rate of £800, or roughly $1,000, was “more than double” of what appears to be the “guideline rate.”  Though the court can exceed the guideline rate for sufficiently complex cases, “proceedings to enforce an arbitration award do not fall into that category,” the judge said.

Is Highland Fee Dispute Arbitable?

March 10, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Martin O’Sullivan, “Arbitrator to Say If Highland Fee Dispute is Arbitrable,reports that a Delaware Chancery judge has declared that an arbitrator must decide whether a dispute over legal fees between a hedge fund manager and investors can be decided in arbitration, saying the investors and the fund agreed to the arrangement in a prior settlement.

Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III said that Highland Capital Management LP, which manages the shuttered Crusader Fund, and a committee of investors must go to arbitration to determine whether or not the issue of the investors’ obligation to advance legal fees for Highland can also be arbitrated, saying the parties agreed to as much in a settlement surrounding the wind-down of the Crusader Fund.

“Because I find the contract generally provides for arbitration of all disputes, this case must be stayed for a determination of arbitrability by the arbitrator,” Vice Chancellor Glasscock said.

In August 2008, Highland announced it was freezing the Crusader’s proceeds, preventing investors from withdrawing their money.  A subsequent settlement with investors to wind-down the fund allowed Highland to continue serving as fund manager and created an investor committee with powers over Highland.

Investors sued Highland in July, seeking to have the fund manager removed from the Crusader Fund.  Highland, which was removed as manager in August, filed counterclaims, seeking indemnification for the suit.  According to Vice Chancellor Glasscock, the wind-down settlement agreement “provides for arbitration of disputes” between the investors and Highland.

“The parties bound themselves to arbitration, broadly, of issues among them,” Vice Chancellor Glasscock said.  “They adopted the [American Arbitration Association] rules which provide that the arbitrator must determine arbitrability.”

The case is Redeemer Committee of the Highland Crusader Fund v. Highland Capital Management, case number 12533-VCG, in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware.

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.