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Category: Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR

Third Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Fee Dispute Case

June 26, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “3rd Circuit Urged to Revive Pelvic Mesh Atty Fee Suit” reports that the Third Circuit should correct a mistake by a New Jersey federal court that allowed Texas law to be used to bless the collection of excessive attorney fees in pelvic mesh litigation against Johnson & Johnson and its Ethicon unit, two women have asserted.  According to a brief, the appellate court should recognize that if the underlying cases were filed in New Jersey, the attorneys should not be allowed to turn around and use Texas law to administer the settlements just so they could collect a higher percentage of the payouts, plaintiffs Debbie Gore and Doris Lance-Smith said.

"This manipulation of the process cannot be allowed by this court, as it would set a dangerous precedent that would allow contingency fee attorneys to file cases in New Jersey, then retreat to other jurisdictions in order to have the settlements 'administered' and 'approved' so that they can circumvent the New Jersey court rules and charge the clients excessive fees and expenses," the brief reads.  U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo in March nixed a proposed class action against Potts Law Firm, Nagel Rice LLP and other firms, saying Texas law governed the claims and permitted the fees.

The judge noted that "the complex settlement process, which plaintiffs consented to after ample opportunity for objection, was reached by negotiations between Ethicon and Texas law firms and was administered by the Texas state court and a Texas special master."  "Indeed, no New Jersey law firms or lawyers were even listed as receiving contingency-based attorneys' fees as part of plaintiffs' settlements," the judge said.  "As such, the state with the most significant relationship to the substantive claims at issue is Texas."

Gore, a Texas resident, and Lance-Smith, an Alabama resident, both retained Texas firms to pursue claims that they suffered injuries from allegedly defective pelvic mesh products, according to court documents.  While Gore and Lance-Smith each filed a master short-form complaint in New Jersey state court in 2014 as part of the litigation, Judge Arleo noted in March that "no litigation activities occurred" in the Garden State beyond those filings.

Fee arrangements in the case allowed the women's lawyers to receive 40% of their settlements, as Texas law has no particular cap on contingent fees, according to court documents.  Under a relevant New Jersey rule, an attorney can collect a fee of 33.33% of the first $750,000 recovered and then smaller percentages for subsequent amounts.  Those fees must be based on the "net sum recovered" after deducting expenses.

SCOTUS Stays Out of Fee Dispute in Humana ERISA Suit

June 22, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “High Court Stays Out of Fee Fight in Humana ERISA Suit” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court said it won't review the Fifth Circuit's finding that health insurer Humana doesn't have to foot a patient's six-figure attorney fees tab incurred in a suit over eating disorder treatment coverage.  The high court denied a petition from a plan beneficiary only referred to as Ariana M. that had asked the justices to review an appellate ruling that she wasn't entitled to attorney fees after she ultimately lost her attempt to get full coverage for a stay at a Utah treatment center.

A Texas federal court initially ruled in favor of Humana in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act case, and a Fifth Circuit panel later affirmed that decision.  Then in March 2018, a majority of the full Fifth Circuit breathed new life into the case when it adopted a lower standard for reviewing decisions by benefits plan administrators to deny coverage to workers.

Specifically, eight of 14 judges said in that 2018 decision that courts should apply de novo review — analyze a denial of benefits anew — unless the plan's documents explicitly give its administrator sole discretion to consider claims.  They overturned the court's 1991 Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. ruling, which held that de novo review applies to appeals challenging an administrator's interpretation of plan language but only lets courts analyze an administrator's interpretations of facts for abuse of discretion.

But even after Ariana M.'s case was kicked back down, Humana won summary judgment when the district court again said the insurer's denial was correct.  After she lost her bid to get about $140,000 in attorney fees, she again appealed to the Fifth Circuit.  The appellate court affirmed the second summary judgment ruling in Humana's favor, and also affirmed the denial of Ariana M.'s attorney fees bid.

She asked the high court for review earlier this year, arguing she could collect attorney fees under ERISA.  Ariana M.'s petition said the Supreme Court has already found that "an applicant need not be a 'prevailing party'" to be able to collect attorney fees under the applicable provision of ERISA.  She said she "need only achieve 'some success on the merits'" to be eligible for such fees.

Humana Does Want Attorney Fee Dispute in SCOTUS

June 8, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “Humana Says Atty Fee Fight Not Worth High Court’s Time” reports that health insurer Humana has urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to review the Fifth Circuit's decision rejecting a woman's push to make the company foot the bill for a six-figure attorney fees tab in a suit over coverage, saying her argument that the ruling created a circuit split doesn't hold water.

In a Friday brief, Humana Health Plan of Texas Inc. shot back at a petition from a plan beneficiary only identified as Ariana M. that had asked the high court to review an appellate finding that she wasn't entitled to attorney fees after she ultimately lost her attempt to get full coverage for a stay at a Utah treatment center.

Even though Ariana M. argued that the Fifth Circuit decision created a split with a First Circuit decision in which a separate plaintiff did get attorney fees, Humana said that there was no real appellate split. Unlike the First Circuit case, Ariana M. didn't win a remand back to a plan administrator, so the two cases are different, the insurer said.

And "even if there were a conflict, this case would present a particularly poor vehicle for resolving it," Humana argued.

"The unpublished decision below is fact-bound and does not bind any future panel or district judge in the Fifth Circuit (let alone any court outside that circuit)," Humana argued. "It therefore serves as no obstacle to future claimants."

Ariana M. had challenged a decision by Humana to stop paying for treatment of her eating disorder. The Southern District of Texas initially ruled in favor of Humana, and a Fifth Circuit panel later affirmed that decision, according to court documents.

But in March 2018, a majority of the full Fifth Circuit breathed new life into the case, adopting a lower standard for reviewing decisions by benefits plan administrators to deny coverage to workers.

Specifically, eight of 14 judges said in that 2018 decision that courts should apply de novo review — analyze a denial of benefits anew — unless the plan's documents explicitly give its administrator sole discretion to consider claims. They overturned the court's 1991 Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Company ruling, which held that de novo review applies to appeals challenging an administrator's interpretation of plan language but only lets courts analyze an administrator's interpretations of facts for abuse of discretion.

But after the Ariana M. case was kicked back down, Humana won summary judgment when the district court again said the insurer's denial was correct. And after Ariana M. lost her bid to get about $140,000 in attorney fees, she again appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which also affirmed the second summary judgment ruling in Humana's favor and affirmed the denial of Ariana M.'s attorney fee bid.

She asked the high court for review earlier this year, arguing she could collect attorney fees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Ariana M.'s petition said that the Supreme Court has already found that "an applicant need not be a 'prevailing party'" to be able to collect attorney fees under the applicable provision of ERISA. She said that she "need only achieve 'some success on the merits'" to be eligible for such fees.

Amar Raval, an attorney for Ariana M., said in a statement to Law360 on Monday that he disagreed with Humana's brief on the merits.

"This case shows the fundamental difficulty that people like Ariana face when they sue under ERISA," he said. "Even though the law does not require her to be a 'prevailing party,' courts have interpreted ERISA in such a way that it's difficult to ever get attorney fees. We hope to change that, and we are encouraged that the Supreme Court asked for more briefing in this case."

Miami Attorney Wins Major Fee Dispute Against Big Tobacco

May 29, 2020

A recent Daily Business Review story by Raychel Lean, “In Rare News for Plaintiffs Lawyers, Miami Attorney Stages Fee Fight Against Big Tobacco – And Wins $2.4 Million” reports that the first court order sanctioning a Florida Engle progeny defendant with attorney fees has landed, and it’s causing a stir.  Four years after R.J. Reynolds refused a $250,000 settlement offer, Coral Gables attorney Richard J. Diaz secured a $2.4 million fee award for his client — more than double the $1 million in compensation jurors awarded at trial.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alan Fine awarded the fees, along with $117,500 in costs, after a Zoom bench trial.  It’s an outcome that Diaz says shows just how stubborn tobacco giants can be in defending themselves from lawsuits over smoking-related illnesses and could even signal a new era of reckoning for the industry.

Of the roughly 150 Engle plaintiffs who could have fought for fees thus far, 145 of them settled, according to Diaz, who said that’s often because plaintiffs lawyers don’t keep time records the way defense firms do.  But that could change, as Diaz says he’s received an influx of calls from plaintiffs attorneys now inspired to push harder for fees.

“I think this now has motivated a lot of plaintiffs lawyers to stop settling these fee claims and start fighting them because they’re realizing that they’re leaving half a million to a million dollars on the table every time,” Diaz said.  “Then the counter effect, I think, will be that they [tobacco defendants] will be more reasonable and, ultimately, we’ll be able to settle more of these claims.  But sometimes they’ve got to get hit too many times to realize they’re getting hit, and then they’ll back down.”

This case revolved around Stefanny Sommers, who sued in 2008 on behalf of her husband Bert Sommers, a wealthy lawyer and real estate developer.  He died in 2007 after smoking for decades and suffered from multiple smoking-related diseases.  The case meandered through the courts and changed hands with various lawyers before Diaz came aboard in 2014.  He almost went straight to trial, but litigation stalled after jurors were blocked from considering punitive damages.  After about three years, Sommers opted to try the case while the appeal continued to play out.

It was a “royal nightmare” figuring out how many hours had been spent on the case, according to Diaz, as plaintiffs lawyers don’t normally keep meticulous records.  It meant opening every email and attachment, combing through phone records and filings, and being deposed.  One lawyer even shut down his practice for two weeks to reconstruct his bills, but Diaz said it was worth the effort.

“Out of those 150 opportunities to get huge fee awards from the defendants, only about five times have lawyers challenged it because it is so labor intensive,” Diaz said.  ”The tradition has been to kind of just take whatever you think you can get and the numbers are what they are, but I made a decision a year ago that I was going to take them on, fight them and see what I could do.”

Diaz said he now requires his team to use billing software, having estimated that they missed out on at least 10% of their fees because of a lack of meticulous business records.  “It taught us a lesson.  This will not happen again,” Diaz said.  “They won’t have the ability to attack whether the records were sufficiently accurate, contemporaneous and complete."

Article: How to Avoid Attorney Fees Disputes in California

May 25, 2020

A recent Daily Journal article by Heather L. Rosing and David M. Majchrzak, “The Evolution of Fee Disputes: How To Protect Yourself in a New Day & Age” reports on avoiding attorney fee disputes in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

While attorneys and clients have always disputed over fees, the number and severity of clashes appear to have risen in recent years, with notable consequences.  We are a service industry, and what we are selling is our skill and our time, with only so many hours in the day.  If an attorney is not paid, especially if that person is in a small firm or in solo practice, the situation can have a significant impact on the ability to continue operations and meet expenses.  It is therefore critical for every practitioner to carefully examine ways of avoiding these disputes, which can also sometimes lead to counterclaims for legal malpractice.

The #1 best way for an attorney to achieve protection is to pay close attention in the case intake process.  Many attorneys embroiled in fee disputes have bemoaned accepting the client in the first place.  “Why didn’t I see the red flags?  If I did anything wrong, it was accepting this client despite my gut feeling that it was a bad idea!”

When considering accepting a new client, the attorney should ask why the client needs legal services and what the goal is.  Understanding what your client hopes to get out of the representation will allow you to assess what it will cost to provide the services.  In turn, this allows you to formulate a rough budget, and discuss with the potential client whether that person has ability to fund the representation.  A large number of fee disputes occur simply because the client is surprised by the cost of legal services and is not financially prepared for the situation.

Another critical inquiry is whether the client has had other attorneys assist with the same matter.  Who came before you?  Were they terminated?  Does the client owe them money?  Maybe there were several attorneys before you.  What does this mean?  Is it a red flag?  If the potential client’s history of representation makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the right client for you.

Once you have decided to accept the representation, it is time to fashion the fee agreement, which requires a careful examination of Business and Professions Code Section 6147 for contingency fee matters and Business and Professions Code Section 6148 for hourly matters. Among other requirements, these statutes mandate that fee agreements must be signed by both the attorney and the client.  The client must be provided with a copy.  Critically, the failure to ensure that your fee agreement conforms to the statutory requirements of the Business and Professions Code could give the client having the option of voiding your fee agreement, leaving you with a quantum meruit claim, which is less preferable than a fee claim based on a contract.

But complying with the Business and Professions Code is not enough.  The agreement should clearly state the scope of the representation, and, in certain circumstances, discuss what is not included.  If neither you nor the client are clear on exactly what you are doing for the client, a fee dispute may ensue.  The 1993 case of Nichols v. Keller, 15 Cal. App. 4th 1672, further describes the potential malpractice-related consequences of failing to clarify the scope of engagement and make referrals on issues related to your representation.

For hourly engagements, it is also important to determine whether an advance retainer is necessary and whether the client has the ability to make that payment.  If, for example, you are going to represent someone in a business litigation matter, and you request a $10,000 retainer, and they balk, this is a good indicator that they will not be able to sustain your fees.  Prudent practitioners often times require that the retainer be regularly replenished and that the client provide a special pretrial retainer in an amount necessary to try the case 60-90 days before trial.

While a properly drafted contingency fee agreement provides the attorney with a lien on the recovery, hourly arrangements do not automatically include a lien.  If an hourly attorney is interested in securing a lien through the initial fee agreement, Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8.1 (Business Transactions with a Client and Pecuniary Interests Averse to the Client) and the 2004 case of Fletcher v. Davis, 33 Cal. 4th 61 should be studied.  It is possible to obtain a valid charging lien in an hourly case with the proper documentation, and it is oftentimes prudent to get one if there is an expected recovery from a third party.

Another consideration is whether your arrangement is for a flat fee.  Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 not only discusses the concept of an unconscionable or illegal fee, but also, in subsection (e), sets forth the circumstances in which a flat fee is allowable.  This must be read in conjunction with Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15(b), which describes the special language that must be included in the fee agreement in order to place a flat fee in your operating account.  It is also important for an attorney to clearly differentiate between an advance retainer and a flat fee for the client, as unsophisticated consumers of legal services may not readily understand the difference.

The fee agreement should also discuss the issue of fee disputes up front.  For example, you can include language that says that the client should bring any problems with any bill to your attention within 30 days of receipt, so that you can proactively address them.  The agreement can also let the client know that, in the event of a fee dispute, the client has the option of participating in mandatory fee arbitration through the local bar association, pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 6200 et seq.  In the event that the dispute cannot be resolved through Bar Association arbitration, the fee agreement can mandate private arbitration, if that is your preference.

There are many resources for crafting the best fee agreement.  The State Bar of California has form fee agreements at www.calbar.org, and some legal malpractice insurers provide sample language. It is important, though, to take the time to customize every fee agreement to the specific situation, so both the attorney and the client are clear on the terms of engagement from the outset.

The next step in avoiding fee disputes is to do upfront budgeting combined with the issuance of regular bills.  There is no downside to letting the client know early and often what the matter will cost. In litigation, because the cost can vary significantly based on how the dispute evolves, it may be necessary to update the budget at regular intervals.  Disputes are far less likely if the client is not surprised by a bill.

Business and Professions Code Section 6148 discusses certain requirements for billing fees: “All bills rendered by an attorney to a client shall clearly state the basis thereof.  Bills for the fee portion of the bill shall include the amount, rate, basis for calculation, or other method of determination of the attorney’s fees and costs.”  For costs, the statute requires that “[b]ills for the cost and expense portion of the bill shall clearly identify the costs and expenses incurred and the amount of the costs and expenses.”  There also certain requirements about responding to a client request for a bill.

The State Bar of California also provides use full guidance to attorneys in the form of fee arbitration advisories, which can be found at http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Attorneys/Attorney-Regulation/Mandatory-Fee-Arbitration/Arbitration-AdvisoriesThese advisories deal with a variety of common issues, such as bill padding, nonrefundable retainer provisions, determination of a reasonable fee, the form of proper billing, and much more.  Knowing upfront what can cause a fee dispute puts you way ahead of the game.

Another key to avoiding fee disputes is clear communication.  The Rules of Professional Conduct require that attorneys keep clients updated on significant developments.  The proactive practitioner, however, will go far beyond this, frequently talking and emailing with the client about case status, strategy, goals, and budgeting.

Sometimes, however, despite clear and frequent communication about the matter and regular bills, the client simply lacks the cash flow to fund the continued representation.  In that instance, the attorney should have a candid conversation with the client as soon as possible.  It may be that the client is desirous of settlement in light of the situation.  The client may choose to liquidate investments or seek the help of friends and family members to fund the representation.  It may be that a payment plan is appropriate.  It may be that the attorney is comfortable continuing with representation because the attorney has a valid lien that complies with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  A failure to proactively address nonpayment, however, exacerbates the situation and increases the likelihood of a disintegration of the attorney-client relationship.

The consequences of allowing a full-blown fee dispute to emerge can be severe.  Not only can the fee dispute affect the ability of the attorney to run his or her law firm, but fee disputes can lead to counter allegations of malpractice, true or not.  It is well-known that lawsuits for fees invite cross-claims for malpractice.  Then, the attorney has to fund an insurance deductible and faces the prospect of increased premiums (and potentially insurability issues) in the future.  If the attorney is uninsured, this means that he or she must raise or reserve a substantial sum for the defense of the claim.  Litigation over the malpractice issues also interrupts the attorney’s normal operations and can cause high levels of stress and anxiety.  Finally, even an attorney goes through the whole process to secure a judgment for his or her fees, there may be issues with collectibility and bankruptcy.  Most fee awards are dischargeable in a Chapter 7 proceeding.

The solution is straightforward and commonsensical — a thoughtful case intake procedure, a tightly crafted fee agreement, proactive budgeting, and regular billing and communications.  These four steps will help you maximize your revenues, best serve the clients, and avoid unpleasant proceedings with client you once served.

Heather L. Rosing and David M. Majchrzak practice in the areas of legal ethics, risk management, and litigation of professional liability claims at Klinedinst PC in San Diego.

Hotel Group Seeks Attorney Fee Reductions

February 7, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Kelly Zegers, “Hotel Wants Four Seasons’ $1M Atty Fee Request Slashed,” reports that Burton Way Hotels Ltd. asked a California federal court on to slice by more than...

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