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Category: Fee Entitlement

Bankruptcy Court Denies Fee Enhancement Under Common Fund Doctrine

January 17, 2020

A recent Legal Intelligencer article by Rudolph J. DiMassa, Jr. and Geoffrey A. Heaton, “Bankruptcy Court Denies Motion for Fee Enhancement Under ‘Common Fund Doctrine’,” reports on a bankruptcy court that recently denied creditors’ counsel’s motion for a fee enhancement under the common fund doctrine.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In a bankruptcy case filed 91 years ago (and reopened 85 years later), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia recently denied creditors’ counsel’s motion for a fee enhancement under the “common fund doctrine,” finding it could not award the requested fees absent statutory authority.  In particular, the court determined it would be an abuse of its equitable powers to award fees beyond the scope of applicable bankruptcy law in In re Yellow Poplar Lumber, Case No. 605 B.R. 416 (Bankr. W.D. Va. 2019).

Background

In July 1928, White Oak Lumber Co. filed an involuntary Chapter 7 petition in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of South Carolina, seeking to have Yellow Poplar Lumber Co., Inc. “adjudged a bankrupt” under the Bankruptcy Act of 1898.  n 1931, the district court adjudged Yellow Poplar as bankrupt and closed the case.

In 2013, the case was reopened in connection with a dispute over ownership rights in certain gas estates on parcels of land in Virginia, and it ultimately found its way to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia.  The dispute resulted in a settlement whereby Yellow Poplar’s bankruptcy estate stood to receive approximately $2 million in gas royalties.  The Chapter 7 trustee appointed in the reopened case, with the assistance of a genealogist, identified several of the original creditors’ existing heirs or successors-in-interest.  The bankruptcy court, in turn, directed the trustee to file a brief addressing the appropriate interest rate on the anticipated distribution to creditors, and invited any other party-in-interest to do the same.  While the trustee contended that the interest rate should be 2.4%, counsel for the heirs of two creditors advocated a 7% rate, which reflected the legal rate in effect in South Carolina when Yellow Poplar’s bankruptcy case was filed.  The court ultimately ordered the application of a rate of 3.6%.

Creditors’ counsel, however, successfully appealed the court’s ruling, which resulted in general unsecured creditors receiving 7% interest on their distributions, and increasing the asset pool to be distributed to general unsecured creditors by approximately $740,000.  Notably, the efforts of creditors’ counsel did not increase the amount of funds in the bankruptcy estate, but rather increased just the proportion of estate funds going to the class of general unsecured creditors, effectively diverting funds from one class of constituents to another.  Creditors’ counsel then filed a motion with the bankruptcy court seeking a fee enhancement of $164,164.90 under the “common fund doctrine.”  The trustee opposed the motion, arguing, among other things, that the common fund doctrine does not apply in bankruptcy cases.

Common Fund Doctrine

The common fund doctrine is an exception to the American Rule, i.e., the general rule prevailing in the United States that each litigant is responsible to pay its own attorney fees.  The doctrine generally applies where a litigant, acting to recover on its own claim, recovers property from which others may satisfy their claims as well, entitling the litigant to payment of attorney fees and costs from the “common fund” used for payment of all claims.

Based upon principles of equity, the common fund doctrine recognizes that one who benefits from a lawsuit without contributing to its cost is unjustly enriched at the expense of the successful litigant who bore the costs.  In addition to payment of a litigant’s attorney fees and costs, the doctrine also allows the litigant’s attorney to collect an extra award of fees from the common fund, even if the attorney is merely performing services for his client per the terms of his engagement.

Court Analysis

The court determined that the operative question was not whether the common fund doctrine applies, but rather whether the court had authority to grant the requested fee enhancement from estate assets.  To that end, the court considered precedent under both the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 and the Bankruptcy Code currently in effect: although the Bankruptcy Act governed Yellow Poplar’s case, the court considered cases applying the Bankruptcy Code for additional guidance.

Quoting at length from In re Fesco Plastics, 996 F.2d 152 (7th Cir. 1993), a case filed under the Bankruptcy Code that denied a fee request under the common fund doctrine, the court highlighted the central problem with counsel’s requested fee enhancement: a bankruptcy court cannot award attorney fees without statutory authority, such as that found in Bankruptcy Code Sections 327-330, 1103 and 503(b)(4).  The court concluded that an award of fees outside the context of applicable statutory provisions is beyond a bankruptcy court’s mandate.  In the words of the Fesco Plastics court, “a bankruptcy court is simply not authorized to do whatever is necessary to reach an equitable result; it may only do whatever is necessary to enforce the Code.”

The court noted that prevailing case authority decided under the Bankruptcy Act was in accord with Fesco Plastics.  In particular, the court highlighted Cox v. Elliott (In re Calhoun Beach Club Holding), 122 F.2d 851 (8th Cir. 1941), which rejected the argument that a bankruptcy court “has inherent equitable power” to authorize payment of a creditor’s attorney fees from estate assets.  As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit explained in Cox, the Bankruptcy Act “carefully regulates the compensation and expenses that may be allowed in bankruptcy,” and contains an implied exclusion of other fee allowances not expressly set out in the Bankruptcy Act.

After considering Fesco Plastics, Cox and several other cases under both the Bankruptcy Act and the Bankruptcy Code, the court concluded it could not “abuse the equitable power Congress bestowed upon it to award fees for services outside the scope of applicable bankruptcy law.”  The bankruptcy court noted that, even were it to conclude that it had the authority to award fees under the common fund doctrine, counsel might nonetheless remain ineligible for the additional fees: as noted above, counsel’s efforts did not increase funds flowing into the bankruptcy estate, but rather reallocated estate funds among classes of creditors.

Although acknowledging that the common fund doctrine might apply in exceptional circumstances, the court confirmed that a fee award or enhancement would still have to be made pursuant to statutory authority, such as section 64(b)(3) of the Bankruptcy Act, allowing a “reasonable attorney fee” to petitioning creditors in an involuntary case, or section 64(b)(2), allowing for payment of “reasonable expenses” of creditors who recover property transferred by a bankrupt.

Here, however, no provision of the Bankruptcy Act or the Bankruptcy Code existed to authorize “fees for creditor’s attorneys whose actions incidentally benefited some creditors, to the detriment of others, while pursuing their clients’ best interests.”  The court noted, moreover, that counsel had not identified any provision of the Bankruptcy Act or the Bankruptcy Code that authorized the fee award, and the authorities it did cite were either distinguishable, were not on point, or supported the court’s analysis.  Accordingly, the court denied counsel’s motion for a fee enhancement.

Conclusion

Viewed through the equities of the case, it is arguably unfair that all members of the general unsecured creditor class benefited without having to contribute to the legal fees and expenses incurred by just a few creditors in the class.  Indeed, the court confessed that it was “not unsympathetic” to counsel’s fee request.  Nevertheless, Yellow Poplar provides valuable guidance to creditors seeking payment of attorney fees from estate funds: asserting equitable theories such as the “common fund doctrine” may engender judicial sympathy, but they are no substitute for statutory authority.  Consequently, creditors’ counsel seeking any fee enhancement should make their request pursuant to a Bankruptcy Code section that explicitly authorizes such an enhancement.

Rudolph J. Di Massa, Jr. is a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia.  Geoffrey A. Heaton, is a special counsel at Duane Morris in San Francisco.

Fee Allocation Dispute in Antitrust Case in Seventh Circuit

January 15, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “Attys Spar Over Fees From Antitrust Row at 7th Circ.,” reports that a Seventh Circuit panel took issue with an attorney’s arguments that the allocation of attorney fees from an underlying case should have been settled in arbitration and that Cozen O'Connor wasn’t entitled to its share of a $4 million deal for representing that attorney in the fee dispute.  Judges Amy J. St. Eve, Diane P. Wood and Ilana Rovner said attorney Michael Needle appeared to waive arbitration, noting that he didn’t move to compel it and had previously stated that the district court was the proper forum to resolve all claims in a dispute over a $4.2 million settlement fund.

“How can you come in and argue now there’s no jurisdiction because it should have gone to arbitration, when you argued the opposite in the district court?” Judge St. Eve asked.  The panel heard argument in two related cases, both stemming from a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act case alleging that International Profit Associates Inc. and its affiliates bilked small businesses into buying expensive but useless consulting.

Needle and Merle L. Royce were co-counsel on a contingent fee basis representing 16 plaintiffs in the RICO case, and in 2013 obtained a $4.2 million settlement, then disagreed over the fees for their work, according to court documents.  Cozen O'Connor represented Needle in the fee dispute and later sought a lien to get paid.

After the settlement, Royce said the fees should be limited to one-third of the settlement proceeds, while Needle sought a much larger sum of $2.5 million, according to briefs in the case.  In 2015, Royce filed an interpleader complaint to determine how the fees should be allocated, and a lower court ruled that the pair were entitled to one-third of the settlement, with 60% to Needle and 40% to Royce.  Needle argued on appeal that the fee dispute should have been decided in arbitration under a binding mediation provision in the fee agreement.  That provision means there’s no jurisdiction to proceed, said Frank C. Fusco, arguing for Needle.

The judges pushed back on that argument and against Needle’s assertion that he was wrongfully sanctioned for asking for an extension that was ultimately granted.  They said he waited “until the last minute” and that the district court had the right to grant him extra time yet still find his actions sanctionable.

Alan R. Borlack of Bailey Borlack Nadelhoffer & Carroll, arguing for Royce, said the sanctions were warranted, noting that even the lower-court judge had said he had “never encountered” anyone so “unrelentingly obstructionist” as Needle in more than six decades of practicing law.  Needle had asked for the added time allegedly because he had failed to file time sheets and was seeking a transcript from a status hearing, Borlack said.

“These were disingenuous reasons for an extension,” Borlack said.  “This case goes to whether a district court can have control of a courtroom so it can administer justice.”  And in the Cozen O'Connor appeal, Fusco told the panel the firm was wrongfully granted a lien because the fee agreement didn’t provide for compensation if the firm withdraws, and that the firm’s work didn’t help Needle recover funds.

Federal Circuit: Attorneys Lack Standing to Recover Attorney Fees for Veteran

January 13, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “Fed Circ. Won’t Let Attys Get Fees From Feds on Vet’s Behalf, reports that attorneys lack standing under federal law to sue the federal government on their own to recover fees for work they performed on behalf of a veteran, the Federal Circuit held in a precedential opinion.  The appellate panel rejected arguments by attorneys Meghan Gentile and Harold H. Hoffman III of the nonprofit Veterans Legal Advocacy Group that they could collect over $4,000 in fees after their former client, Matthew Shealey, prevailed in his case, even though he had fired them and had opposed their attempt to collect the money.

The Federal Circuit noted that in a 2010 case known as Astrue v. Ratliff, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the Equal Access to Justice Act, the “prevailing party” is the actual party in a case, not the individual’s attorneys.  “The fact that the statute awards to the prevailing party fees in which [its] attorney may have a beneficial interest or a contractual right does not establish that the statute ‘awards’ the fees directly to the attorney,” the Federal Circuit said, quoting the Supreme Court.

The Federal Circuit also rejected an alternative argument by Gentile and Hoffman that they had a right to the money under the fee agreement that they had inked with Shealey, as “the fee agreement on its face does not purport to assign Mr. Shealey’s [Equal Access to Justice Act] claim to intervenors, and the intervenors expressly disclaimed such a theory at oral argument.”  The appellate panel also rejected the argument that the attorneys had so-called third party standing to sue for fees on their former client’s behalf, as Shealey revoked his authorization for them to apply for the fees and costs, according to the opinion.

“The interests of a client such as Mr. Shealey — including the ability to resolve their fee claim by settlement with the government and the ability to decline pursuing an [Equal Access to Justice Act] claim at all — would be impaired if their attorneys were afforded standing to file a claim on their behalf when that authority has been revoked,” the Federal Circuit wrote.

Class Counsel Says He Was Cheated Out of $2.6M in Attorney Fees

January 9, 2020

A recent Daily Report story by Greg Land, “Lawyer Booted From Class Action Says He Was Cheated Out of $2.6M in Legal Fees,” reports that a Georgia law firm is accused of scheming to cheat its former co-counsel out of nearly $2.6 million in legal fees, according to a series of court filings related to an $80 million MetLife class action settlement.  The court awarded more than $26 million in attorney fees as part of the July settlement, but M. Scott Barrett of Barrett Wylie in Indiana said his share awarded—more than $134,000—is a fraction of what he really should have gotten.

In a series of filings entered after the settlement was approved, Barrett said he was an integral part of the plaintiffs’ team until the lead lawyer, John Bell Jr. of Augusta’s Bell & Brigham “orchestrated” his removal.  Barrett said Bell—with whom he has a long history of co-counseling on class actions—had insisted that any fees he ultimately received would be totally at Bell’s discretion, “if and when there might be a fee.”

When Barrett protested, Bell purportedly manipulated the lead plaintiff and class representative, Laura Owens—whom Barrett had never met—to terminate his representation, which he was obliged to do.  Barrett argued that, his withdrawal notwithstanding, he should be paid 10% of the fee award, not a figure calculated on the hours he put into the case.

“Between April 24, 2014, and May 8, 2017, Barrett was actively involved in the prosecution of this matter,” said his September motion asking the court to allocate fees.  “During that time, over 140 docket entries were made, including multiple declarations from Barrett. Motions to dismiss and for summary judgment had been filed, responded to, and successfully defeated.  Discovery had been completed and an initial motion to certify the class had been filed.”

The settlement agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Richard Story of Georgia’s Northern District allocated $25 million in fees and $1.6 million in expenses to the plaintiffs’ counsel—nine lawyers, including Barrett.  The others include Bell and his partner, Leroy Brigham; Jason Carter and Michael Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; Cleveland, Georgia, solo Todd Lord; William Dobson and Michael Lober of Lober & Dobson in LaFayette, Georgia; and Oxendine Law Group principal John Oxendine.

Ruling on a motion by the plaintiffs’ counsel, U.S. District Judge Richard Story of the Georgia’s Northern District used the “lodestar” method to calculate Barrett’s portion of the award based on the hours he reported working on the case, rather than on a percentage basis of the fee award.  In his final order approving the settlement, Story specified that the issue of Barrett’s fees would not delay the settlement of the class’ claims.  In a Dec. 26 order, Story said Barrett’s share came to $134,311.

Barrett’s lawyer, Cochran & Edwards partner R. Randy Edwards, said in a motion to reconsider that the judge should at minimum reopen discovery and allow in evidence “because the court’s quantum meruit analysis is devoid of crucial and necessary findings of fact required under [federal rules] and to make an equitable allocation.  “This lack of findings has led to the anomalous result that Barrett’s allocation should be a scant one half-of one percent of the total attorneys’ fee.  How can this be?” Edwards said.

In response, the remaining plaintiffs lawyers argued that well-settled Georgia law makes clear that an attorney discharged from a case before it is resolved is not entitled to a contingency fee.  Further, they said, Barrett has provided “no evidence of any services he actually rendered for the benefit of Ms. Owens or the class she represents.”  Story has not yet ruled on Edward’s Dec. 31 motion.

Barrett filed another motion on Jan. 7 in opposition to Story’s division of fees after the plaintiffs filed a motion to approve it, arguing that “limited discovery and an evidentiary hearing” will allow the court to determine a proper split.  “Alternatively,” it said, “if the court is not inclined to do this, Barrett asks that he be allocated 10% of the total amount of the fee awarded as a minimum allocation.”

In an interview, Edwards said that—should those efforts prove unavailing—he can “virtually guarantee” that there will be an appeal.  The 10% figure, he said, is based upon Barrett and Bell’s “17-year track record of working together on these types of cases.”  As detailed in Barrett’s September motion for allocation, Bell, Barrett and three other lawyers not involved in the MetLife case began working together on retained asset account class actions several years ago.

They originally had a co-counseling agreement that any fee awards would first split 10% to each firm, with the remainder based on hours billed.  Bell became “dissatisfied” with the original arrangement, and it was reworked so that local counsel and the referring lawyer would each get 10% off the top.  Bell’s firm got 50% of the balance, Barrett’s got 30%, with the by then two remaining members splitting the last 20%.

Judge Orders Attorney Fees Dispute to Mediation in Qui Tam Action

January 8, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Khorri Atkinson, “Hospital, Whistleblower Told to Mediate Atty Fees in FCA Suit,” reports that Health Management Associates Inc. and a whistleblower, whose complaint against the now-defunct hospital chain helped the government secure more than $260 million to settle fraud charges, were ordered by a D.C. federal judge to mediate their dispute over an undisclosed amount in attorney fees.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton certified the case for two months of mediation during a brief hearing after attorneys representing HMA and whistleblower Bradley Nurkin admitted they're gridlocked.  The parties are battling over whether the fees racked up throughout the litigation should be calculated based on rates offered in Florida, where the suit was initially filed, or in Washington, D.C., where it was later transferred as part of multidistrict litigation.

If the hospital chain and Nurkin, a former CEO of HMA affiliate Charlotte Regional Medical Center, fail to reach a compromise after the 60-day timeline, Judge Walton told the attorneys he would send the case to the Middle District of Florida.  HMA attorney D. Hunter Smith of Robbins Russell Englert Orseck Untereiner & Sauber LLP initially urged for the case to be remanded immediately because all pretrial matters have been concluded and the only remaining issue is the attorney fees, which Nurkin is entitled to.

The attorney added that Nurkin wants to keep the case in D.C. only because his counsel would receive a higher hourly rate than what is offered in the Sunshine State.  Moreover, a portion of Nurkin's fees were incurred in Florida, Smith said.  But Edward Sanders of Sanders Law insisted that D.C. is the most appropriate location for his client, who filed the whistleblower complaint under seal in December 2011.  The suit alleged that HMA paid local emergency room physicians and pressured them to unlawfully bill false inpatient service claims and fees under Medicare and Medicaid.  The kickback scheme at that facility had cost the government between $100 million and $150 million, according to the complaint.

In response to the hospital chain's remand bid, Sanders said in a recent filing that after the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in Nurkin's case in 2013, and seven other similar whistleblower cases, the litigation was transferred to D.C. at HMA's request.  And because the DOJ reached the $280 million settlement with HMA in 2018 in the district, "qui tam rates commonly charged" in D.C. should be used to determine the attorney fees, Sanders said. Nurkin had received $15 million from the settlement.