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Category: Fee Entitlement

Eleventh Circuit: No Added Attorney Fees for Defending Fees

April 12, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Nathan Hale, “No Added Atty Fees in Nationstar Case, 11th Circ. Says,” reports that a Florida woman who won a judgment against Nationstar Mortgage LLC for charging improper fees is not entitled under state law to collect appellate attorney fees for her counsel's work defending an initial attorney fees award in the case, the Eleventh Circuit ruled.  The federal appeals court backed a lower court's decision to deny Sara Alhassid's request for attorney fees covering Nationstar's appeal based on a finding that the benefit would be purely for her attorneys and that she has no obligation to pay them for this work.

The appeals panel said it agreed with the district court that the controlling case on the issue is the Second District of Florida's ruling in B & L Motors Inc. v. Bignotti.  In that case, the state appeals court found that if a plaintiff has no interest in a fee award because it would not affect her payment obligation to her attorneys, then the plaintiff may not receive a fee award under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, according to the opinion.

“B & L Motors is exceedingly clear that a prevailing plaintiff may receive fees under FDUTPA only if a 'fee award is found to be in the interests of the client and if the fee arrangement is found to have contemplated payment for that work,'” the Eleventh Circuit said.  “Because we do not lightly disregard binding, on-point decisions of intermediate state appellate courts, we hold that B & L Motors compels the denial of appellate attorneys’ fees in this case.”

Alhassid's counsel, Reuven T. Herssein of Herssein Law Group PA, said that his side intends to seek an en banc rehearing of the decision, which he said promotes meritless appeals by mortgage companies and other large institutions and has a chilling effect on plaintiffs who bring and litigate these cases.  "In light of this decision, plaintiffs attorneys will shy away from taking on these kind of cases since we won on the merits of the appeal and the appellate court’s decision means we are not paid for the successful result we obtained for our client in the appellate court," he said.

According to the opinion, Alhassid's attorneys had said that they “took this case on a contingency basis,” and the district court found that meant that any fees resulting from the appeal of the fee award would “inure solely to the benefit of plaintiff's attorneys and not to plaintiff herself.”

The dispute stems from Bank of America's decision to place Alhassid’s reverse mortgage in default for failure to pay flood insurance on her property.  After acquiring Alhassid’s mortgage and note in April 2013, Nationstar called her loan due and payable and started a foreclosure action on the property in January 2014, according to case records.  Alhassid filed the suit as a proposed class action against Bank of America NA and Nationstar in February 2014 and was joined by Sarah Drennen in August 2014.  The two women filed their third amended complaint in December 2014, bringing three breach-of-contract claims, a claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the FDUTPA claim and a claim of violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

They alleged the two companies charged improper fees, placed loans in default when borrowers did not pay those fees and then charged more unlawful fees after the defaults, according to the opinion.  The district court in Miami denied class certification in August 2015, finding that the nine class definitions didn’t show commonality and only individualized evidence could prove wrongdoing.  The claims against Bank of America were ultimately dismissed voluntarily, but Alhassid won summary judgment against Nationstar on all but the good-faith and fair-dealing claim, which the court found to be duplicative, the opinion said.

Alhassid was awarded $5,000 in actual damages and $1,000 in statutory damages under the FDCPA, according the opinion.  The district court also found that she was entitled to attorney fees as the prevailing party under the FDUTPA and awarded her $435,704 in fees.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the award on appeal.  The case is Alhassid v. Nationstar Mortgage LLC, case number 18-11985, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Federal Circuit Wants Reasons for Mediator’s Fee Denial in EEOC Case

April 1, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Braden Campbell, “Fed. Circ. Wants Reasons for EEOC Mediator’s Fee Denial,” reports that the Federal Circuit told an arbitrator to reconsider denying fees to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mediator whose firing for a violent outburst the arbitrator reversed, directing him to explain his ultimate decision.  The panel said arbitrator John Dorsey should have explained why he denied mediator David Hamilton's request for fees while granting his request for reinstatement, saying it couldn't do its duty of deciding whether Hamilton abused his discretion with the fee denial because he didn't share his reasoning.

"In some instances, the matter may be so clear that the failure of the adjudicator to provide an explanation for its action will be harmless error, so that this court can enter judgment in accordance with the ruling below despite the absence of an explanation for that ruling," the panel said.  "But this is not such a case."

The EEOC fired Hamilton in 2017 following a mediation in which he "suddenly began to act erratically," hurling racial epithets and "engaging in physical violence" toward the parties in the dispute, according to the ruling.  Hamilton filed a grievance through his union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3599, and argued for reinstatement in arbitration.  Dorsey attributed the outburst to a one-time "major physical and/or mental breakdown" and ordered Hamilton be reinstated with back pay.  But Dorsey denied the union's request for arbitration costs and fees without explanation, and, after he reaffirmed his ruling following the EEOC's request for reconsideration, the union appealed to the Federal Circuit.

The panel frames the union as making three arguments on appeal: that Dorsey had to award fees "under the applicable standards," that he deviated from his merits decision by denying fees, and that his failure to explain the denial means it must be reversed.  The panel dispensed with the union's first two arguments briefly, saying the first amounted to a request that it find Dorsey abused his discretion "regardless of any findings," and that arbitrators can consider other factors than those behind their merits ruling in denying fees.  The panel said the third argument "has more force," discussing it in detail.

The panel said appeals ordinarily require that the adjudicator explain their reasoning "even on a matter as to which the adjudicator is given broad deference" because the reviewing body otherwise can't say whether the ruling was well reasoned.  This case illustrates why such reasoning "is typically critical to judicial review," the panel said.

The panel noted the EEOC argued in its bid for reconsideration that Dorsey rightly denied fees for two reasons: awarding fees would have been unjust, and its collective bargaining agreement with Local 3599 holds that parties in arbitration bear "fees and expenses" equally.  The EEOC later backed off the second argument, which omitted that this portion of the CBA spoke to arbitrators' fees only.  But because Dorsey did not explain his reasoning, it's unclear whether that argument factored into his fee decision, the panel said.

"Because the EEOC invited the arbitrator to deny fees on that ground, the agency is not well situated to argue that the arbitrator must have denied fees based on a valid ground, rather than on the invalid ground that the agency itself proposed," the panel said.

Barbara Hutchinson, who represents the union, said the panel's ruling "is consistent with the law, which requires an arbitrator state the findings and conclusions when ruling on a request for attorney fees and costs in arbitration cases appealable to MSPB." 

Gibson Dunn Seeks $18M in Fees After Copyright Litigation Win

March 26, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Mike LaSusa“Gibson Dunn Seeks $18M in Fees for HPE’s Win Over Oracle,” reports that Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP lawyers have asked a California federal court to award Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. nearly $18 million in attorney fees after the firm helped the tech giant fend off a software copyright suit by Oracle Corp. earlier this year.  HPE said its request for $17,879,638 in fees was less than the estimated $20 million it had spent defending itself against Oracle’s claims that HPE offered illegal updates to customers of Oracle's Solaris operating system as part of a scheme concocted by another company, Terix Computer Co. Inc.

Additionally, HPE pointed out that U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar dismissed all of Oracle's claims, though court records show Oracle has appealed the judgment to the Ninth Circuit. HPE also criticized the "inappropriately" aggressive litigation strategy of its Silicon Valley rival.  "Given HPE's complete success in the case, Oracle's unreasonable and aggressive approach in the litigation, and the need to compensate HPE and to deter Oracle, the court should grant HPE's motion and award HPE the reasonable fees it requests," the company said.  The parties met earlier this month to try to come to an agreement on the fee issue but weren't successful, HPE said in its filing.

The company said its request for $17.9 million was fair "given the complex, contentious and high-stakes nature of this lawsuit," and the fact that Oracle itself had received comparable attorney fees awards in similar cases, like a $28.5 million award in a case against Rimini Street Inc. and $120 million in a case against SAP AG.  A hearing on the motion for attorney fees is set for June 13, court records show.

The case is Oracle America Inc. et al. v. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. et al., case number 3:16-cv-01393, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Deepwater Horizon Defendants Drown in Legal Fees

March 11, 2019

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Steven Meyerowitz, “Deepwater Horizon Defendants Drown in Legal Fees,” reports that the Supreme Court of Texas has ruled that an insurance policy issued to the minority owners in the Deepwater Horizon operation did not limit their right to recover for the legal fees and related expenses they incurred defending against liability and enforcement claims as argued by the policy’s underwriters.  Pursuant to a joint venture arrangement with BP entities and MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Anadarko E&P Company, L.P. (together, “Anadarko”) held 25% of the ownership interest in the Macondo Well in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

During drilling operations on April 20, 2010, the well below the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew out.  Over the ensuing months and years, numerous third parties filed claims against the BP entities, Anadarko, and MOEX, seeking damages for bodily injury, wrongful death, and property damage.  Many of those claims were consolidated into a multi-district litigation (MDL) proceeding in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  The federal government also pursued civil penalties under the Clean Water Act and a declaratory judgment of liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The MDL court granted a declaratory judgment, finding BP and Anadarko jointly liable under the Oil Pollution Act.  BP and Anadarko then reached a settlement agreement in which Anadarko agreed to transfer its 25% ownership interest to BP and pay BP $4 billion.  In exchange, BP agreed to release any claims it had against Anadarko and to indemnify Anadarko against all other liabilities arising out of the Deepwater Horizon incident.  In light of that agreement, the United States agreed not to pursue claims against Anadarko.  BP, however, did not agree to cover Anadarko’s legal fees and other defense expenses, which totaled well over $100 million, according to Anadarko.

Before the incident, Anadarko had purchased an “energy package” insurance policy through the Lloyd’s London market.  The policy provided excess liability coverage limited to $150 million per occurrence.  The policy did not require the underwriters to defend Anadarko against liability claims.  But it did require the underwriters to reimburse Anadarko for expenses it incurred providing its own defense.  The underwriters contended, however, that an endorsement within the policy reduced the $150 million limit when — as in this case — Anadarko’s liability arose out of the operations of a joint venture.  Based on the product of Anadarko’s percentage interest in the Deepwater Horizon joint venture (25%) and the total coverage limit under Section III ($150 million), the underwriters contended that this endorsement capped their excess coverage liability at $37.5 million.

Anadarko agreed that the Joint Venture Provision reduced the amount the Underwriters had to pay to cover Anadarko’s joint venture liabilities to third parties.  Anadarko contended, however, that the Joint Venture Provision capped the excess coverage only for Anadarko’s liabilities to third parties, and not for its “defense expenses.”  Therefore, it argued, in addition to the $37.5 million already paid, the underwriters still had to pay all of Anadarko’s defense costs up to the total $150 million limit.  When the parties could not resolve their dispute, Anadarko filed suit, seeking payment of its defense expenses up to $112.5 million ($150 million minus the $37.5 million already paid).

The trial court denied the Underwriters’ summary judgment motion and granted Anadarko’s summary judgment motion in part.  Finding the Joint Venture Provision unambiguous, the trial court concluded that the clause at issue in the Joint Venture Provision applied to and limited coverage for Anadarko’s defense expenses, but that an exception also applied and increased the Underwriters’ liability to “the combination of Anadarko’s working interest percentage ownership and the additional percentage for which Anadarko becomes legally liable, . . . subject only to the limits of the policy after subtracting monies that Underwriters have already paid.”

The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and rendered judgment for the Underwriters.  The dispute reached the Texas Supreme Court.  The court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, rendered judgment granting Anadarko’s motion for partial summary judgment, and remanded the case to the trial court.  In its decision, the court explained that the primary issue was whether the clause at issue in the Joint Venture Provision limited Section III’s excess liability coverage only for amounts Anadarko was required to pay in response to third party claims or also for amounts Anadarko paid as defense expenses.  The court concluded that the clause did not limit the coverage for defense expenses and that, as a result, it did not have to address any exception.

The court observed that the clause stated that “the liability of Underwriters under this Section III shall be limited to” $37.5 million (that is, the product of Anadarko’s 25% interest in the joint venture — and $150 million — the total limit under Section III).  With a focusing on specific policy language, the court found that the clause only limited the underwriters’ liability for Anadarko’s “liability . . . insured,” which did not include its defense expenses.

The court was not persuaded by the underwriters argument that the reference to Anadarko’s “liability . . . insured” included defense expenses and that even if the term “liability” did not include defense expenses, the clause limited their liability for all of Anadarko’s Ultimate Net Loss, which included defense expenses.

The court observed that, although the policy did not define the term “liability,” it consistently distinguished between Anadarko’s “liabilities” and “expenses.”  Based on the policy’s usage of the term “liability” and its distinguishing references to “expenses,” the court concluded that, consistent with the term’s “common meaning within insurance and other legal contexts,” “liability” referred in this policy to an obligation imposed on Anadarko by law to pay for damages sustained by a third party who submitted a written claim.

The case is Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Houston Casualty Co., No. 16-1013.

US Supreme Court to Decide USPTO Attorney Fee Rule

March 5, 2019

A recent The Recorder story by Scott Graham, “Supreme Court Will Decide if USPTO Can Collect Legal Fees,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a dispute over attorneys fees between the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a company led by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.  Iancu v. NantKwest is an appeal from the PTO after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit refused en banc to award the office its fees in litigation with immunotherapy company NantKwest.  After being denied a patent, NantKwest initiated what’s known as a Section 145 proceeding in district court to try to force the PTO to issue it.  Section 145 of the Patent Act provides that “all the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant,” regardless of outcome.

NantKwest lost the suit, and the PTO moved for $78,592 in attorneys fees and $33,103 in expert fees.  The PTO did not seek attorneys fees for more than 100 years but says it changed its policy after the Supreme Court in 2012 broadened the kinds of evidence and discovery that can be introduced in 145 proceedings.  The agency argues that the expansive “all the expenses” language is broad enough to cover attorneys fees.  The Federal Circuit disagreed in a 7-4 en banc ruling.  Judge Kara Stoll wrote that the Supreme Court has generally applied the American Rule and allowed fee-shifting only when Congress explicitly provides for it.  “All the expenses” doesn’t meet that standard, she concluded.

The PTO and the Justice Department argued in their petition for cert that the Fourth Circuit has awarded fees in a Section 145 appeal.  The filing included U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt, who heads the Civil Division.  NantKwest is represented by an Irell & Manella team led by partner Morgan Chu.  “’Fees’ are never mentioned” in the statute, Chu wrote in opposition, “let alone ‘attorneys’ fees’ or any other equivalent that would suggest that such fees are recoupable.”

Section 145 proceedings are fairly rare, but two academics who follow Federal Circuit law said they weren’t entirely surprised the Supreme Court took the case.  Emory University law professor Timothy Holbrook said that, whenever the solicitor general’s office signs on to a PTO cert petition, the odds of the court granting cert go up.  Villanova University law professor Michael Risch said the close vote at the Federal Circuit could have gotten the court’s attention, and the justices might be on the lookout for some noncontroversial decisions to counter the potential blockbusters in the offing with the arrival of Brett Kavanaugh.

Risch also suggested the court might use the case to examine whether “expenses” should be narrowed to exclude not only attorneys’ fees but expert witness fees as well.  “Similarly, the law is unsettled about whether in-house counsel can even collect in fee-shifting cases,” he said via email.  “As far as I can tell, the Federal Circuit doesn’t even address that question (though the dissent does).”