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Category: Fee Entitlement

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.

Feds Urge DC Circuit to Deny Novel Fee Request in IP Case

June 12, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Britain Eakin, “Gov’t. Urges Fed. Circ. To Deny Novel Fee Bid in IP Appeal” reports that after failing to fend off a $4.4 million fee award on top of a $200,000 judgment for infringing a metal treatment technology patent, the government has told the Federal Circuit it has no authority to grant an inventor's untested bid seeking supplemental fees for defending the fee award.

In a response filed to a May 29 request from Hitkansut LLC and Acceledyne Technologies Ltd. LLC for appellate fees — a matter the Federal Circuit hasn't addressed before under Section 1498 of the Patent Act — the government argued that only the U.S. Court of Federal Claims can grant fee requests under that provision of the law.  "There is no indication in the statute or its legislative history that Congress intended to include post-judgment attorneys' fees within the ambit of those recoverable.  By including the fees in the underlying compensation award, the statute is open to only one interpretation: that the ability to award ... attorneys' fees ends with the final judgment of the Court of Federal Claims," the response said.

The companies, owned by late inventor Donna Walker, who passed away in 2018, asked the appeals court for supplemental attorney fees after a three-judge panel on May 1 affirmed the U.S. Court of Federal Claims' March 2019 grant of fees.  The lower court found in 2017 that government researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory directly took Hitkansut's patent-pending technology, which can be used to relax stressed metal in large metal structures like airplanes, without giving Walker any credit, funding or contracts.

Hitkansut and Acceledyne were able to recoup fees at the claims court under a provision of the Patent Act that allows independent inventors, nonprofits and small businesses to recover fees when the government infringes, provided they can show the position of the United States was not "substantially justified."  The Federal Circuit said in its May 1 opinion that the government's litigation position was not substantially justified because its arguments were contrary to the evidence in the case and the testimony of government employees, and that its invalidity argument was "contradicted by its own expert witness."  The court, however, instructed the parties to bear their own costs.

But Hitkansut and Acceledyne contend that the court has the authority to order the government to pay additional fees under Section 1498, which they argued is not limited to the claims court action and so entitles them to recoup all of their costs, including those associated with defending their initial fee bid.  And although the appeals court hasn't addressed whether fees for defending an initial fee bid can be recouped under Section 1498 before, Hitkansut and Acceledyne argued that the court has done so in Wagner v. Shinseki under an analogous law — the Equal Access to Justice Act.

The court in Wagner said that because he partially prevailed in defending against the government's challenge to his initial bid for fees, "he was entitled to supplemental fees."  The Wagner court reasoned that a prevailing party can recoup fees not just for underlying litigation but also for defending an initial EAJA fee request.  Hitkansut and Acceledyne urged the court to apply the same reasoning it did in Wagner to this case, but the government contends its reliance on Wagner is "misplaced" because it says the EAJA is "fundamentally different" from Section 1498, which it said doesn't give the Federal Circuit jurisdiction over supplemental fee requests.

Congress enacted the Section 1498 fee provision because it believed the EAJA was unavailable for such claims, the government said.  "Had it wanted to do so, Congress had a clear model in EAJA to insure recovery of appellate fees and costs.  But Congress selected a different path," the government said.

Federal Circuit Reverses Fee Award in Sippy Cup IP Case

June 10, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Tiffany Hu, “Fed. Circ. Reverses Atty Fee Award in Sippy Cup IP Case” reports that the Federal Circuit ruled that a failed patent lawsuit over spill-proof sippy cups is not exceptional enough to merit attorney fees, finding in a precedential opinion that a lower court "abused its discretion" in awarding the fees without adjudicating the issues.  In a 16-page opinion, a three-judge panel overturned a California federal judge's decision that granted Luv N' Care Ltd.'s bid for $1 million in a patent dispute against Munchkin Inc.  The lower court had deemed the case exceptional because Munchkin concealed relevant prior art during litigation, and its amended trademark claims were so weak they were abandoned.

Following a 40-minute hearing in February, where attorneys for both companies told the Federal Circuit that the lower court didn't make factual determinations on either issue, the panel agreed the exceptionality finding was underdeveloped.  "None of these issues was fully adjudicated before the court on the merits, and given the limited arguments [Luv N' Care and another defendant] made in support of [their] fee motion, we hold that the district court abused its discretion in granting the motion and we reverse the exceptional-case determination," U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond T. Chen wrote for the panel.

The panel said the district court failed to explain why Munchkin's arguments concerning the validity of its patent were unreasonable, and was also "led astray" by Luv N' Care's claim that Munchkin improperly maintained the lawsuit after the Patent Trial and Appeal Board launched an inter partes review of the patent and found the patent invalid.  "That Munchkin's patent was ultimately held unpatentable does not alone translate to finding its defense of the patent unreasonable," Judge Chen wrote.

Munchkin sued Luv N' Care and Admar International Inc. for trademark infringement and unfair competition in 2013.  Munchkin moved to amend the trademark claim the following year, deciding to assert a different trademark in the case, and then added a patent infringement claim to the suit in 2015.  Luv N' Care later challenged the validity of Munchkin's patent at the PTAB, which invalidated all of the challenged claims.  After the board invalidated the patent, the district court ruled in favor of Luv N' Care and deemed it the prevailing party.  The district court tacked on the cost of the PTAB proceedings to the fee award, as well as Munchkin's appeal of the PTAB decision that was affirmed by the Federal Circuit in 2017.

Federal Circuit: No Attorney Fee Awards for PTAB Cases

June 4, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Davis, “Fed. Circ. Says It Can’t Award Atty Fees Tied to PTAB Cases” reports that the Federal Circuit said that it cannot award attorney fees for allegedly unreasonable conduct during a Patent Trial and Appeal Board case, saying such awards are only available for judicial proceedings and rejecting drugmaker Almirall's bid for fees from rival Amneal.  Almirall SA argued that Amneal Pharmaceuticals Inc.'s failed inter partes review challenge to its acne drug was so "exceptional" that it should have to pay attorney fees, which the Federal Circuit said appeared to be the first time it has been asked to consider how the fee-shifting statute applies to IPR appeals.

While Almirall said the law authorizes the Federal Circuit to award fees incurred during PTAB proceedings before an appeal is filed, the court disagreed.  It said it can award fees related to district court infringement actions, but "appeals from the board are a different matter."  The statute says "the court" may award fees, and that "speaks only to awarding fees that were incurred during, in close relation to, or as a direct result of, judicial proceedings," the Federal Circuit said.  "This language is simply inconsistent with Almirall's position that we can award fees incurred for work in patent office proceedings before this court has ever asserted its jurisdiction," it said.

Amneal had moved to voluntarily dismiss its appeal of the PTAB's decision that it hadn't shown Almirall's patent is invalid.  Almirall said it would agree on the condition that it was awarded fees, but the Federal Circuit granted the dismissal motion and denied the fee request.  As it prepared to market a generic version of Almirall's acne medication Aczone, Amneal challenged two of the patents on the drug in inter partes reviews. Almirall then filed an infringement suit in district court.

According to the Federal Circuit, Almirall offered Amneal a covenant not to sue over one of the patents during settlement talks, but the parties could not finalize a deal.  The IPR on that patent proceeded and the PTAB upheld the patent.  Amneal appealed, but then moved to dismiss the appeal.  That led Almirall to argue that Amneal should have to pay its fees associated with the IPR and the appeal, saying that because Amneal knew it wouldn't be sued over that patent, its decision to continue the IPR was "exceptional."

"It is beyond reasonable that trial was justified once Almirall offered to assure Amneal it would not sue for infringement," it said.  Amneal told the Federal Circuit that Almirall's position was "extraordinary," and that just because Almirall offered not to sue doesn't mean Amneal was bound to drop its IPR.

The Federal Circuit did not get into the merits of whether fees were warranted, and instead concluded its authority to award fees extends only to district court and appellate litigation, not PTAB cases.  "Almirall is impermissibly seeking fees that were incurred for work at the patent office before this case was commenced," it said.  It noted that the PTAB has its own means for regulating misconduct, including awards of attorney fees.

Article: Recovering Attorney Fees Under ‘Tort of Another’ in California

June 2, 2020

A recent article by Gregory G. Brown, “Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees in CA Under the ‘Tort of Another’” reports on the recovery of attorney fees under the Tort of Another doctrine in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Under the “American Rule” each party to a lawsuit is responsible for their own attorney’s fees and costs absent a contractual agreement or statutory exception. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1021).  This rule can often lead to inequitable results, particularly where the cost of defending a lawsuit exceeds the damages at issue.  One exception to the “American Rule” which allows a defendant to recovery their attorney’s fees is the “tort of another doctrine.”

What is the Tort of Another Doctrine?

The tort of another doctrine is an exception to the “American Rule” which allows for recovery of attorney’s fees which are incurred as a result of another party’s wrongful actions.  Consider the following scenario: a real estate agent lists a property for sale.  Buyer makes an offer to the agent, and the agent tells Buyer that the Seller has accepted.  Several months later however, the agent tells Buyer that Seller has pulled out of the deal, resulting in Buyer filing a lawsuit against Seller and the agent.  At trial the Court finds that the Seller never accepted Buyer’s offer, and the agent had lied when he had made that claim to Buyer.  Under that scenario, the tort of another doctrine would allow Buyer to recover its attorney’s fees from the real estate agent for causing Buyer to incur attorney’s fees by suing the innocent Seller.

When Does the Tort of Another Doctrine Apply?

In order for the tort of another doctrine to apply, an actual tort claim must be committed by the party required to pay attorney’s fees. If there is no tort by a third party, the tort of another doctrine does not apply.  Further, the doctrine only applies where “exceptional circumstances” are present and not where attorney’s fees are incurred by a party solely in defense of their own alleged wrongdoing.  Thus if a party’s own wrongful conduct is part of the reason it is forced to defend a lawsuit, the doctrine would not be applicable.

Who Can Seek Fees Through the Tort of Another Doctrine?

Both Plaintiffs and Defendants in a lawsuit can seek fees through the tort of another doctrine.  The doctrine applies to any person who through the tort of another has been required to act in the protection of his interests by bringing or defending an action against a third person.