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Category: Fee Entitlement

CA Appeals Court: Cutting Fee Award By 28 Percent Was Warranted

April 2, 2020

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Slashing Fee Award to 28 Percent of Amount Claimed Was Warranted,” reports that the Court of Appeal for this district has affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Randolph Hammock’s award of $95,900 in attorney fees to the successful plaintiff in a “lemon law” case, holding that there was no abuse of discretion in spurning the trial lawyers’ request for $344,639.

Plaintiff Lorik Mikhaeilpoor was represented in the trial court by Strategic Legal Practices, APC (“SLP”), a Century City firm that is headed by Payam Shahian and specializes in actions under the Song Beverly Consumer Warranty Act.  Its telephone number is 888-SLP-LEMON and the firm promotes itself as providing services of “Lemon law attorneys for the toughest cases.”  Mikhaeilpoor sued BMW of North America LLC and Finchey Corporation of California alleging failed efforts to repair her 2013 BMW 328i and a refusal to replace the vehicle or make restitution.

A jury on Feb. 28, 2018, awarded her $17,902.54 in compensatory damages, which was doubled, as provided for by the Song Beverly Act, for a total of $35,805.08.  The act also mandates an award of attorney fees “reasonably incurred”—although, under case law, an award may be denied where the amount sought is unconscionable.  In his Sept. 21, 2018 order granting $95,900 in attorney fees—reduced to $94,864 in light of awards of attorney fees and costs to the defendants—Hammock said “that the amounts billed” by SLP “are unreasonable, including dual billing of attorneys when the work of only one (at times) was reasonably required.”

The SLP attorneys sought fees at rates ranging from $325/hour to $595 an hour.  Those rates, the judge found, are “reasonable in the community,” but added that attorneys who bill at such rates “should not need to research routine issue of law and should resort to boilerplate when it will serve the client’s purposes.”

Hammock commented:  “This was not a complicated case. Plaintiff was lucky, in this Court’s opinion, to win anything.  This Court will not compound the generosity of the jury.”  He added: “Plaintiffs attorneys should be forewarned: This Court did seriously consider denying the motion for fees in its entirety, since the request of almost $350,000 was quite shocking and ‘unreasonably inflated.’

“This Court is aware of the substantial fees and costs which are incurred in bringing a case to trial before a jury.  It is also aware of the pro-consumer rationale of the Song Beverly Act in liberally awarding such fees and costs….A request of almost $350,000 in fees for this particular case— which this Court has essentially handled from beginning to end—is simply unacceptable.  Indeed, the request for a multiplier was specious.”

Mikhaeilpoor argued on appeal that Hammock  acted arbitrarily in setting the fee award and had neglected to begin his analysis by setting a lodestar amount.  “In finding that $95,900 was the reasonable amount of attorney fees in this case, the trial court expressly invoked the lodestar method.”  White wrote.

The order says: “In light of the foregoing, the Court finds that the lodestar amount of attorney’s fees is $95,900.00, which includes the fees incurred in connection with bringing the instant motion.  This was calculated by finding a total amount of 274 hours which were reasonably incurred to  date, at the average rate of $350 per hour.”

White remarked: “Despite the trial court’s clarity, Mikhaeilpoor mischaracterizes the analysis the court employed in order to create the illusion of error where there is none.”  The jurist pointed to Hammock’s findings and declared, in agreement with him: “Plaintiff ’s counsel spent an unreasonably excessive amount of time dealing with this non-complex case.”

Rejecting Mikhaeilpoor’s contrary contention, she said Hammock did not impermissibly tie the attorney fee award to the amount of compensatory damages that were recovered.  The $344,639 award proposed by Mikhaeilpoor was comprised of $226,426 in fees allegedly earned, with a .50 multiplier enhancement—or $113,213—plus $5,000 for work in connection with the defendants’ objection to the amount that was sought.  Hammock’s award included recompense for time spent on the fee motion but there was no enhancement.

“While the court’s rationale for the lodestar reduction also  influenced the denial of a multiplier, the court went further as to  the multiplier issue, emphasizing that this was ‘not a complicated  case,’ and the ‘request for a multiplier was specious,’ ” White wrote.  This, she said, has a bearing on the issue of whether an enhancement is warranted based on the “novelty and difficulty of the  questions involved.”  That the case was a simple one, White noted, is borne out by evidence that Shahian only becomes personally involved in a case if it’s complex, and there was no billing for his time.

Christine Haw was lead counsel in the case. Haw, who is no longer with SLP, had been an attorney for only about five years, but, it was claimed, she had handled “hundreds of automotive defect cases involving Song-Beverly.” Hourly rates were sought for her at $365 and $375.

White said that despite that experience, Hammock “reasonably found that Haw did not leverage her experience to produce efficient litigation,” noting: “Haw personally billed more than 240 hours, and required the help of nine other attorneys at various points in the litigation.”  She said Hammock was in the best position to determine the reasonableness of the amount sought, substantial evidence supported his decision, and there was no abuse of discretion.

Judge Hints at Over-Litigation Before Awarding Fees in IP Case

April 1, 2020

A recent Delaware Law Weekly story by Scott Graham, “Delaware Judge Puts Foot Down on Over-Litigation in Shoe Design Case,” reports that it sounds as if U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika of the District of Delaware is ready to move on from a hard-fought design patent and trademark dispute over Tieks ballet flats.  Gavrieli Brands LLC won a $2.9 million judgment last year after persuading a jury that a Kickstarter-funded company was infringing the distinctive design of its shoes.  Jurors found that Soto Massini (USA) Corp.’s Terzetto Milano flats infringed four Gavrieli design patents and the Tieks trade dress, and that the company intentionally committed false advertising.

Noreika made that verdict hurt a little more, entering an injunction that orders Soto Massini to destroy remaining inventory of accused shoes and refrain from selling any others that are “not colorably different.”  She also held Soto Massini CEO Thomas Pichler personally liable for damages, and found the case exceptional under the Lanham Act.  Noreika noted that she’d already declined to dismiss Pichler from the case, and rejected defense arguments that she had done so “without explanation.”

“At the conclusion of the February 11, 2019 argument, the Court read its ruling from the bench, along with the accompanying reasoning, all of which appears on the record in this case,” she wrote in a 29-page order in Gavrieli Brands v. Soto Massini.  In finding the case exceptional, Noreika rapped Soto Massini for “discovery deficiencies, questionable assertions made by Mr. Pichler, prejudicially late disclosures, surprise requests at trial and improper arguments at trial.”

Soto Massini was represented by Stamoulis & Weinblatt and SML Avvocati.  In fairness to them, Noreika stated that she “could not determine whether the unreasonable manner in which this case was litigated is attributable to Defendants or to Defendants’ counsel.”  But Noreika threw a little shade their way too.  “Plaintiff over-litigated this case,” she wrote. “Although Plaintiff is certainly entitled to enforce its intellectual property rights and pursue litigation, the Court believes some of the fees incurred by Plaintiff could have been avoided.”

That, combined with Pichler’s likely inability to satisfy the judgment, meant that Noreika will award fees “only for the most egregious actions by Defendants,” such as their midtrial request for a claim construction hearing.  She gave Gavrieli two weeks to submit an accounting.  That should not include any fees for briefing the fee motion, she added, “at least in part because a fee amount or estimate should already have been provided.”

Full Federal Circuit Urged to Fix Divergent Attorney Fee Ruling

March 3, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dani Kass, “Full Fed. Circ. Urged to Fix Divergent Attorney Fee Ruling,” reports that the Federal Circuit deviated from nearly every other circuit court and U.S. Supreme Court precedent when it upheld a ruling that a settlement precluded BigCommerce Inc. from collecting attorney fees, the e-commerce company said in a bid for rehearing.  BigCommerce maintains that it was the prevailing party in its litigation with Diem LLC, as while Diem’s underlying patent infringement claims were settled, a contract dispute that came out of the deal was decided entirely in BigCommerce's favor.  Nearly every other circuit has allowed companies to prevail even if some claims are settled, the petition for rehearing by the panel or en banc states.

Diem, a nonpracticing entity, had accused BigCommerce of infringing its website-generation and -hosting patent with the storefront manager service offered on BigCommerce's website.  As part of a settlement, Diem and Commerce entered into a contract under which the district court would look only at whether Diem had a particular infringement theory in its original infringement allegations.  If so, BigCommerce would have to license the patent for $30,000, and if not, the case would be dismissed with prejudice, according to BigCommerce's appeal.  The district court ruled in favor of BigCommerce and dismissed Diem's suit.

BigCommerce maintains that it's the prevailing party because it escaped the litigation without having to license the patent it was accused of infringing, pay anything to Diem, or change its products or services.  Both the district court and Federal Circuit have disagreed.  The rehearing petition turns on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buckhannon Board & Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, which struck down the so-called catalyst theory.  Under that theory, a party was considered “prevailing” if its lawsuit caused the defendant to voluntarily change conduct.

BigCommerce said that during oral arguments, the panel claimed it was being asked to stray from the justices' 2001 ruling, but the company said that’s not true.  In 2016's CRST Van Expedited Inc. v. EEOC, the justices said they hadn’t set a “precise test” on how to determine whether a party has prevailed, the petition states.

According to BigCommerce, the Federal Circuit read a test into Buckhannon that “virtually every circuit has squarely rejected.”  It provided examples from the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh circuits to back up that argument.  Buckhannon is just about the catalyst theory and “has no relevance” in a case that doesn't invoke that theory, the petition states.

“BigCommerce never cited any BigCommerce-led action that induced a voluntary change in Diem’s conduct in support of its ‘prevailing party’ arguments in the lower court or before this court,” the petition states.  “In fact, Diem refused to voluntarily do anything BigCommerce requested.  A district court had to retain enforcement jurisdiction over the parties’ settlement agreement, resolve the parties’ dispute, rule in favor of BigCommerce, rule against Diem, which finally caused the dismiss[al] of this case with prejudice.”

The 2006 Federal Circuit case cited by the district court when denying fees, Exigent Tech. Inc. v. Altrana Solutions Inc., was also decided incorrectly, BigCommerce said.  In that case, the court said merits-based relief is required to become a prevailing party, which BigCommerce said contradicts the high court’s ruling in CRST.  If the Federal Circuit doesn’t adjust its holding, then the term "prevailing party" will mean one thing under the Patent Act and something else under every other law, which can’t stand, BigCommerce said.

$6.8M Chinese Drywall Fee Allocation Dispute Heads to Arbitration

February 26, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by McCord Pagan, “Firm in Chinese Drywall MDL Must Arbitrate $6.8M Fee Tussle,” reports that a Louisiana federal judge has sent part of a $6.8 million fee dispute stemming from a settlement over allegedly defective Chinese drywall to arbitration, finding some of the firms making competing claims had agreed to arbitrate disputes in their co-counsel agreement.  U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon granted the motion from Art Edge PC to invoke arbitration in the fee dispute between the Bryson Group of law firms and Collins Group of law firms — of which Art Edge is a member — that represented certain homeowners in the multidistrict litigation, according to an order signed Feb. 18 and entered Feb. 20.

In Judge Fallon’s order, he ignored arguments from the Bryson Group that it should get more than $1 million of the $6.8 million, as well as an argument from one of the Collins Group firms that it's entitled to all of the fee award, which it suggests it would use to honor its co-counsel agreement.  Yet on the arbitration issue, Judge Fallon sided with Art Edge, saying the firms did, in fact, agree on how to address any dispute arising from their co-counsel arrangement.

“The parties’ intention to arbitrate disputes such as this one could not be more clear,” Judge Fallon wrote.  The co-counsel agreement between the two groups of firms was created in 2009 in order to represent 174 homeowners in the massive Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation.  The $6.8 million at issue comes from a $1.1 billion settlement from Knauf Gips KG and a subsequent $111 million attorney fee award over the defective drywall.  The fee award dispute was sent to the court by the claims administrator when the firms couldn’t agree on the proper distribution.

Art Edge, a member of the Collins Group of law firms, had argued the Bryson Group didn’t fulfill its side of the representation agreement.  More specifically, Art Edge said most of the Bryson Group’s work was done by paralegals, and that it didn’t inform the other firms of any settlements or negotiations, among other things.  The Bryson Group includes Whitfield Bryson & Mason LLP, Rhine Law Firm PC, Pendley Baudin & Coffin and Luckey & Mullins PLLC, according to the filing.  The Collins Group includes the Collins Law Office — also known as Collins & Horsley PC — and Art Edge PC and Gentle Turner Sexton & Harbison LLC, according to the order.

At the same time, William Brian Collins of Collins & Horsley asked for the entire $6.8 million fee award he said the firm deserves for its work on the cases, which Art Edge and the Bryson Group opposed.  Art Edge and the Collins law firm are involved in a secondary fee dispute which at least partially involves fees from the Chinese drywall case, according to the order.

To make matters more complicated, another firm is involved and seeking its cut of the $6.8 million fee award.  The Law Offices of Joseph Buffington LLP is arguing it has a fee interest in several of the cases due to parallel co-counsel and fee-sharing agreements with members of both the Collins and Bryson groups, namely Whitfield Bryson & Mason and Collins' law firm.

Article: Five Lessons for Recovering Attorney Fees in Texas

February 24, 2020

A recent BizLitNews article by Amanda Taylor, “Recovering Attorney’s Fees in Texas: Five Lessons,” reports on attorney fee recovery in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Obtaining an award of attorneys’ fees might be the final step in a long-waged litigation battle but to do so successfully requires careful planning and diligence from the outset of a case.  The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the evidence required to obtain and affirm such an award.  Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, 578 S.W.3d 469 (Tex. 2019).  The Texas Supreme Court also recently confirmed that these evidentiary standards apply equally when fees are sought to be recovered as a sanction.  Nath v. Texas Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 710 (Tex. 2019).  To best serve a client’s interests of recovering attorneys’ fees in Texas, whether as a prevailing party or as a sanction, lawyers should adhere to five lessons from Rohrmoos.

Lesson One:  Confirm a legal entitlement to recover fees.  “In Texas, as in the federal courts, each party must pay its own way in attorney’s fees … unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 484.  Certain claims, such as a breach of contract claim brought under Chapter 38 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, entitle a prevailing party to recover attorneys’ fees.  Other claims, such as a common law fraud claim, do not afford such a remedy.  In establishing your initial case strategy, it is important to consider which claims will and will not allow for recovery of fees, and advise your client about the pros and cons of pursuing each claim accordingly.  Also, be aware of fee-shifting procedural tools (such a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act) and various Texas statutes and rules that allow for recovery of fees as a sanction (such as Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapters 9-10, and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215).

Lesson Two: Keep accurate, contemporaneous billing records.  Although billing records are not absolutely required to prove the amount of reasonable and necessary fees, it is “strongly encouraged” to submit such proof in support of attorneys’ fees.  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 502.  It is much easier to review, summarize, and testify about the work performed (often years later) if you have been diligent in your billing practices throughout.  Time should be kept in a manner that demonstrates the “(1) particular services performed, (2) who performed those services, (3) approximately when those services were performed, (4) the reasonable amount of time required to perform the services, and (5) the reasonable hourly rate for each person performing the services.”  Id.  It is also advisable to keep time in a manner that is specific enough to cover the topic but without legalese and without so much detail that heavy redactions become necessary.  Fact finders prefer to read invoices in plain English without the interruption of hidden text.

Lesson Three:  Your fee agreement does not control the amount awarded.  “[A] client’s agreement to a certain fee arrangement or obligation to pay a particular amount does not necessarily establish that fee as reasonable or necessary.”  Id. at 488.  Translation: even if you have agreed to handle the matter for a flat fee or contingency fee, you still must demonstrate that the amount of fees sought for recovery are reasonable and necessary based on the work performed and the time incurred.  Regardless of the fee arrangement with your client, keeping accurate and contemporaneous billing records is important.

Lesson Four: Remember to timely designate fee experts.   “Historically, claimants have proven reasonableness and necessity of attorney’s fees through an expert’s testimony—often the very attorney seeking the award.”  Id. at 490.  “[C]onclusory testimony devoid of any real substance will not support a fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Because expert testimony will be required, the attorney must remember to designate herself and any other attorney who will offer an opinion about the reasonableness and necessity of the fee amount(s) as an expert witness in compliance with the scheduling order or discovery control plan governing the case.

Lesson Five: Understand the “Texas two-step” calculation method.  At step one, calculate the “base” or “lodestar” amount by multiplying the “reasonable hours worked” by a “reasonable hourly rate.”  Id. at 498.  This is an “objective calculation” that yields a “presumptively reasonable” amount.  Id. at 497-98, 502.  The determination of what is a reasonable market rate and what is a reasonable amount of time will typically include consideration of the following factors: (1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill required to perform the legal service properly, (4) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, (5) the amount involved, (6) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services, (7) whether the fee is fixed or contingent and the uncertainty of collection, and (8) the results obtained.  Id. at 500.  At step two, “adjust[] the base calculation up or down based on relevant considerations … [that were not] subsumed in the first step.”  Id.  “If a fee claimant seeks an enhancement, it must produce specific evidence showing that a higher amount is necessary to achieve a reasonable fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Remember that only “rare circumstances” justify such an adjustment.  Id. at 502.

Following these five lessons from the outset of a case will be beneficial to the expert testifying about the amount of fees at the end of a case.  More importantly, it will benefit your client’s best interest in obtaining a monetary award and being able to have that award affirmed on appeal.

Amanda G. Taylor is a Board-Certified Civil Appellate attorney who practices from the Austin, TX office of Butler Snow LLP.  Her practice is focused on shaping successful case strategy for litigation clients from the outset of litigation through the end of an appeal.  She also frequently represents clients in matters regarding the Texas Citizens Participation Act (Texas’ anti-SLAPP statute).