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Category: Fee Entitlement

Fifth Circuit: Procedural Win is Not Grounds for Attorney Fees

December 9, 2019

A recent blog post from Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Blog by Lindsey H. Chopin, “Fifth Circuit: Procedural Win Is Not Grounds for Attorney’s Fees,” reports on a recent Fifth Circuit decision regarding fee entitlement in purely procedural wins in employment cases.  This story was posted with permission.  The post reads:

The Fifth Circuit concluded that a plan participant was not entitled to recover attorneys’ fees for obtaining a remand order requiring the district court to apply a de novo, rather than abuse of discretion, standard of review to the administrative determination of her benefit claim.  In so ruling, the Court applied the principles enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242 (2010), which held that a plan participant must have “achieved some degree of success on the merits” in order to receive a fee award under ERISA.  The Supreme Court held that, although the participant need not qualify as a “prevailing party,” she must obtain more than “trivial success on the merits or a purely procedural victory.”  The Fifth Circuit applied the “some success on the merits” standard and observed that the remand order here included no comment on the strength of the remanded claim.  The case is Ariana M. v. Humana Health Plan of Texas, Inc., No. 18-cv-20700, 2019 WL 5866677 (5th Cir. Nov. 8, 2019).

Lindsey H. Chopin is an associate at Proskauer LLP in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group, focusing on complex employee benefits litigation.

DOJ Asks Federal Circuit to Toss $7M Fee Award

December 5, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Tiffany Hu, “DOJ Asks Fed. Circ. To Scrap Dentons’ $7M Fee Award,” reports that the U.S. Department of Justice is asking the Federal Circuit to wipe out $7.4 million in attorney fees secured by Dentons in a lawsuit accusing the Navy of infringing a company’s patents in a combat ship, saying the lower court went “too far” in its analysis.  In an opening brief, the DOJ said that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in July incorrectly awarded attorney fees to Dentons for its work on behalf of FastShip LLC, which claimed that some of the Navy’s combat ships infringed two of its patents.

Among other things, Judge Charles F. Lettow had found that the federal government’s opposition to FastShip’s lawsuit was not “substantially justified” under a federal provision governing the amount that can be recovered in a lawsuit against the government.  That provision says a patent owner can get reasonable compensation in a suit against the government unless the government's position was substantially justified.

The DOJ argued that Judge Lettow erred in considering the government’s conduct before litigation, as the provision in question restricts the patent owners’ compensation to costs incurred “in pursuing the action,” the department said in its brief.  But even if pre-litigation conduct could be considered, the DOJ said, the judge went “too far” when he relied on certain allegations that either had nothing to do with the present lawsuit or the claimed use of the invention.

“This construct is unduly broad even if some pre-litigation conduct could be considered,” the DOJ wrote.  “The CFC’s definition goes well beyond the ‘claim’ — i.e., the facts necessary to establish infringement — and into some ill-defined totality of facts that include the procurement actions of contractors in which the government was not involved.”  The department urged the Federal Circuit to toss the lower court’s award of fees and costs and to send the case back to the court to reconsider whether the government’s position in the present action was “substantially justified.”

Judge Lettow ruled partly in favor of FastShip in 2017, finding that one ship, LCS-1, had infringed, but that a second, LCS-3, and any that followed in the class had not because they were still being manufactured when the patents expired.  The Federal Circuit in June 2018 upheld Judge Lettow’s ruling and raised the damages award slightly to $7.1 million. FastShip ultimately recovered $12.36 million for the infringement, including delay damages, Judge Lettow wrote in his July order.

Judge Lettow’s July ruling said that the “conduct of the government, both before and throughout this litigation, belies its argument that it was ‘substantially justified.’”  The judge said that among his reasons for awarding the fees and costs was that FastShip met with Lockheed during the procurement process and shared its patent technology, but that FastShip was ultimately not included as a part of the team.

“Lockheed Martin would go on to manufacture the Freedom class of ships for the government, with a completion and infringement date for LCS-1, of September 26, 2006,” Judge Lettow wrote.  The judge also questioned if the government had done a proper investigation after FastShip filed an administrative claim with the Navy in 2008.  The Navy said it did a “thorough analysis” and found no infringement after the claim was filed, although it did not share the analysis with FastShip when it wrote the company a letter after it “sat” on the claim for two years, he wrote.

“At best, this was a perfunctory response to the concerns of FastShip that ultimately proved legitimate.  At worst, it may have delayed FastShip’s filing of its claim in this court by two years,” Judge Lettow wrote.  The judge made partial adjustments to the $8.72 million of fees and costs requested by FastShip, ultimately awarding more than $7.4 million, including over $6.17 million in attorney fees and related expenses, and over $1.2 million in costs.

PA Appeals Court: No ‘Fees for Fees’ in Trust’s $2.9M Fee Request

November 27, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Pa. Appeals Court Snuffs Trust’s $2.9M Bid for ‘Fees on Fees’,” reports that a trust that sought $4 million in legal fees over a $9,000 property condemnation was not entitled to another $2.85 million in "fees on fees" to cover the cost of fighting for the first fee award, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled.  A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel said an Erie County judge was right to slash the Angela Cres Trust's request for fees by 90% because the trust had not sufficiently justified its 2015 request for the $2.85 million, and state law said property owners were not guaranteed to have their legal bills paid in condemnation proceedings if they were not justified.

"The Eminent Domain Code does not require that a condemnee be made whole, as the trust seems to presume," wrote President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt for the unanimous panel.  "It was the trust's burden to prove that its fees and costs in litigating the fee petition were reasonable, and it did not do so."

The panel upheld the Erie County Court of Common Pleas' award of $285,000 in costs and fees, agreeing that winning just $682,000 of the underlying $4 million request for fees and costs was a "limited success" for the trust, and ruling that there had been no error in the judge's findings that the large request for fees-on-fees had not been fully supported.

Millcreek, Pennsylvania, had sought to condemn a piece of trust-owned property valued at $9,000 in 2005, but after four years the court sustained the trust's preliminary objections on the grounds that the township lacked authority to condemn the land for a water channel.  Appeals and an amended declaration of taking kept the underlying dispute going through 2012, and by 2014, the trust sought to make the township pay $3.4 million in attorney fees and costs and another $650,000 for its experts' testimony and reports.  The trial court awarded only $682,000 in total, which the Commonwealth Court affirmed in 2016.  While that appeal had been pending, the trust made its request for the fees-on-fees in 2015, according to the opinion.

After a three-day hearing on the trust's petition for the additional fees, the court awarded just $285,000, citing work that was allegedly duplicated or done by expensive partners when it could have been handled by less expensive attorneys; hourly rates for attorneys and paralegals that were higher than the market rate for Erie County; and vague "block billing" where a single time entry on the record covered multiple tasks.  The trust had claimed the trial court's award of 10% of its request was arbitrary and capricious, but the appellate court disagreed.

"Simply, the award of 10 percent of the actual fee incurred was the best the trial court could do given the block billing practice of the trust's attorneys and its inability to provide the court with the expected 'amplification,'" the court said, referring to a term used by the township's expert in the trial phase.  "Because the trust's witnesses did not provide a clarification of each task and the time spent, the trial court lacked the evidence needed to conclude that the fees and costs paid by the trust were reasonable."

The trial court had also found that the trust was billed for a "speculative" motion for reconsideration, a "superfluous" post-trial motion and a mediation process that dealt with stormwater problems, not the underlying condemnation or fee dispute, so the Commonwealth Court deferred to the lower court's judgment on those proceedings being unnecessary and ineligible to be charged to the township.

"We agree with the trust that the Eminent Domain Code should be given a broad reading when determining whether a particular legal task was caused by the condemnor's action," the appellate court said.  "However, causation is a matter for the trial court to decide. It decides whether certain tasks constitute a reasonable legal response to a condemnor's action or have an attenuated relation to the condemnation."

The Commonwealth Court also said the Erie County judge made no error in giving more credit to the township's expert on legal billing than the trust's expert and had properly considered the factors for whether a fee request is reasonable as set forth by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's 1968 ruling In re: LaRocca's Trust Estate.

The trust complained that the court improperly weighed the trustee's wealth as part of the "client's ability to pay," one of the 11 LaRocca factors that also include the amount of work done, the complexity of the task and the amount of money or property value in question.  The Commonwealth Court said that factor was ultimately irrelevant to the finding that the fee request was not adequately supported.

"In the end, it was not the trustee's wealth that caused the trial court to reduce the trust's request ... it was the trial court's holding that the trust did not prove that any specific part of that $2.85 million was reasonable," according to the opinion.  "The real point is that not every LaRocca factor is relevant and required to be considered by the court."

The appellate court noted that while the township claimed the trust wasn't entitled to any fees at all for litigating its earlier fee petition, the trial court disagreed and gave the trust its 10% award.  "The trust was entitled to pursue all means and any cost to save its land and recover its attorney fees.  It does not follow, however, that all those fees, costs and expenses were reasonable, as required by the Eminent Domain Code before the condemnor must reimburse the condemnee for fees and costs," the court said.

Eleventh Circuit: Arbitration Fee Clause Violates FLSA

November 26, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “11th Circ. Says Arbitration Fee Clause Violates FLSA,” reports that a clause in a Florida pest-control company’s employment agreement requiring each side to cover their own attorney fees in arbitration can’t be enforced because it conflicts with a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provision that allows workers who win suits to recoup legal costs, the Eleventh Circuit ruled.

A three-judge panel agreed with a lower court’s finding that the attorney fee and cost provisions in the arbitration pact contained in employee commission agreements allegedly signed by a trio of PIP Inc. technicians weren’t enforceable.  The panel said that under the FLSA, workers are allowed to collect attorney fees and expenses as part of a possible award.  “A mandatory ‘pay your own’ fees and costs clause removes the arbitrator’s ability to award a plaintiff what is provided by statute if the plaintiff is successful,” the panel wrote.

The lower court had found that the attorney fee and cost provision’s inclusion had doomed the entirety of the arbitration clause.  But the appellate panel said that the lower court needs to take another look at whether Florida law allows for the offending language to be severed from the rest of the arbitration provision.  “Our law does not support that an arbitration provision is unenforceable in its entirety if it contains an offending clause and lacks a severability provision,” the appellate panel wrote.  “The district court did not go on to the next step to address whether the unenforceable clauses were severable as a matter of Florida law.”

According to a single-count, third amended complaint from the former PIP service technicians, the company improperly didn’t pay them time-and-a-half when they worked more than 40 hours a week.  They sought damages and also interest, and attorney fees and costs, according to court documents.  The company pushed for arbitration in January, citing the arbitration clause in the employee commission agreements it said the workers signed.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry S. Seltzer found in February that the arbitration provision couldn’t be enforced because it denies plaintiffs their right under the FLSA to collect fees and costs and because there wasn’t any severability provision, according to court documents.  About a month later U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation in the case and denied the company’s bid to compel arbitration.

Apple, Cisco Must Redo Fee Requests in ‘Reckless’ IP Actions

November 22, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Tiffany Hu, “Apple, Cisco Must Redo Fee Request in ‘Reckless’ IP Fight,” reports that U.S. District Judge William Alsup is ordering Apple and Cisco to resubmit their bids for attorney fees from a tech company they say dragged them into “recklessly litigated” patent disputes, warning that he may deny relief entirely if the new calculations are unreasonable.  In an order, the California federal judge partially granted Apple and Cisco’s motions for attorney fees after they defeated patent lawsuits brought by Straight Path IP Group Inc. over internet voice and video calling technology, finding Straight Path’s “duplicitous machinations” rendered the cases exceptional and thus warrant such fees.

But Judge Alsup refused to approve the $10 million in attorney fees the tech giants sought after their summary judgment win against Straight Path. Apple sought $4.6 million in fees and litigation costs, while Cisco asked for $5.3 million, with the latter saying the lawsuit was "recklessly litigated" and "the poster child" for exceptional cases meriting such large fees.  Specifically, the judge said Apple’s request improperly included fees relating to an ex-parte reexamination for one of the patents at issue.  While the reexamination had put all proceedings involving that patent on hold, it was held in a separate forum and had “nothing to do with” Straight Path’s litigation misconduct, he found.

“Apple’s fee request well illustrates the evil of satellite litigation over attorney’s fees motions,” the judge’s order states.  “The court would be inclined to deny Apple’s request altogether on account of this overreaching.”  Judge Alsup said he would give the tech giants until Dec. 5 to resubmit their fee bids, adding that any items “unreasonably” included may lead to a deduction of up to three times the amount of that item from the total figure.  The court “may possibly deny relief altogether,” he added.