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Category: Fee Entitlement

NJ Justices Hears $2M Fee Dispute in Employment Case

January 3, 2018

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Michael Booth, “Justices Hear Dispute Over $2 Million Fee Award in Employment Case” reports that a Princeton financial services company asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to reinstate a more than $2 million attorney fee award for defeating an ex-employee's lawsuit.

Noren was employed by Heartland from April 1998 to June 2005 as a “relationship manager,” a role in which he sold payment processing services.  The contract he signed provided that he and Heartland both “irrevocably waive any right to trial by jury in any suit, action or proceeding under, in connection with or to enforce this agreement,” according to court documents.  Another contract provision awarded fees and costs “[i]n any suit, action or proceeding arising out of or related to this agreement.”

Noren was fired in 2005.  His suit was eventually whittled down to the two claims: breach of contract and the CEPA violation.  His jury trial demand was denied based on the waiver provision and, after 22 days of bench trial, Bergen County Superior Court Judge Susan Steele dismissed both claims.  She awarded Heartland $2.06 million in fees and costs for the defense of both claims, finding them so intertwined that the fees could not be apportioned, the decision stated.

In his appeal, Noren did not dispute the jury waiver’s applicability to the contract claim, or the notion that fees may be awarded based on Heartland’s success in defeating that claim.  But he did dispute the waiver’s applicability to the CEPA claim, and the corresponding fee award based on the statute.

Governor Cuomo Signs Attorney Fee FOIL Bill

December 13, 2017

A recent Times Union story by Brendan J. Lyons, “Cuomo Signs Bill Strengthening FOIL Law,” reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will require judges to award attorneys' fees to litigants who "substantially prevail" in Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) cases.

The governor acknowledged the legislation is important but said it falls far short of comprehensively reforming the state's antiquated Freedom of Information Law, including not requiring greater transparency from the Legislature that sent the bill to his desk.

"The bill before me continues to perpetuate a fractured and inequitable system of transparency by only applying to the executive (branch), and intentionally excluding other branches of government," Cuomo said in a memo filed in support of the measure.  "Notably, current law already provides courts with discretion to award attorney's fees in such situations, but they are not required to do so."

Still, advocates for more transparency in government have hailed the legislation as necessary to prevent agencies at all levels of New York government from deliberately withholding public records or delaying responses unnecessarily.

Cuomo vetoed similar legislation two years ago that stated courts must award attorney's fees when an agency denies access to FOIL requests in "material violation" of the law.  The governor said the earlier bill did not define the term "material violation," which could have created confusion for judges who could reach different conclusions on what the term means.

The bill requires that courts "shall" assess reasonable legal costs in FOIL cases in which a person "substantially prevailed" and the court finds there was no reasonable basis for denying access to a record.  Courts have sparsely awarded attorney's fees in FOIL cases.  But not always.

Ninth Circuit Backs Attorney Fees in ERISA Appellate Work

November 28, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “9th Circ. Backs Appellate Attys’ Fees for Benefit Plan,reports that a Ninth Circuit panel reversed a lower court’s denial of appellate attorneys' fees for an employee benefit plan in its dispute with Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada Inc., saying the district court failed to take into account the whole course of litigation in analyzing the fee request. 

The panel reversed and remanded the denial of the fee request from the Group Disability Benefits Plan for California-based Gynecologic Oncology Associates Partners LLC.  The plan sought attorneys' fees and costs it incurred defending an earlier award of attorneys' fees in an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) case filed against the plan and Sun Life.

The Ninth Circuit said the district court has to take into account the entire course of litigation and that it was clear the plan is entitled to the appellate attorneys' fees after weighing five factors outlined in the case Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff & Co. in light of Sun Life’s conduct.  Those factors included Sun Life's denial of a claim for disability benefits from a cancer surgeon with Gynecologic Oncology Associates Partners, the move that kicked off the initial lawsuit.

The appellate judges said the plan was forced into litigation after Sun Life wrongfully denied Dr. John Paul Micha’s claims and that Sun Life doesn’t dispute it can pay the fee award.  The panel remanded the issue to the district court to calculate reasonable fees.

“A party like Sun Life should not be able to appeal from a litigation fee award, even on an issue justifying appellate review, and thereby impose significant costs on the appellee in defending the fee award, while taking comfort in the knowledge that any potential appellate fee award against it will be judged solely on the basis of its appellate arguments on the fee issue,” the published decision said.

The case dates back to 2009 when Micha filed the suit after he was denied disability benefits by Sun Life.  The benefits of the plan were insured under a policy purchased from Sun Life, the plan has said.  After Sun Life settled Micha’s suit, the plan said it moved for attorneys' fees, and the district court agreed, awarding more than $38,000.  Sun Life appealed that award to the Ninth Circuit, but the appellate court affirmed the plan's win, prompting Sun Life to file a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, court papers show.

The Supreme Court denied the petition, however, and the plan sought an award for attorneys' fees and costs it incurred on appeal, according to court documents.  However, it first filed with the Ninth Circuit to transfer consideration of appellate attorneys' fees to the district court, the plan has said.  But when the issue went back to the lower court, the court denied the plan’s request for attorneys' fees incurred in defending the earlier award, the plan said.

The case is John Micha v. Sun Life Assurance of Canada et al., case number 16-55053, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Judge: Reed Smith Can’t Sue for Share of Attorney Fees in Class Action

November 21, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Judge Says Reed Smith Can’t Sue for $7M Slice of SAC Capital Fees,reports that a Manhattan federal judge ruled that Reed Smith can't sue former co-counsel Wohl & Fruchter in state court for a chunk of class action attorney fees.  A federal judge has shot down Reed Smith’s attempt to sue its former co-counsel law firm Wohl & Fruchter, in state court for its share of fees from a class action against SAC Capital Advisors, finding Reed Smith was “seeking a mulligan.”

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York ruled that she had misgivings about Wohl’s conduct—including its settling a case amid the expulsion of Reed Smith from the plaintiffs’ counsel group—but said Reed Smith, which had served as class co-counsel for a brief period in September 2016, missed an opportunity to seek its fees in the right venue.

“The sequence of events surrounding Reed Smith’s retention and subsequent termination certainly raises questions regarding Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] motivations.  But Reed Smith was given an opportunity to fully raise those questions, and it failed to do so,” Buchwald said, enjoining Reed Smith’s lawsuit in New York state court against the Wohl firm.

In the underlying class action case against hedge fund SAC Capital and other defendants alleging insider trading of securities, plaintiffs attorneys in May were awarded $27 million in attorney fees after obtaining a $135 million settlement.  About a month after the fee award, Reed Smith, which submitted no fee application in federal court, sued attorney Ethan Wohl and his four-attorney law firm in New York state court arguing it was entitled to fees for its work under tortious interference and unjust enrichment claims.  The firm was seeking at least $6.75 million.

Reed Smith claimed that Wohl & Fruchter, when looking for co-counsel, realized that it was a small firm “overmatched by the resources available to the SAC defendants,” represented by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Goodwin Procter and Bracewell.  After Reed Smith was retained, the firm said, it immediately committed significant resources to the SAC action.  And soon after Reed Smith filed notices of appearance in the case, the SAC defendants reached out to Wohl for settlement discussions, Reed Smith said.  “Reed Smith’s appearance was the obvious catalyst for the settlement discussions, which proved to be successful,” the firm claims.

But Reed Smith asserts that when counsel for the SAC defendants at Paul Weiss mused about a possible conflict involving Reed Smith before Southern District Judge John Koeltl, the Wohl firm saw an opportunity to eliminate Reed Smith and “intentionally exploited Paul Weiss’ statements.” Reed Smith formally withdrew from the SAC case in December 2016.

In her Nov. 16 ruling, Buchwald rejected Reed Smith’s jurisdictional arguments.  “We have jurisdiction over the fee dispute between Reed Smith on the one hand and Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter] on the other, and our jurisdiction is exclusive,” Buchwald said, adding that Reed Smith’s presentation of a tort-based theory of recovery “does not change the reality that some quantum of attorneys’ fees is the ultimate recovery sought.”

Buchwald also considered collateral estoppel issues. “The amount of fees to which [Wohl & Fruchter] was entitled was an issue that was litigated, and Judge Koeltl determined that a $27 million award was ‘fair and reasonable,’” she said.  Analyzing the case broadly, Buchwald said she found “little about either side’s conduct that is sympathetic.”

“The rapid succession of events—Reed Smith’s entry into the case, the settlement, and Reed Smith’s dismissal—naturally raises questions as to Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] actions and motivations, and these questions are amplified when the weakness of [Wohl & Fruchter's] conflicts arguments are considered,” she said.  “The record is hardly inconsistent with Reed Smith’s theory that it was terminated by [Wohl & Fruchter's] so that [Wohl & Fruchter] could obtain a larger share of attorneys’ fees.”

However, Reed Smith missed an opportunity to submit an application for fees, she noted.  “We find little equity in allowing Reed Smith to take a mulligan, through duplicative litigation, on an issue that had been squarely teed up,” Buchwald said.

Reed Smith’s explanation for why it failed to do so—that it did not want to interfere with approval of the settlement—“holds little water,” Buchwald said, noting that Reed Smith’s declaration supporting its withdrawal from the federal case detailed its grievances with Wohl and raised questions about the propriety of the settlement.

While the judge said she was enjoining Reed Smith from prosecuting the state court lawsuit “and the implicit application for fees contained therein,” she denied Wohl’s request to reject Reed Smith’s application for attorney fees in federal court.  “Reed Smith has never made a direct application for attorneys’ fees in this court, and there accordingly exists no such application for us to deny,” Buchwald said.

$11M in Attorney Fees Sought in IP Action

November 17, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “VMware Seeks $11M Atty Fees for Beating Phoenix IP Suit,” reports that VMware Inc. urged a California federal judge to award it $11.2 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation costs after a jury cleared it of Phoenix Technologies Ltd.’s claims it infringed Phoenix’s software copyright and breached their licensing agreement, arguing that the case was “ill founded from the outset.”

Michael Jacobs of Morrison & Foerster LLP argued that staff at Phoenix knew that its suit was premised on an "implausible legal contention," because they waited 15 years to sue over their licensing contract, and that's highlighted by the fact that they shifted their legal theory dramatically after the close of fact discovery.  “This case was ill-founded from the outset,” Jacobs said.  “To go back and read the complaint is to remind ourselves how odd it was to receive it on its face.”

Phoenix’s bid for attorneys' fees and costs comes after a jury cleared VMware of all allegations in June.  Phoenix had sought $110 million in damages and alleged in its March 2015 complaint that VMware broke its contract with Phoenix and infringed copyrights by limiting its use of software that controls basic input and output operations, known as BIOS.

Jacobs argued that Phoenix had evidence of weakness of their case since the beginning, but failed to do its due diligence to ensure its claims were viable.  The company unfairly forced VMware to spend millions to defend itself against the suit, he said.  “This case cries out for an award of attorneys’ fees lest there be a lot more cases like it,” he said.

But Phoenix’s attorney, Michael Attanasio of Cooley LLP, argued that nothing about this case would make it objectively unreasonable to pursue.  Also, Attanasio said, VMware can't cite a single case in which claims were deemed objectively unreasonable, despite having survived summary judgment and going to trial.  Even the Supreme Court has observed that sometimes cases go to trial, and the plaintiffs lose, but that doesn’t turn it into fee shifting award, Attanasio said.

U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. said he would take the arguments under submission, along with Phoenix's motion for judgment as a matter of law and request for new trial.  In that motion, Phoenix claimed that the jury was prejudiced by VMware’s defense argument, which the court shouldn’t have allowed VMware to present.  But during the hearing, Judge Gilliam suggested that the appeals court might be a better place for that particular challenge to be resolved.

The case is Phoenix Technologies Ltd. v. VMware Inc., case number 4:15-cv-01414, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.