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Category: Ethics & Professional Responsibility

Judge Highlights Excessive Billing in Sprint Litigation

March 15, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, “One Lawyer, 6,905 Hours Leads to $1.5 Million Bill in Sprint Suit,” reports that, Alexander Silow, a contract lawyer for a Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ firm, clocked 6,905 hours of work on a shareholder lawsuit against former executives and directors of Sprint Corp. related to its 2005 merger with Nextel.  Averaging about 13 hours a day, Mr. Silow reviewed 48,443 documents and alone accounted for $1.5 million, more than a quarter of the requested legal fees, according to court documents.

“Unbelievable!” is how Judge James Vano in Kansas described the billing records.  And he meant it.  “It seems that the vast amount of work performed on this case was illusory, perhaps done for the purpose of inflating billable hours,” Judge Vano, who sits in Olathe, Kan., wrote in a Nov. 22 opinion.

Courts often slash what they see as excessive billing in securities and other litigation, but rarely are they so scathing, legal experts said.  Judge Vano’s ruling might have gone unnoticed but for a recent disclosure about Mr. Silow by the law firm where he worked: He was disbarred in 1987 and practiced law illegally for decades.

The revelation, contained in a February letter to Judge Vano, could ​rupture​ a settlement in the Sprint case, and provide grist for corporate groups and others that have highlighted alleged abuses in the civil-justice system, fueling current momentum for legislative change.

A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it harder to file class actions, curtailing lawyer-driven litigation that provides little benefit to shareholders and consumers, its supporters say.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer-rights advocates say the legislation would reduce access to the courts and blunt litigation that has improved corporate governance and forced companies to pull unsafe drugs and faulty products from shelves.

Courts regularly bless multimillion-dollar fee awards in recognition of the risk plaintiffs’ firms take by fronting the costs for litigation.  But fee experts said bill-padding is pervasive in class actions and shareholder suits because billing records aren’t reviewed by clients and are scrutinized only when a judge needs to approve a settlement or award fees after trial.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written two books on attorney billing, said his most recent survey of lawyers showed that two-thirds were personally aware of bill-padding and more than half admitted they sometimes performed work they otherwise wouldn’t have done had they been charging a flat fee.

Mr. Silow had been working as a contract attorney for at least eight years when staffing agency Abelson Legal Search placed him at the Weiser Law Firm PC in Berwyn, Pa., in 2008, according to a Feb. 3 letter from the firm to Judge Vano.  The law firm was contacted last month by a third party it declined to name and learned that no one with Mr. Silow’s name was listed in a state database of licensed lawyers, Robert B. Weiser, co-founder of the firm, said in the letter.

Mr. Weiser said Mr. Silow presented himself to the firm as Alexander J. Silow, but “was in actuality named Jeffrey M. Silow” and confessed he had been disbarred when the firm confronted him, the letter said.  The firm has since ended its relationship with Mr. Silow and alerted authorities, it said.

Pennsylvania’s attorney discipline office confirmed Mr. Silow was disbarred in 1987 but could provide no additional information.  Mr. Silow didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.  Abelson Legal Search didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Weiser said in the letter that his firm stands by the accuracy of Mr. Silow’s billing records in the Sprint lawsuit, which alleged the company directors and officers concealed problems created by the merger with Nextel.  The company posted a nearly $30 billion loss as a result of the deal.

The lawsuit sought to claw back profits from former Sprint directors and officers, who it accused of incompetence and self-dealing.  But a settlement reached last year was more modest.  Sprint agreed to changes to its corporate governance and the composition of its board of directors.

Judge Vano approved the deal in his November ruling but slashed the proposed legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys from $4.25 million to $450,000.  “The focus appears to have been upon an easy, cheap settlement in the first instance,” Judge Vano wrote.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers—Mr. Weiser’s firm, Florida lawyers Alison Leffew and Bruce G. Murphy and the Kansas City firm Dollar Burns & Becker LC—have appealed Judge Vano’s ruling on the fees.  They argued the results of the settlement, rather than the hours billed, justified the amount sought.

In court documents, Mr. Weiser and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers representing a Sprint shareholder said Mr. Silow’s “extensive document review” enabled them to make “well-informed decisions.”

Michael Hartleib, a Sprint shareholder who objected to the settlement, asked the Kansas appeals court last month to return the case to Judge Vano’s court so he can reconsider the deal in light of the new evidence showing Mr. Silow had no license to practice law.

Texas High Court to Hear $42M Fee Dispute

March 6, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court to Hear $42M Atty-Client Fee Dispute,” reports that the Texas Supreme Court on granted a request from the owner of a water supply company, who argued a lower court ignored a jury's findings and wrongly granted a new trial to his two former lawyers in a contingency fee dispute lawsuit involving their right to a stake in his company.
 
In October 2013, a jury rejected the claims of solo practitioners Thomas C. Hall and F. Blake Dietzmann that they were entitled to $42 million in damages under a contingency agreement with Dean Davenport, who won full ownership of a water supply company in an underlying suit.  But about 105 days after rendering judgment, the trial court vacated the judgment and granted the attorneys' request for a new trial.  After an appellate court directed the trial court to provide specific reasons for granting a new trial, it did so in March 2015, holding that the agreement unambiguously provided that fees would be paid out of the ownership in any business recovered, and that the jury's findings weren't supported by the evidence, Davenport told the court.  The high court has scheduled oral arguments in the matter for March 23.

In his petition for writ of mandamus, filed in November 2015, Davenport told the high court it should take the case because the dispute raises the important issue of when a trial court should be allowed to grant a new trial.  In this case, Davenport argued, the trial court disregarded a jury's findings, misstated the record, ignored evidence, credited disputed testimony and “substituted its judgment and credibility decisions for the jury's” in granting his former attorneys' request for a new trial. 

Davenport also argued that the court should weigh in on the “narrow circumstances” under which lawyers and clients can become business partners under contingent fee agreements.  Rule 1.08(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct allows for that only if the transaction is fair, reasonable and fully disclosed; the client is given a chance to seek advice from outside counsel; and the client consents to it in writing. None of those safeguards were met in this case, Davenport told the court.

“Nonetheless, the trial court concluded as a matter of law — eleven months after a jury verdict in favor of the client (and after the trial court determined the fee agreement was ambiguous) — that the fee agreement was unambiguous and supposedly entitled the lawyers to become partners in businesses the client purchased in settling his lawsuit,” Davenport wrote.  “In so doing, the trial court ignored the plain language of the fee agreement at issue and the special rules and ethical principles underlying the interpretation of attorney-client fee agreements and attorney-client business transactions, as set forth in Levine, Anglo-Dutch, and Rule 1.08.”

In a February 2016 response arguing against granting the mandamus petition, Hall and Dietzmann told the court that Davenport wants the court to “greatly expand Texas law in ways that would substantially reduce the significance and reliability of all written contracts.”  Their agreement with Davenport, the attorneys told the court, “expressly contemplates paying fees out of the recovery of a business ownership.”

“The trial court did not clearly abuse its discretion by granting a new trial for the reasons stated. As it relates to the payment of attorneys’ fees out of the recovery of an ownership of a business, the agreement is unambiguous,” the brief reads.  “Furthermore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding the evidence was insufficient to support findings that Hall and Dietzmann had waived or should be equitably estopped from asserting their right to be paid under their unambiguous fee agreement with Davenport.”

Hall and Dietzmann filed suit in February 2012, claiming that after the settlements because Davenport was “paid” through his former partners' ownership interests in Water Exploration Co Ltd., they were owed a percentage of the company, instead of the about $400,000 in cash he paid them in December 2009.  They sought about $24.6 million in damages, equivalent to what they said would be the current value of their alleged ownership interest in WECO, plus $18 million in punitive damages.

But the jury found Davenport's contingent fee agreement with the two attorneys did not include a potential ownership stake in WECO, and found the attorneys had waived their rights to seek ownership of WECO and were each estopped from trying to claim a stake in the company.  Jurors also found both attorneys complied with their fiduciary duties to Davenport.

The case is In Re Dean Davenport et al., case number 15-0882, in the Supreme Court of Texas.

Read This Before You Go the Contingency Fee Route

March 3, 2017

A recent CEBblog article by Julie Brook, “Read This Before You Go the Contingency Fee Route,” discusses some of the pitfalls of contingency fees in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Among the several alternatives to the traditional hourly fee arrangement, contingency fees have been commonly used for decades.  Under a contingent fee agreement, the attorney and client agree that the attorney will receive a particular percentage of the client’s recovery or of the savings obtained for the client as a fee for legal services, if there is a recovery.  The attorney takes on the risk with the potential for significant reward.  Not surprisingly, there are statutory requirements for these types of agreements—and failing to comply with them is risky, too.

Follow these statutory requirements whenever you enter into a contingent fee agreement:

  1. Put it in writing. Contingent fee agreements must be in writing to be enforceable, except those for the recovery of workers’ compensation benefits or certain merchants’ claims. Bus & P C §§6147-6147.5.
  2. Include certain specific provisions.  In addition to a description of the contingencies entitling the attorney to a fee, the agreement must specify such matters as (Bus & P C §6147(a)):
    • The fee rate agreed on;
    • How the costs of prosecuting and settling the case will affect the fee and the client’s recovery (e.g., in the event of a structured settlement, whether the attorney is paid from first funds);
    • A statement as to what extent the client is required to pay compensation for related matters arising out of his or her relationship with the attorney that aren’t covered by the contingency fee agreement; and
    • A statement that the fee is negotiable.
  3. Follow additional requirements for medical malpractice claims.  If the claim is for medical malpractice and is subject to the maximum fee limits on contingent fees (see Bus & P C §6146), then the fee agreement must include a statement that the rates set out in §6146 are the maximum limits for the contingent fee arrangement and that the attorney and the client may negotiate a lower rate.  Bus & P C §6147(a)(5).  You may want to attach a copy of Bus & P C §6146 to the fee agreement to ensure that the client is informed of its content.
  4. Specify the contingent fee rate.  Contingent fee agreements must specify the contingent fee rate (Bus & P C §6147(a)(1)) and how disbursements and costs in connection with the prosecution or settlement of the claim will affect the contingent fee and the client’s recovery (Bus & P C §6147(a)(2)).  Unless the claim is for medical malpractice and the agreement is thus subject to Bus & P C §6146, the agreement must also include a statement that the fee isn’t set by law but rather is negotiable between the attorney and the client.  Bus & P C §6147(a)(4).
  5. Provide an hourly rate just in case.  The agreement should provide an hourly rate so that the attorney may establish a baseline to recover quantum meruit in the event the attorney is discharged by the client before the completion of the representation.  The hourly rate will also assist the attorney in providing a basis for attorney fee recovery in any potential attorney fee motion.
  6. Anticipate deferred payments or structured settlements.  Whenever payment of the recovery, or any part of it, may be deferred, the fee agreement should specify when the attorney fees must be paid and, when appropriate, how they should be calculated.  Otherwise, the agreement invites dispute and may be subject to being voided by the client for failing to fully comply with Bus & P C §6147.  If the award for future damages in an action for injury or damages against a health care provider is at least $50,000 and either party requests that the award be paid by periodic payments, then the court must order that the future damages be paid, in whole or in part, by periodic payments rather than by a lump-sum payment. CCP §667.7.  In that event, the court must also place a total value on the periodic payments and include that amount in computing the total award from which attorney fees are calculated for purposes of determining the statutory maximum fee. Bus & P C §6146(b).
  7. Provide for noncash awards.  When the award might be partially or entirely in a form other than cash (e.g., reinstatement in a wrongful termination action), the fee agreement should provide for that possibility.  This might be done by providing for a specified hourly fee if the award is not entirely in cash and a contingent fee if it is.  It may also be accomplished by providing for a method for valuing noncash awards.

Failure to include any of the required items makes the agreement voidable at the option of the client (but you would still be entitled to a reasonable fee). Bus & P C §6147(b).  See, e.g., Arnall v Superior Court (2010) 190 CA4th 360, 366 (failure to state in fee agreement that fees were negotiable rendered fee agreement void; fees recoverable by way of quantum meruit).

Insurer Fights Fee Discovery in Texas

February 22, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court Told to Nix Attys’ Fee Discovery Ruling,” reports that National Lloyd's Insurance Co. urged the Texas Supreme Court to upend a lower court ruling compelling discovery of its attorneys’ fee information in litigation with property owners who allege the insurer underpaid their damage claims, contending that information is privileged.

The justices heard arguments on whether National should be able to keep that fee information under wraps — a fight that stems from four property insurance cases in which the property owners argued they had been shortchanged on claims following two hailstorms in Hidalgo County, Texas, in March and April 2012.

Scot Doyen, arguing on behalf of the insurer, told the court that siding with the property owners would “add layers of complexity to an area of the law that is otherwise clear and workable,” that the information sought is privileged and that the “relational nature” of fee consideration renders its fees irrelevant.  Such fees hinge on "the relationship between the party and the lawyer, not the relationship between the party and the other party,” he told the court.  “It is relational to that specific lawyer to client relationship," Doyen said.

Arguing on behalf of the insured property owners, Jennifer Bruch Hogan rejected the notion that an opposing counsel's fee information, including hourly rates and total hours billed, is “patently irrelevant,” though she said the tasks themselves may be privileged information subject to redaction.

“The second point I want to make is that the defendants have voluntarily designated their lead trial lawyer as a testifying expert, and not as a testifying expert on their own attorneys' fees, but as a testifying expert who can challenge the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees as unreasonable and unnecessary,” she also told the court, adding that the arrangement had put the case in "an unusual posture." 

In its petition for writ of mandamus filed with the state high court in August 2015, National argued that a defendant's fees are irrelevant, and that there are other methods in place — including the lodestar method and Arthur Andersen factors — that can be used without compelling a party to turn over rate and fee information it argues is privileged.

National's petition said the Thirteenth Court of Appeals decision caused a split among state appellate courts over whether a plaintiff can discover a defendant's attorneys' fee information, which it said is reflective of a split in other state and federal courts as well.  It said that the state high court has never adjudicated the issue and the Thirteenth Court erroneously relied on Chief Justice Nathan Hecht's concurring opinion in the 2012 case El Apple I v. Olivas in justifying its holding that the fee information is both relevant and discoverable.

As part of the underlying legal battle, the property owners were seeking damages and attorneys' fees on their breach of contract and Texas Insurance Code claims, according to court documents.  The cases were consolidated with thousands of others in a multidistrict litigation in Texas, and special master Roberto Ramirez was appointed to resolve any disputes.  In March 2015, according to the petition, the property owners in this case moved for additional discovery on attorneys’ fee information, including rates, invoices, payments and audits.  The insurers objected.

In April 2015, the special master permitted the additional discovery, which resulted in requests for the information being served to National Lloyds, Wardlaw Claims Service Inc. and Ideal Adjusting Inc., which objected to the requests.  After a hearing, the special master overruled each objection, according to the petition, and an appeal to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals followed.

The case is In re: National Lloyds Insurance Co et al., case number 15-0591, in the Supreme Court of the State of Texas.

What are Best Practice in Legal Fee Analysis?

February 20, 2017

Legal fee analysis is the comprehensive review and analysis of attorney fees and costs in an outside legal matter.  Professionals who perform outside legal fee analysis include attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors.

The following best practices measures were developed over several years with input and consensus from thought leaders from across the legal fee analysis community.  These best practice measures promote values such as ethics, independence, and professional development.  These peer review driven standards help strengthen the legal fee analysis field by ensuring integrity in the process and and reliability in the results. 

This professional code of conduct is considered the professional mainstream of legal fee analysis.  All our members (i.e. fully qualified attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors) have pledged to follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis:

  1. Adhere to the proper standard of reasonableness.
  2. Observe a consistent and reliable methodology.
  3. Keep updated on the latest jurisprudence of reasonable attorney fees and expenses.
  4. Keep updated on the latest scholarship on reasonable attorney fees and expenses (i.e. empirical papers, studies, surveys, and reports).
  5. Participate in professional development and CLE programs on attorney fees and legal billing topics.
  6. Do not advertise false or intentionally misleading information or offer any guarantee of outcome.
  7. Do not charge on a contingency basis (i.e. based on the results obtained).
  8. Do not accept a case or client where there is an inherent conflict of interest.
  9. Keep all fee, billing, and work product information in strict confidence.
  10. Utilize technology where possible.

Please note: You don't need to be a NALFA member to follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.