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Category: Fee Agreements

Judge Erred By Limiting Attorney Fees in Probate Matter in California

September 7, 2018

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Judge Erred By Limiting Fee to 10 Percent of Minors’ Recovery,” reports that the law firm founded by veteran personal injury Ian “Buddy” Herzog was shortchanged by a Los Angeles Superior Court who awarded it only 10 percent of the $18 million settlement it negotiated for its minor clients, despite a contingency fee agreement calling for 40 percent, the Court of Appeal for this district has held.

The unpublished opinion was filed Wednesday.  In it, Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild of Div. One noted that under Probate Code §3600 and §3601, a court, in approving the compromise of a minor’s claim, must determine what are “reasonable” attorney fees, and pointed to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955, which sets forth guidance for trial judges in determining reasonableness.  A 10 percent fee, she said, was unreasonable in light of the contingency fee agreement, the risk the company took in taking the case on a contingency basis, and other factors.

Herzog, Yuhas, Ehrlich & Ardell of Santa Monica represented the wife and four minor children of Rainer Schulz in a wrongful death suit, after the wealthy German businessman crashed his Cessna 750 jet while attempting to land at a small German airport.  The action against various companies was brought on a products liability theory.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey apportioned $1 to Schulz’s widow, Silke Schulz, and the remainder of the $18,125,000 to the couple’s four minor sons.

He did not credit the contingency fee agreement which the widow and the chief executive of a company the Schulzes owned negotiated with the Herzog firm.  Under it, the firm was to receive 31 percent of the proceeds if the case were settled at least 30 days before trial and 40 percent after that point.  Although settlement came a few days before trial, the Herzog firm indicated its willingness to accept a 31 percent share.

Fahey said:  “Turning to the issue of attorney’s fees, the Court is not bound by a contingency agreement when considering the best interests of the minors.  Attorney fees must be carefully scrutinized and adjusted if warranted.  Here, the attorneys hired by Silke did a good job in investigating this case.”  He added:“But paying these attorneys their requested $5 million in fees out of the settlement proceeds would be excessive, to the substantial detriment of Rainer’s sons and contrary to this Court’s duty [to] assure that no injustice is done to them.”

Two of the Schulzes’s sons have permanent disabilities as a result of being born prematurely.  Rule 7.955(a)(2) sets forth: “The court must give consideration to the terms of any representation agreement made between the attorney and the representative of the minor.…”

Rule 7.955(b) lists 14 non-exclusive factors for courts to consider when determining what fee will be reasonable, including the amount of the fee in proportion to the value of services, the experience of the attorney and the amount of time and labor involved.

Rothschild declared: “We conclude the trial court gave too little consideration to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(a)(2).…In addition, the court did not acknowledge the factors listed in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(b).  Although these factors are not mandatory, they provide a guide to the considerations relevant to determining whether a fee protects the interests of a minor while allowing an attorney to obtain a fair recovery.”

She continued: “All of these factors support a recovery greater than 10 percent.  One of the two attorneys who primarily worked on the case, Ian Herzog, had 47 years of experience in aviation accident cases, and the other, Thomas Yuhas, had 37 years of experience.  Both attorneys also have many years of experience as pilots, which undoubtedly gave them insight as to the causes of the crash.  In this case, both sides agree that the risk of loss was substantial.  When viewed from the perspective of the time it was signed, the representation agreement thus realistically evaluated the high risk that there could be no recovery at all or one substantially lower than was achieved.”

She noted that the firm advanced more than $300,000 in costs.  In determining the potential for a minor being taken advantage of, the rule counsels, the court should look to the “relative sophistication of the attorney and the representative of the minor.  Rothschild said that Silke Schulz is a highly sophisticated executive who took over the company after her husband’s death.  And who made an informed decision to enlist the services of a firm willing to take the case on a contingency basis.

The jurist noted that rule 7.955 had superseded prior local rules setting the baseline contingency award for minor clients, often at 25 percent.  She drew an analogy to class action attorney fee awards, which have a 25 percent starting point in the Ninth U.S. Circuit and some California courts.  She wrote: “We acknowledge that what is reasonable in applying the factors in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955 in any particular case may comprise a range of percentages.  Under the facts of this case, however, 10 percent was not within that reasonable range.  Although the trial court would be acting within its discretion to award less than 31 percent, we note that 31 percent is not out of line with awards in class actions, which, like this case, involve attorney fees to be paid by a protected class and that require court approval.”

The case is Schulz v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., B277493.

Wachtell Billing Practices Come Under New Scrutiny in CVR Case

September 5, 2018

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Wachtell Billing Practices Come Under New Scrutiny in CVR Case,” reports that on raising the stakes in its long-running legal malpractice suit against Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, CVR Energy is now alleging the elite law firm engaged in unethical billing practices by basing its legal fees on the amount charged by investment banks.  “This Kafkaesque method of billing was never disclosed to CVR and Wachtell has gone to great lengths to avoid scrutiny, by clients, the bar and the public of its billing practice,” CVR alleged in a proposed amended complaint that would seek punitive damages against the law firm.

CVR, a refining and fertilizer business controlled by Carl Icahn, is suing Wachtell for legal malpractice in the Southern District of New York.  In the 2013 suit, which Wachtell has strongly contested, CVR alleges the firm failed to advise that CVR would face claims by Deutsche Bank AG and The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for $36 million under the terms of engagement letters with the banks.  CVR hired the banks as financial advisers in an unsuccessful attempt to fend off a 2012 acquisition by Icahn.  CVR’s counsel, Herbert Beigel, wrote to U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan, seeking permission to add claims for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and to seek punitive damages.  He said the additions stem from information “we learned late in discovery.”

As American Lawyer previously reported, Wachtell has a unique billing structure.  Instead of charging by the hour, the firm charges fees for deals that range from 1 percent to 0.1 percent of the transaction amount, according to the 2012 fee agreement at issue in the malpractice case brought by CVR against Wachtell.  A “Billing and Retention Policies” document sent to CVR—and cited in CVR’s proposed new complaint—states that Wachtell provides a “distinctive service,” marked by extraordinary expertise and sophistication that doesn’t lend itself to hourly fees.

“We must base our fees not on time but on the intensity of the firm’s efforts, the responsibility assumed, the complexity of the matter and the result achieved,” the firm asserts.  The document adds: “While our fees are not based on the amount involved in a matter, experience indicates that merger and acquisition and takeover fees have typically ranged [from] 1 percent or more on matters under $250 million and 0.1 of 1 percent or less on matters over $25 billion.”

But CVR, in its new court papers, said contrary to the terms of its engagement letter, Wachtell billed CVR $6 million based on the amount of the success fees invoiced by Goldman and Deutsche in connection with the company’s response to Icahn’s 2012 tender offer, “resulting in a much larger fee than the law firm promised to charge or it was otherwise entitled to—and the firm did so without informing CVR.”  Under CVR’s argument, a $6 million fee would represent 16 percent of the banks’ $36 million fees to CVR.  However, this formula does not appear in CVR’s publicly filed court papers.  CVR’s amended complaint and Beigel’s letter to the court are redacted.

CVR’s court papers do say that Wachtell’s fees, like the fees of Goldman and Deutsche, were higher for failing than succeeding.  “Even though Wachtell is hired by its client to, among other things, get the best deal for its client when engaging investment bankers … for takeover ‘defense’ assignments, Wachtell is perversely incentivized to negotiate engagement letters that benefit the investment bankers, not its client, which is exactly what happened with CVR,” Beigel alleges.

CVR argues that the basis for Wachtell’s fee was unethical and in violation of the attorney ethics rules in that it was excessive and not aligned with CVR’s interests.  The more fees Goldman and Deutsche would receive, the higher Wachtell would bill for its services, “thus creating a material conflict of interest on the part of Wachtell,” the company claims.  CVR also claims Wachtell’s fee was not based on “the amount involved” in the Icahn tender offer, and contrary to the terms of its engagement letter, the fee was not based on “the result achieved” or the “responsibility assumed.”

The company said it’s entitled to the return of fees paid to Wachtell and to recover from Wachtell punitive damages, as its conduct “constituted gross, wanton or willful fraud.”

Wachtell has fought the malpractice allegations since the 2013 suit was first filed and even brought a state court suit against CVR and Icahn for abuse of process and breach of protective order.  In federal court last month, Wachtell’s counsel, Shuster, said the firm believes Icahn brought the case out of animosity.  “He does not like Wachtell.  It was brought as payback.”

Judge: Law Firm Granted Attorney Fees Despite Receivership

August 31, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Lauraann Wood, “Firm Can Get Fees Despite Receivership, Judge Says, reports that an Illinois federal judge granted a law firm's bid to collect $20,000 in retainer fees for work performed leading up to and during a hearing in which he ordered a receivership over a real estate investment company accused of running a Ponzi scheme, saying the firm’s request is fair and reasonable.

U.S. District Judge John Lee granted Celiza Braganca’s motion to collect the money, which was transferred to Braganca Law LLC  in two $10,000 wire payments surrounding the hearing in which the judge temporarily restrained and ordered a receivership over Jerome and Shaun Cohen’s allegedly unlawful business conduct, over the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s objection that the money she’d receive belongs to the investors the father-son duo allegedly defrauded. 

“Allowing reimbursement sought by Braganca Law for the work they performed is reasonable and appropriate here,” Judge Lee said.  “After all, the defendant should be entitled to legal representation for the defense in this case at least through the entry of a consent judgment.”  The commission asked for a temporary restraining order and receivership the day it filed suit against the Cohens and their company Equitybuild LLC, saying they wrongfully misled about 900 investors with promises of double-digit returns.

The two owners lied to their investors about essentially everything, from their failure to disclose that both had previously filed for bankruptcy to their falsehoods about the experience and technology they’d tap to identify undervalued but high-performing property, according to the SEC’s lawsuit.  The Cohens would represent to investors that those properties were generating returns between 12 and 20 percent, but in reality they were losing huge amounts of money and returns were being paid with other investors’ money, according to the suit.

However, the day after the suit was filed, Equitybuild sent a $10,000 wire to Braganca’s firm, the SEC said.  A day after that, while the court was conducting TRO proceedings, the firm received another $10,000 from Equitybuild’s investment vehicle, Equitybuild Finance LLC, according to the commission.  But during the hearing, Braganca noted to Judge Lee that she’d raised the issue of attorneys’ fees during the earlier TRO proceedings, and the motion he saw regarding her requested $20,000 is how he told her to approach the issue.

The case is U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission v. Equitybuild Inc. et al., case number 1:18-cv-05587, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

NJ Court: Attorneys Must Advise Clients of Billing Options in Fee-Shifting Litigation

August 30, 2018

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Michael Booth, “Lawyers Must Advise Clients of Other Options Before Billing Hourly on Fee-Shifting Case, Court Says,” reports that a New Jersey appeals court voided a retainer agreement between a lawyer and his longtime friend, saying he did not properly disclose hourly fees he would be charging for representing her in a discrimination case.  The three-judge Appellate Division panel, in a published ruling, said Somerville solo Brian Cige did not adequately explain the arrangement, which provided for an hourly billing rate and litigation costs, to his client, Lisa Balducci.

The panel said lawyers who wish to charge hourly fees for work on discrimination or other fee-shifting cases must explain to their clients that there are other competent counsel who will accept those cases on a contingency basis, and who also will advance any litigation costs.

“Ethically then, must an attorney whose fee for undertaking an LAD case that includes an hourly rate component explain both the consequences on a recovery and the ability of other competent counsel likely willing to undertake the same representation based on a fee without an hourly component?  We conclude the answer is yes,” Appellate Division Judge William Nugent said.

The lawsuit filed by Balducci claimed she never fully reviewed the retainer agreement offered by Cige but was shocked when she began receiving bills for hourly services and costs, which included a $1 fee for reviewing incoming emails and sending responses, the court said.  Balducci eventually fired Cige and hired another attorney to represent her and her son in a Law Against Discrimination claim.  The decision didn’t reveal the details of that matter,

Nugent, writing for the court, said a Somerset County Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone properly found that Cige violated his professional responsibility to explain the agreement’s material terms to Balducci so that she could reach an informed decision as to whether to retain him.  Thus the retainer agreement was void.  “The hearing recording in this case includes adequate, substantial, credible evidence support the court’s decision,” said Nugent.  Judges Carmen Alvarez and Richard Geiger joined in the ruling.  “There is no dearth of competent counsel attorneys willing to litigate LAD and other fee-shifting cases that do not include an hourly component.

Balducci retained Cige in September 2012 to represent her and her child in the LAD case.  Cige presented her with what he said was a standard retainer agreement stating he could charge up to $7,500 up front, plus $450 an hour.  Balducci signed the agreement despite having “concerns,” according to the decision.  Balducci began complaining when she began receiving bills from Cige for hourly services plus expenses.  He told Balducci to not worry about the bills, because he was using them for purposes of a future fee petition he would demand at the conclusion of what he believed was a successful case.

“We are friends,” Balducci, in depositions, quoted Cige as saying, according to the decision.  “I was at your wedding.  I would never do this to you.  Ignore that.  Don’t worry about.  It is standard info.”  Balducci also complained that she was devoting her time to preparing for depositions while Cige was away attending chess tournaments, the ruling said.  Balducci fired Cige after she complained that it would be impossible for her to advance tens of thousands of dollar for expert witnesses.  Balducci filed a lawsuit against Cige, and he filed a counterclaim seeking more than $286,000 in fees for work he already had done.

“The trial court properly found the agreement was unenforceable and void,” Nugent said.  “There is no dearth of competent, civic-minded attorneys willing to litigate LAD and other statutory fee-shifting cases under fee agreements that do not include an hourly component.  The number of such cases litigated in our trial courts and reported in the case law evidence this, as does—at least as to numbers—advertising on television and radio, in telephone books and newspapers, and on billboards and other media,” Nugent wrote, noting that Balducci’s current counsel in the LAD case is not charging hourly fees.

Fee Agreement Issues in Opioid Litigation in Some Texas Counties

August 23, 2018

A recent Forbes story by Daniel Fisher, “Lawyers for Texas Counties in Opioid Cases May Not Have Valid Contracts, reports that a number of Texas counties including Montgomery County, a sprawling suburb north of Houston, may have invalid contracts with their outside lawyers because they haven’t been approved by the Texas Comptroller as required under state law.  More than a dozen counties represented by the law firms Haley & Olson and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones filed suit without first obtaining the Comptroller’s approval for their contingency fee contracts.  Months later, those contracts still haven’t been approved, possibly putting the suits in peril.

In a 2012 decision involving similar litigation by counties over the mortgage crisis, a federal court stated the requirements under Texas law “must be satisfied before a Texas county can retain outside counsel on a contingency fee basis.”  In another decision that year, a Texas state court judge declared the contract between Harris County and its contingency fee lawyers void because it hadn’t been approved.

Texas passed extensive reforms to its rules on hiring outside lawyers starting in 1999, after private attorneys caused a political uproar by collecting $3.3 billion in fees for representing the state in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry.  Former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales ultimately went to prison for illegally attempting to divert $500 million of those fees to a friend.

The new rules in Texas included a maximum contingency fee of 35%, strict requirements for keeping time and expense records, and a hybrid method of calculating fees that includes a “base fee” determined by actual hours worked times a multiplier of up to four to reflect the risk of taking on the case.  The final fee charged to the government must be the lower of the percentage of the award or the base fee and multiplier, and the fee can only reflect work done by partners and employees of the contracting firms.

Texas legislators were concerned about the possibility of excessive fees and political payoffs in the wake of the scandals surrounding the tobacco litigation and Morales’ criminal trial, said Charles Silver, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and prominent legal affairs expert.  Most trial lawyers in Texas are Democrats and the governor at the time was George W. Bush, a Republican.  “The legislature was dominated by Bush and the Republicans, and they just didn’t want to be supporting plaintiff attorneys who were supporting the Democratic party,” Silver said.

Regardless of the motivating factors, comptroller approval and billing records are the law in Texas, and even considered public records.  Montgomery County’s lawyers seem to agree: The contract says they will comply with Section 2254.104(a) of the Texas Government Code, including maintaining “current and complete written time and expense records” that will be available to county or state officials “at any time upon request.”

Despite this requirement, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney John J. McKinney, in an Aug. 14 letter, said “no documents exist that are responsive” to a request for billing records.  It’s not surprising counties might balk at complying with the recordkeeping requirements of Section 2254, Silver said.  “Lawyers don’t like others knowing how much time and effort they’re expending, whether on the plaintiff or defense side,” he said.

The hours compiled to calculate the base fee could be an issue in opioid litigation, however.  Unlike many lawsuits in which a law firm represents a single government entity suing over a single claim, opioids law firms have bundled large numbers of municipal clients and are working closely with national law firms that control the federal multidistrict litigation in the court of U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in Ohio.

One sign of the cooperation among law firms is Montgomery County’s lawsuit, filed Dec. 13 in federal court in Houston.  It is an almost word-for-word copy of the lawsuit filed by three different law firms, including Dallas-based Simon Greenstone, on behalf of Bowie County more than two months before.

A close examination of the billing records might reveal how much time Montgomery County’s lawyers spent in the early stages of the litigation, and whether that is justified given evidence they used a borrowed complaint.  The other 12 counties might also want to compare their base fee calculations with each other to make sure their lawyers aren’t double-billing hours across the entire group.

Other Texas counties including Dallas and Harris have obtained Comptroller approval of their contracts.  And an attorney retained by Clay County (another client of Haley & Olson and Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison Jones) said they would submit the contract to the state during a January meeting when Clay County Commissioners Court approved hiring the firms. Clay County’s contract has not yet been approved.

The stakes for the counties could be high if defendant companies challenge the status of their representation.  When private lawyers representing several Texas counties attempted to assemble a statewide class action in litigation against Merscorp, a mortgage registry, the federal judge who examined Texas law said it wasn’t possible because each county needed the Comptroller’s approval before joining the class.  Under the law of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, so-called “opt-in” class actions aren’t allowed under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Texas judge who declared Harris County’s contract with private lawyers void nevertheless allowed the case to proceed because the complaint was also signed by the county attorney’s office. Montgomery County’s complaint is signed only by the private lawyers.

Law’s $1,000-Plus Hourly Rate Club

July 23, 2018

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Vanessa O’Connell, “Big Law’s $1,000-Plus an Hour Club,” reports that leading attorneys in the U.S. are asking as much as $1,250 an hour, significantly...

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