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Category: Fee Award Factors

In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees

August 21, 2017

A recent Corporate Counsel article by Daniel K. Wiig, “In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees,” writes about attorney fee entitlement for in-house counsel work.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When weighing his post-Senate career options, then-U.S. Sen. Howard "Buck" McKeon rejected an offer from a prominent law firm, opting not to "live his life in six-minute increments."  Indeed, it is with fair certainty to state a top reason lawyers in private practice transition to in-house is to escape the billable hour.  And while the imminent death of the billable hour may have been highly exaggerated (again and again), it remains the predominate metric for private-practice attorneys handling commercial work to track their time and collect fees.

Numerous reports suggest the in-house lawyer is "rising," with companies opting to retain more and more legal work within their law departments, and decreasing the amount of work they disseminate to outside counsel.  Sources cite various reasons from cost to the intimate knowledge in-house lawyers possess regarding their employer vis-à-vis outside counsel.  Whatever the genesis, it reasons that in-house lawyers morphing into the role traditionally held by outside lawyers should assume all such components of the role, which, when possible, can include recovering attorney fees for actual legal work performed, as noted in Video Cinema Films v. Cable News Network, (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2003), (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2004), and other federal and state courts.

Recovering attorney fees is that extra win for the victorious litigant, whether provided by statute or governed by contract.  It leaves the client's bank account intact (at least partially) and gives the prevailing attorney additional gloating rights.  For the in-house lawyer, recovering attorney fees can also occasionally turn the legal department from a cost center to a quasi-profit center.  In-house lawyers can and should collect attorney fees.

To be clear, recovering attorney fees is not available for in-house lawyers functioning in the traditional role of overseeing outside counsel's work.  As noted in Kevin RA v. Orange Village, (N.D. Ohio May 4, 2017), a court will not award fees to in-house lawyers that are redundant, i.e., those which reflect work performed by outside counsel.  Indeed, when in-house counsel is the advisee of litigation status rather than drafter of the motion or attends the settlement conference as one with authority to settle rather than to advocate more advantageous settlement terms, she functions as the client rather than lawyer, of which attorney fee are unavailable.

Unlike their counterparts in private practice, in-house counsel do not have set billing rates, although an exception may exist if internal policies permit the legal department to invoice the department that generated the legal matter.  Even in such a situation, as with law firm billing rates, the actual fees/rates are considered by the court but not determinative in awarding fees, as noted in Tallitsch v. Child Support Services, 926 P2d. 143 (Colo. App. 1996).  In determining what constitutes an appropriate and reasonable attorney fee award, courts frequently apply the "reasonably presumptive fee" or the "lodestar" method.  Under the lodestar method, as explained in Earth Flag v. Alamo Flag, 154 F.Supp.2d 663 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), fees are determined by "multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate."

Reasonableness is a question of fact for the trial court.  In determining a reasonable hourly rate, federal courts look to those reflected in the federal district in which they sit, while state courts consider the prevailing rates in their respective city and geographical area.  Courts will also consider other factors such as the complexity of the case, the level of expertise required to litigate the matter, and the fees clients in similar situations would be willing to pay outside counsel in determining the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  Determining whether the tasks performed by the in-house lawyer were reasonable is left to the court's discretion.

Recognizing legal departments do not necessary operate in lockstep fashion as a law firm, courts will consider the "blended" rate in the lodestar calculation.  Here, a court will combine or "blend" the reasonable rates for associates, partners, counsel and paralegals in their locale to devise the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  The premise is in-house lawyers generally take on less defined roles in litigating a matter than their counterparts in private practice, performing a combination of litigation tasks that may be more clearly delineated among law firm staff.

In order to successfully receive an award of attorney fees, the in-house lawyer must maintain a record akin to a law firm's billing sheet of her time spent on the matter, as reflected in Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 34 F.3d 1148 (2d Cir. 1994).  Consequently, an excel spreadsheet, or similar document, enumerating the time and task, with as much detail as possible, is required to sustain a court's scrutiny in looking for tasks that were "excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary," as noted in Clayton v. Steinagal, (D. Utah Dec. 19, 2012).  Moreover, the in-house attorneys who worked on the matter must execute affidavits attesting to the accuracy of their time records, and include the same in their moving papers.

As the legal profession changes and corporate legal departments retain more of their work, in-house should take advantage of statutory or contractual attorney fees provisions, notably for the litigation they handle internally.  In so doing, the in-house lawyer may find a number of benefits, such as approval to commence litigation that they may have otherwise shied away from because of the possibility to recoup attorney fees and the benefit of essentially obtaining payment for the legal work performed.

Daniel K. Wiig is in-house counsel to Municipal Credit Union in New York, where he assists in the day-to-day management of the legal affairs of the nearly $3 billion financial institution.  He is also an adjunct law professor at St. John's University School of Law.  Wiig successfully moved for in-house attorney fees in Municipal Credit Union v. Queens Auto Mall, 126 F. Supp. 3d 290 (E.D.N.Y. 2015).

Seventh Circuit Cuts Fee Award in Half

August 18, 2017

A recent NLJ story by Amanda Bronstad, “Fees in Class Action Over Moldy Washing Machines Nearly Halved,” reports that a federal appeals court has slashed plaintiffs' attorney fees by nearly half in a class action settlement over defective washing machines — but the firms could have taken a bigger hit.  A much bigger hit.

The opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reduced the fees in a 2015 settlement from $4.8 million to $2.7 million.  The suit alleged that front-loading washing machines made by Whirlpool Corp. and sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 2004 to 2006 had a defect in their central control units and grew mold inside them.  Sears estimated that the settlement, which resolved just the claims over the control units in Kenmore and Whirlpool brands, was worth about $900,000.

The Seventh Circuit found a federal magistrate judge's reasoning "questionable" when she boosted the award 1.75 times what lawyers charged for their work.  "The judge's reasoning was that the case was unusually complex and had served the public interest and that the attorneys had obtained an especially favorable settlement for the class," wrote Judge Richard Posner.  "The district court, comparing the hourly rates sought by class counsel with the complexity of their work, concluded that for the most part the case wasn't very complex — it was just about whether or not Sears had sold defective washing machines.  This conclusion leaves us puzzled about the court's decision nevertheless to allow a multiplier."

What the Seventh Circuit did not do, however, is find any problem awarding fees greater than the benefits to class members, despite two of its own precedents in 2014 cautioning courts to presume that such fees are unreasonable.  Defense attorneys insisted that the fee award disregarded those precedents — Pearson v. NBTY and Redman v. RadioShack — and that the plaintiffs' attorneys should get no more than $900,000 given that 95 percent of the class won't get anything.

Yet such a presumption, Posner clarified, wasn't "irrebuttable."  He noted the "extensive time and effort that class counsel had devoted to a difficult case against a powerful corporation entitled them to a fee in excess of the benefits of the class."  But three times what class members got?  The attorneys should get what they billed for — "no more, no less," Posner wrote, remanding with directions to award $2.7 million.

Plaintiffs' attorneys, meanwhile, spent much of their appeal brief focused on the Seventh Circuit's 2015 ruling in In re Southwest Airlines Voucher Litigation, which awarded $1.6 million in fees in a coupon settlement.  But Posner's opinion never mentioned that ruling.  Sears and Whirlpool were represented by Timothy Bishop, a partner at Mayer Brown in Chicago.  In an email, both companies praised the Seventh Circuit's decision to reduce "the plaintiffs' lawyers' excessive and unreasonable fee by more than 43 percent."

Steven Schwartz of Chimicles & Tikellis in Haverford, Pennsylvania, did not respond to a request for comment.  His firm sought fees alongside five others, including Carey, Danis & Lowe in St. Louis, San Francisco's Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and New York's Seeger Weiss.

The class actions were filed in 2006.  In 2012, the Seventh Circuit certified two classes of customers in a ruling written by Posner that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case in light of its ruling in Comcast v. Behrend. Posner reaffirmed the certification ruling in 2013.  Separate claims over mold against were transferred to multidistrict litigation in the Northern District of Ohio, where a federal jury issued a defense verdict in 2014.  In that case, the lawyers got $14.75 million in counsel fees and costs.

After U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Rowland of the Northern District of Illinois approved the central unit settlement last year, the attorneys sought $6 million in fees.  They claimed their lodestar — the amount they actually billed — was $3.25 million and that they deserved a 1.85 multiplier to account for their efforts in the case.

In a 55-page opinion, Rowland reduced their lodestar to $2.7 million after finding issues with some of their billing records, but multiplied the amount by 1.75 due to the novelty and complexity of the case, the success achieved and the advancement of a public interest.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this protracted nine-year litigation has concerned fees and little else," Bishop wrote in the brief for Sears and Whirlpool appealing her fee award.  "The approach taken by the district court would encourage prolonged litigation to drive up class counsel's hours with no added value to the class."

But it was the defendants, Schwartz wrote in the plaintiffs' response brief, who drove up those hours.  "The only reason why it took a decade of litigation up through the eve of trial to get the cases settled was defendants' refusal to even discuss settlement," he wrote.

The case is In re: Sears, Roebuck and Co Front-Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-3554.

A New Standard for Attorneys’ Fee Awards in Copyright Cases

August 4, 2017

A recent article in Law 360 by Barry I. Slotnick and Tal E. Dickstein of Loeb & Loeb LLP, “A New Standard for Attorneys’ Fee Awards in Copyright Cases,” reports on the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees in copyright litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc. on the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees in copyright litigation.  Because copyright litigation is often expensive, and the opportunity (or risk) of an attorneys’ fees award plays a significant role in deciding whether to bring (or settle) a case, the decision was much anticipated among the media and entertainment industry as well as the copyright bar.  While the court’s decision — which directs lower courts to give significant weight to a losing party’s objectively unreasonable litigation position — is likely to deter some amount of meritless copyright litigation, the inability to collect a fee award from an impecunious litigant sometimes requires resort to other methods of deterrence.

The Need for a Uniform Standard

The Supreme Court last addressed the standard for shifting attorneys’ fees under Section 505 of the Copyright Act in 1994.  The court in Fogarty v. Fantasy Inc. held that courts must treat prevailing defendants the same as prevailing plaintiffs when deciding whether to issue an attorneys' fee award, but it offered little guidance on the standard to be applied in making that decision.  In the absence of a definitive standard, the lower courts have looked to a footnote in Fogarty that identified several nonexclusive factors used in deciding whether to issue a fee award: frivolous, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both factual and legal), and the need for compensation and deterrence.

Without clear direction from the Supreme Court as to how these factors were to be weighed, the courts of appeal differed widely in how they considered attorneys' fee motions.  Some adopted a presumption in favor of fee awards, others endorsed a case-by-case determination, focusing on the four Fogarty factors, while others permit district courts to look to as many as a dozen other factors.  The Second Circuit, for its part, focused primarily on the reasonableness of the losing party’s position.

Kirtsaeng’s Journeys to the Supreme Court

When the Supreme Court granted certiorari, it punched Supap Kirtsaeng’s ticket for a second trip to the high court.  His first visit stemmed from a textbook arbitrage business that he launched while studying at Cornell University.  Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign-edition textbooks in his native Thailand, shipped them to the United States, and resold them for a profit.  When the textbook publisher, John Wiley, sued for copyright infringement in the Southern District of New York, Kirtsaeng relied on the first-sale doctrine, which permits the resale of copies of copyrighted works.  The trouble for Kirtsaeng was that most courts, including the Second Circuit, had held that the first-sale doctrine did not apply to copies made outside the United States.  Kirtsaeng litigated the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, which handed him a 6-3 victory, ruling that the first sale doctrine does, in fact, apply to copies made outside the United States.

Although he prevailed in the Supreme Court, the district court denied Kirtsaeng’s attempt to recover his attorneys’ fees — including more than $2 million spent on the Supreme Court appeal — finding that none of the other Fogerty factors outweighed John Wiley’s reasonable litigation position.  The Second Circuit affirmed, and Kirtsaeng again successfully petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

Objective Unreasonableness Given Significant Weight

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a unanimous court, first rejected Kirtsaeng’s contention that fees should be awarded where a lawsuit has clarified the boundaries of the Copyright Act.  That standard was both unworkable, because the ramifications of a case might not be fully known until far in the future, and unlikely to encourage meritorious litigation, because a fee award would be tied more to a litigant’s appetite for risk rather than the reasonableness of its litigation position.

Instead, the court held that substantial weight should be given to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s litigation position.  That approach would best promote the purposes of the Copyright Act — encouraging creative expression, while also allowing others to build on existing works.  An emphasis on objective reasonableness would, according to the court, “encourage parties with strong legal positions to stand on their rights and deters those with weak ones from proceeding with litigation.”

While objective (un)reasonableness will play an outsized role in deciding wither to shift fees, the court explained that district courts must still consider fee motions on a case-by-case basis, considering all of the circumstances.  The court identified two scenarios in particular that could warrant fees despite the losing party’s reasonable position — where the loser engaged in litigation misconduct, or where a party engaged in repeated instances of infringement or overaggressive assertions of copyright claims.

Other Methods of Combating Frivolous Copyright Litigation

In many cases, the Supreme Court’s decision will no doubt discourage meritless litigation.  A plaintiff whose copyright ownership is questionable, or who has scant evidence of infringement, is unlikely to file suit, out of fear that it will have to pay the defendants’ attorneys’ fees.  And a defendant who has no colorable defenses is unlikely to put up much of a fight, lest it be forced to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, on top of a damages award and the costs of any injunctive relief.

But this is true only where a party has something to lose from an adverse fee award.  All too often, it seems, individuals with little or no resources bring frivolous infringement claims against well-known celebrity or entertainment-industry defendants, in the hopes of extracting a nuisance settlement, or of surviving to a jury trial where they rely more on sympathy than evidence.  For these impecunious plaintiffs — who are often assisted by contingency counsel — the risk of an attorneys’ fee award is not an effective deterrent, because they are essentially judgment-proof.

One method of combating this type of frivolous litigation is to seek sanctions against the plaintiffs’ counsel under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which prohibits filings that lack evidentiary or legal support, or under or Title 28, Section 1927 of the US Code, which targets unreasonable and vexatious litigation.  Unlike an attorneys’ fee award under Section 505 of the Copyright Act, which can be issued only against a party, a sanction under Rule 11 or Section 1927 can be imposed on counsel.  And while courts are sometimes reluctant to sanction lawyers for fear of chilling meritorious litigation, in truly egregious cases, seeking sanctions against counsel may be the only way to avoid having to litigate meritless copyright infringement claims.

Barry Slotnick and Tal Dickstein are partners in Loeb & Loeb's New York office.

$12.5M Fee Award in Gilead-Merck Patent Infringement Action

July 31, 2017

A recent the American Lawyer story by Scott Flaherty, “Fish & Richardson Set to Receive $12.5M Fee Award in Gilead-Merck Infringement Battle,” reports that Fish & Richardson and client Gilead Sciences Inc. are slated to receive nearly $14 million in legal fees after exposing patent misconduct by Merck & Co. Inc. that helped Gilead shake off a $200 million infringement verdict.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose, California, awarded Gilead a little more than $12.5 million for Fish & Richardson's work on the patent infringement case through June 30, 2016.  The judge allotted an additional $1.37 million to Deloitte Review Services for document review and production it did.

The ultimate fee amount is short of the $15.5 million Gilead requested in the case, which involved infringement allegations against Gilead related to patents for the Hepatitis C medications Sovaldi and Harvoni.  After a jury issued Merck a $200 million infringement verdict last year, Freeman scrapped it based on an "unclean hands" defense pushed by Fish & Richardson on Gilead's behalf.  "The court thus finds the … amount to be reasonable based on the amount at stake in this case, the complexity of the issues, and the results Fish has achieved for Gilead," Freeman wrote in her decision.

The fee ruling comes after a March 2016 trial in the patent infringement case, which alleged that Merck and a collaborator, Ionis Pharmaceuticals Inc., pioneered a predecessor to sofosbuvir, a key ingredient in Gilead's hepatitis C drugs, in the early 2000s.  A jury sided with Merck at trial, finding Merck deserved $200 million in damages based on Gilead's patent infringement.

After the verdict, however, Freeman handed down a June 2016 decision that sharply criticized the conduct of a former in-house patent prosecutor at Merck and blasted that company's outside lawyers at Williams & Connolly for tainting a trial in the patent infringement case. 

The judge found that the in-house patent prosecutor, Philippe Durette, lied about breaching a nondisclosure agreement related to a compound that became sofosbuvir.  And Freeman knocked Merck's lawyers for failing to alert her until the trial started that Durette would be recanting parts of his deposition testimony in the case.

Although Freeman has come down on Gilead's side with respect to fees in the California federal lawsuit, the company still faces significant potential liability in a separate patent infringement case in Delaware federal court over the same hepatitis C drugs.

Attorneys Earn $18.5M in Fees in Dole Securities Action

July 21, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Dole Shareholders Garner $18.5M in Fees in Securities Cases, reports that attorneys for a Dole Food Co. stockholder class secured an $18.5 million fee award as part of a $74 million settlement in a Delaware federal securities suit targeting insider efforts that artificially depressed Dole’s stock price in 2013.

The fee, along with about $694,000 for expenses and costs, went to lead counsel Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP and Entwistle & Cappucci LLP and liaison counsel Friedlander & Gorris LLP, in a case focused on damage to those who relinquished their shares before Dole sold the company into private ownership for $1.6 billion.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark said the uncontested settlement terms were both fair and reasonable, and reflected the significant risk taken by attorneys in pursuing damages to former investors unable to receive shares of a separate, $101 million Chancery Court award in a related Dole stockholder case.

“The claims on behalf of persons who sold stock before the closing were going to be released, but they were not going to receive any consideration,” class attorney Vincent R. Cappucci of Entwistle & Cappucci said.  He added later that suit required “tremendous work by experts in analytics.”

In August 2015, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster found that Dole CEO David Murdock and General Counsel C. Michael Carter breached their fiduciary duties to shareholders in connection with the take-private deal.  Both were said by Vice Chancellor Laster to have acted in “intentional bad faith,” with Carter alleged to have engaged in fraud and the two found jointly and severally liable for $148.19 million in damages.  The award covered both holders of stock in the run-up to the go-private closing and parties who launched a separate suit challenging Dole’s appraised value.

In the August opinion, Vice Chancellor Laster concluded that Murdock and Carter’s effort to drive down Dole’s share price and their alleged misrepresentations during negotiations reduced the company deal price by 16.9 percent, or $2.74 per share.

Judge Stark said the subsequent $74 million federal court settlement was large “not only in the abstract, but more importantly it represents a substantial percentage of what the plaintiffs believe is the maximum possible recovery — right around a third of the best scenario in the plaintiffs' estimate.”

Class attorney Katherine M. Sinderson of Bernstein Litowitz said interest also will be applied to both the fee award and the class payment, which will be distributed proportionally to investors.  The $639,000 in legal expenses approved by the court, Sinderson said, were well below the $1.3 million possible for the case.

Judge Stark said the case involved many complex issues, some novel or unprecedented, as well as statute of limitation concerns.  The complications in the contingent fee case created a significant risk that the stockholders and attorneys “may have had nothing had the case proceeded all the way through trial and an inevitable appeal,” the judge said.

The case is San Antonio Fire and Police Pension Fund et al. v. Dole Food Co. Inc. et al., case number 1:15-cv-01140, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.