September 13, 2019
A recent Law 360 story by Jeannie O’Sullivan, “Novartis Whistleblower Attys Slam ‘Unjust’ $1.4M Fee Award,” reports that Webber McGill LLC urged a New Jersey state court to redo the $1.4 million in counsel fees it awarded the firm and a solo attorney for their representation of a former Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. executive in her whistleblower lawsuit, arguing that the court overlooked binding precedent and critical facts in arriving at the “manifestly unjust” sum.
The Hanover-based firm, which had sought more than $3 million for its representation of Min Amy Guo, invoked the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1995 holding in Szczepanski v. Newcomb Medical Center that counsel fee awards should be determined independently of the fee agreement between counsel and client. But the court factored in that very agreement in calculating the award, according to Webber McGill's reconsideration motion.
The award also ran afoul of another high court ruling from that same year, Rendine v. Pantzer, in which the justices held that counsel fee awards should be based on current rates rather than the prevailing rate at the time services were rendered, the motion said. “In short, plaintiff believes the order yields manifestly unjust results and plaintiff respectfully requests that the court remedy those injustices,” the motion said.
The award, handed down Aug. 9 by Morris County Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi, was based on hourly rates of $350 and $300, respectively, for name partners James K. Webber and Douglas J. McGill, $250 for firm member Michael J. Reynolds and $200 for firm counsel Christena A. Lambrianakos, the motion said. Morristown, New Jersey-based solo attorney Richard J. Murray, who also represented Guo, was awarded based on a $450 hourly rate.
Webber McGill went on to blast the “inequities” between the firm’s award and fees won by the defendants’ counsel for Guo's misconduct during the trial. The Novartis attorneys won awards based on hourly rates of $395 for John B. McCusker of McCusker Anselmi Rosen & Carvelli PC and $390 for Patricia Prezioso of Nukk-Freeman & Cerra PC. Webber McGill took on a higher risk of nonpayment because Guo is a one-time client, whereas Novartis is an institutional client for McCusker Anselmi and thus generates “reliability and volume” for that firm, the motion said.
Further, the court undervalued the contributions the individual Webber McGill attorneys made, according to the motion. Webber has more experience in employment law than Prezioso, and McGill is a “skilled and experienced litigator” who was an “integral part of the winning team,” the motion said. Reynolds was “uniquely helpful” to the case in terms of his pharmaceutical industry compliance knowledge, and Lambrianakos’ work was “absolutely necessary and invaluable,” according to the motion.
The court also contravened Rendine with respect to Murray because it based his hourly rate of $450 on a previous case, whereas he should have been awarded based on the prevailing hourly rate of $525, the motion said. “The solution to the court’s errors with respect to plaintiff’s counsel’s rates is to review the record on the fee application and follow the dictates of Rendine and Szczepanski to determine the appropriate market rates for the Webber McGill attorneys as they ought to be compensated today,” the motion said. Lastly, Webber McGill decried the court’s “draconian” reduction of McGill’s and Reynolds’ hours by 42% and 35%, respectively, saying the cuts weren’t justified by the record.