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Category: Fee Doctrine / Theory

Eleventh Circuit: No Added Attorney Fees for Defending Fees

April 12, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Nathan Hale, “No Added Atty Fees in Nationstar Case, 11th Circ. Says,” reports that a Florida woman who won a judgment against Nationstar Mortgage LLC for charging improper fees is not entitled under state law to collect appellate attorney fees for her counsel's work defending an initial attorney fees award in the case, the Eleventh Circuit ruled.  The federal appeals court backed a lower court's decision to deny Sara Alhassid's request for attorney fees covering Nationstar's appeal based on a finding that the benefit would be purely for her attorneys and that she has no obligation to pay them for this work.

The appeals panel said it agreed with the district court that the controlling case on the issue is the Second District of Florida's ruling in B & L Motors Inc. v. Bignotti.  In that case, the state appeals court found that if a plaintiff has no interest in a fee award because it would not affect her payment obligation to her attorneys, then the plaintiff may not receive a fee award under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, according to the opinion.

“B & L Motors is exceedingly clear that a prevailing plaintiff may receive fees under FDUTPA only if a 'fee award is found to be in the interests of the client and if the fee arrangement is found to have contemplated payment for that work,'” the Eleventh Circuit said.  “Because we do not lightly disregard binding, on-point decisions of intermediate state appellate courts, we hold that B & L Motors compels the denial of appellate attorneys’ fees in this case.”

Alhassid's counsel, Reuven T. Herssein of Herssein Law Group PA, said that his side intends to seek an en banc rehearing of the decision, which he said promotes meritless appeals by mortgage companies and other large institutions and has a chilling effect on plaintiffs who bring and litigate these cases.  "In light of this decision, plaintiffs attorneys will shy away from taking on these kind of cases since we won on the merits of the appeal and the appellate court’s decision means we are not paid for the successful result we obtained for our client in the appellate court," he said.

According to the opinion, Alhassid's attorneys had said that they “took this case on a contingency basis,” and the district court found that meant that any fees resulting from the appeal of the fee award would “inure solely to the benefit of plaintiff's attorneys and not to plaintiff herself.”

The dispute stems from Bank of America's decision to place Alhassid’s reverse mortgage in default for failure to pay flood insurance on her property.  After acquiring Alhassid’s mortgage and note in April 2013, Nationstar called her loan due and payable and started a foreclosure action on the property in January 2014, according to case records.  Alhassid filed the suit as a proposed class action against Bank of America NA and Nationstar in February 2014 and was joined by Sarah Drennen in August 2014.  The two women filed their third amended complaint in December 2014, bringing three breach-of-contract claims, a claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the FDUTPA claim and a claim of violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

They alleged the two companies charged improper fees, placed loans in default when borrowers did not pay those fees and then charged more unlawful fees after the defaults, according to the opinion.  The district court in Miami denied class certification in August 2015, finding that the nine class definitions didn’t show commonality and only individualized evidence could prove wrongdoing.  The claims against Bank of America were ultimately dismissed voluntarily, but Alhassid won summary judgment against Nationstar on all but the good-faith and fair-dealing claim, which the court found to be duplicative, the opinion said.

Alhassid was awarded $5,000 in actual damages and $1,000 in statutory damages under the FDCPA, according the opinion.  The district court also found that she was entitled to attorney fees as the prevailing party under the FDUTPA and awarded her $435,704 in fees.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the award on appeal.  The case is Alhassid v. Nationstar Mortgage LLC, case number 18-11985, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

US Supreme Court to Decide USPTO Attorney Fee Rule

March 5, 2019

A recent The Recorder story by Scott Graham, “Supreme Court Will Decide if USPTO Can Collect Legal Fees,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a dispute over attorneys fees between the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a company led by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.  Iancu v. NantKwest is an appeal from the PTO after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit refused en banc to award the office its fees in litigation with immunotherapy company NantKwest.  After being denied a patent, NantKwest initiated what’s known as a Section 145 proceeding in district court to try to force the PTO to issue it.  Section 145 of the Patent Act provides that “all the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant,” regardless of outcome.

NantKwest lost the suit, and the PTO moved for $78,592 in attorneys fees and $33,103 in expert fees.  The PTO did not seek attorneys fees for more than 100 years but says it changed its policy after the Supreme Court in 2012 broadened the kinds of evidence and discovery that can be introduced in 145 proceedings.  The agency argues that the expansive “all the expenses” language is broad enough to cover attorneys fees.  The Federal Circuit disagreed in a 7-4 en banc ruling.  Judge Kara Stoll wrote that the Supreme Court has generally applied the American Rule and allowed fee-shifting only when Congress explicitly provides for it.  “All the expenses” doesn’t meet that standard, she concluded.

The PTO and the Justice Department argued in their petition for cert that the Fourth Circuit has awarded fees in a Section 145 appeal.  The filing included U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt, who heads the Civil Division.  NantKwest is represented by an Irell & Manella team led by partner Morgan Chu.  “’Fees’ are never mentioned” in the statute, Chu wrote in opposition, “let alone ‘attorneys’ fees’ or any other equivalent that would suggest that such fees are recoupable.”

Section 145 proceedings are fairly rare, but two academics who follow Federal Circuit law said they weren’t entirely surprised the Supreme Court took the case.  Emory University law professor Timothy Holbrook said that, whenever the solicitor general’s office signs on to a PTO cert petition, the odds of the court granting cert go up.  Villanova University law professor Michael Risch said the close vote at the Federal Circuit could have gotten the court’s attention, and the justices might be on the lookout for some noncontroversial decisions to counter the potential blockbusters in the offing with the arrival of Brett Kavanaugh.

Risch also suggested the court might use the case to examine whether “expenses” should be narrowed to exclude not only attorneys’ fees but expert witness fees as well.  “Similarly, the law is unsettled about whether in-house counsel can even collect in fee-shifting cases,” he said via email.  “As far as I can tell, the Federal Circuit doesn’t even address that question (though the dissent does).”

Article: Fresh Takes on Seeking Costs and Fees Under Rule 45

February 22, 2019

A recent Pepper Hamilton blog post article by Donna Fisher, Matthew Hamilton, and Sandra Hamilton, “Fresh Takes on Seeking Costs and Fees Under Rule 45,” reports on fee-shifting incurred in responding to a Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 45 subpoena.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Recent case law reveals that courts vary widely in their approaches to shifting the costs and fees incurred in responding to a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 subpoena.  Some courts view shifting costs and fees as mandatory in situations where a nonparty is forced to bear “significant” costs.  Others may shift costs and fees only to the extent those costs are “unreasonable,” which is measured by (1) the nonparty’s size and economics, despite its lack of connection to the dispute, (2) defining “reasonable costs” so narrowly that the nonparty bears substantial costs or (3) eliminating attorneys’ fees from the cost-shifting calculation.  The relief a nonparty may be awarded may depend on factors that are not specifically identified in Rule 45 but that are nonetheless included in the court’s concept of fairness.  As the cases discussed below demonstrate, nonparties responding to Rule 45 discovery requests should consider the following best practices:

Know and understand the applicable jurisdiction’s rules pertaining to Rule 45’s protections. 

Be able to demonstrate that the non-party has attempted to respond to Rule 45 discovery in the most efficient manner available.

If possible, demonstrate that review for compliance with regulations or attorney-client privilege is consistent with any applicable protective order or local rule and, therefore, not just for the non-party’s benefit. 

In order to increase the likelihood of recovering costs of any motion practice, attempt to cooperate with the requesting party and demonstrate a willingness to resolve or mitigate the costs and the dispute.

The cases discussed below evaluate motions for costs and fees in two broad categories: (1) those incurred when litigating the scope of the subpoena itself and (2) those incurred in compliance.

Costs and Fees Incurred Litigating the Scope of the Subpoena Itself

The district court in In re Aggrenox Antitrust Litigation considered the motion of a nonparty, Gyma Laboratories of America, to recover $72,778.20 in costs and fees incurred in response to a Rule 45 subpoena from the direct purchaser plaintiffs.  Gyma objected to the requests as overbroad and asserted that production would be unduly burdensome.  At the hearing on cross-motions to compel and to shift costs and fees, the court expressed concern that Gyma had not made a record establishing the alleged difficulties in production, but directed that Gyma would be eligible for reimbursement of reasonable costs incurred.

In reviewing Gyma’s subsequent motion for costs and fees, the court reasoned that Rule 45 makes cost-shifting “mandatory in all instances in which a non-party incurs significant expense from compliance with a subpoena,” but that it did not require the requesting party to bear the entire cost of compliance.  Further, the court held that only “reasonable” costs are compensable under Rule 45 and that the moving party bears the burden of proof.  The court found that Gyma had not established that a reasonable client would use its “expensive” New York counsel to handle the subpoena, and further that costs and fees incurred prior to the date it provided an estimate of costs to the plaintiffs and the court were not fairly chargeable.

Moreover, the court found that many of the costs and fees were incurred in connection with Gyma’s efforts to resist compliance with the subpoena, which the court found was a unilateral “decision to litigate the subpoena zealously.”  Finding that Gyma was “notably intransigent and dilatory in its response,” and considering the admonition of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, that courts should “not endorse scorched earth tactics” or “hardball litigation strategy,” the district court denied Gyma’s motion for fees in bringing the motion, and awarded only $20,000 in reasonable costs and fees for compliance with the subpoena.

The court in Valcor Engineering Corp. v. Parker Hannifin Corp. considered the motion of non-party MEDAL, to shift the entire cost of production pursuant to a subpoena, $476,000, to the requesting party.  The court found that the costs and fees were objectively unreasonable, and that much of the cost resulted from MEDAL’s tactical decision to aggressively challenge every aspect of the subpoena, which led to two separate motions to compel.  Moreover, the court found that MEDAL demonstrated little interest in minimizing expenses or preventing further motion practice.  For example, after the court granted the first motion to compel, MEDAL withheld nearly 90 percent of the documents identified by search terms as non-responsive, without providing any explanation.  The court also found that MEDAL’s aggressive tactics tended to demonstrate that it was not a truly disinterested non-party, and that it had been intimately involved in the acts giving rise to the litigation.  Finding that MEDAL’s motion came “close to wielding the shield of Rule 45 as a sword,” the court denied its motion for cost-shifting.

By contrast, the court in Linglong Americas Inc. v. Horizon Tire Inc. granted, in full, a similar request by non-party GCR Tire & Service for costs and fees associated with a Rule 45 subpoena served by Horizon.  GCR objected to the scope of the subpoena, and its counsel spent several months negotiating with Horizon’s counsel to narrow the request.  GCR moved to recover its costs and fees, and Horizon objected to allocation of fees incurred in narrowing the scope of the subpoena.  Reviewing Rule 45 case law, including Aggrenox, the court reasoned that it was required to protect the non-party from significant, reasonable expenses incurred in compliance.  The court found that narrowing the subpoena took several months of work by GCR’s attorneys and that the charges were reasonable, particularly since GCR had already paid them.  The court further found that expenses incurred in litigating the fee dispute were reasonable and incurred in compliance with the subpoena.  Accordingly, the court awarded the full $24,567 sought for responding to the subpoena and another $15,338 in fees for filing the fee dispute.

Costs and Fees Incurred in Collection, Processing and Review

In Sands Harbor Marina Corp. v. Wells Fargo Insurance Services of Oregon, the plaintiffs alleged that EVMC Real Estate Consultants, Inc. and others conspiring with EVMC fraudulently induced the plaintiffs to pay advance loan commitment fees when, in fact, no financing was available.  Wells Fargo, the employer of one of the defendants, served a subpoena on Dogali Law Group, a nonparty law firm that had represented EVMC in connection with the loan transactions at issue.  Dogali withheld multiple documents on the basis of attorney-client privilege.  Several years later, the court ruled that a defendant law firm could not withhold documents on the basis of attorney-client privilege because no surviving entity had standing to invoke the privilege on EVMC’s behalf.  Wells Fargo then renewed and expanded its earlier subpoena to Dogali, seeking the withheld documents.  When Dogali argued that an electronic production would be time-consuming, Wells Fargo proposed to use its own vendors to reduce time and costs.  After unsuccessful negotiations about the payment of costs and fees for the production, the court ordered production of the previously withheld privileged documents, as well as all documents responsive to the expanded subpoena.  Dogali later filed a motion for costs and fees in the amount of $39,709.

Weighing the mandate of Rule 45, the court held that Dogali was entitled to an award of fees.  While the court generally agreed that the legal services rates charged were reasonable, it found that the legal time spent responding to the second subpoena and renewed subpoena included time for tasks that were unreasonable, such as time spent researching whether Dogali had standing to assert the attorney-client privilege, reviewing the documents for privilege, creating privilege logs for documents reviewed previously, and researching privilege and waiver issues.  In addition, the court held that time spent communicating with former partners, preparing file memoranda, and conferring with Wells Fargo’s counsel about costs and production was not reasonable.

Finally, the court looked at the attorney time spent researching and preparing the motion for costs as well as the paralegal time spent reviewing documents for production.  The court denied Dogali’s request for the costs of drafting and reviewing the application as unnecessary and excessive.  As to time billed for the paralegal and cost of production, the court noted Wells Fargo’s offer to allow Dogali to utilize its vendor and determined that “rather than explore a more efficient and economical approach for the production, [Dogali] opted to have [its] paralegal print each email individually and convert it into a pdf…[Wells Fargo] should not be required to bear the cost of [Dogali’s] unilateral decision to utilize a more time-consuming approach.”  After carving out costs and fees determined to be unreasonable, the court awarded Dogali fees and costs in the amount of $10,537.33.

In Nitsch v. Dreamworks Animation SKG Inc., the court determined that attorneys’ fees and costs associated with protecting the confidentiality of affected non-parties were reasonable and therefore compensable.  Non-party Croner Company, a consulting company that conducted annual compensation benchmarking, moved for reimbursement of costs incurred in responding to the plaintiffs’ subpoena, which sought survey data that Croner obtained from companies in the animation and visual effects industry over several years.  Before Croner responded to the subpoena, its counsel conferred with plaintiffs’ counsel, advised that it would seek reimbursement of costs, and provided an initial estimate of those costs.

Because all surveys Croner conducted were subject to confidentiality provisions, Croner notified affected clients about the subpoena and devised a form of production to produce the information for the plaintiffs but preserve the anonymity of the survey participants.  The process was more time-consuming than expected, and Croner sought costs, including outside attorneys’ fees, in the amount of $67,787.55.  The plaintiffs objected on the basis that the request was unreasonable, arguing that Croner had produced only 16 documents and that the requested sum was grossly over-inflated and unreasonable.

Citing Rule 45(d)(2)(B)(ii)’s requirement that a court must protect a person who is neither a party nor a party’s officer from “significant expense resulting from compliance,” the court stated that the “shifting of significant expenses is mandatory, but the analysis is not mechanical; neither the Federal Rules nor the Ninth Circuit has defined ‘significant expenses.’”  The court then discussed whether costs tied to Croner’s confidentiality concerns were compensable, as “resulting from compliance” with a subpoena.

The court noted that reimbursable fees include those incurred in connection with legal hurdles or impediments to production, such as ensuring that production does not violate federal law or foreign legal impediments, but reimbursable fees do not include fees incurred for services for the non-party’s sole benefit and peace of mind.  The plaintiffs argued that Croner’s efforts to protect client confidentiality were purely business interests that inured solely to Croner’s benefit and that the protective order was sufficient to address Croner’s confidentiality issues.  The court disagreed, finding that the efforts to address confidentiality issues were reasonable and compensable.

Significantly, the court held that Croner’s efforts were consistent with the protective order entered into by the parties, stating that: Croner’s efforts to protect client confidentiality were not made to be obstreperous, but were the result of compliance with the subpoena.  Indeed, if any of the parties in this case were asked to produce a non-party’s confidential information, the stipulated protective order requires them to do what Croner did.

In Steward Health Care System LLC v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, however, the court reached the opposite conclusion when the non-party, Nemzoff & Company LLC, requested reimbursement for costs and fees associated with complying with a subpoena from Blue Cross, which included a review for relevancy and privilege.  Nemzoff initially refused to comply due to the costs involved, resulting in a court order compelling compliance and a warning that Nemzoff should minimize expense as it may bear the cost.  The court explained that only “reasonable expenses” incurred — and not all expenses — may be shifted.

The court held that attorneys’ fees have traditionally been awarded as sanctions in the most egregious circumstances or when the requested fees were for work that benefited only the requesting party.  Since it was not presented with any argument for sanctions, the court found that Nemzoff’s use of its own attorneys to review the documents for relevancy, confidentiality and privilege matters was only for Nemzoff’s benefit, and conferred an unwanted benefit upon Blue Cross.  Nemzoff’s attorneys were protecting its own interests.  As such, the court denied Nemzoff’s request.

While cost-shifting remains within the discretion of the court, courts have consistently been more likely to award costs and fees when a non-party has worked in good faith to narrow the scope of a subpoena and responded in an efficient fashion.  To the contrary, when a non-party attempts to obstruct the discovery process, courts have refused to shift costs and fees.  As demonstrated by the case law, the potential for cost-shifting must necessarily turn on the particular facts and circumstances of each case.

Donna Fisher is a member of the health sciences department at Pepper Hamilton LLP.  Matthew Hamilton is a member of the health sciences department at and partner at the firm.  Sandra Adams is a discovery attorney at the firm.  For a full list of end notes, visit https://www.pepperlaw.com/publications/fresh-takes-on-seeking-costs-and-fees-under-rule-45-2019-02-13/

Mass. Supreme Court Sets Standard for Attorney Fees in Wage Suits

February 19, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Chris Villani, “Mass. Top Court Sets Standard for Atty Fees in Wage Suits,” reports that an employee suing an employer for unpaid wages can recover attorneys' fees when winning a "favorable settlement," even when a court does not sign off on the deal, according to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling with potentially wide-ranging implications.  The appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling and sided with a pair of former employees of a Boston dry cleaner who claimed they were denied about $28,000 owed to them in wages and overtime and ultimately settled for more than 70 percent of that figure.  The top court said the so-called catalyst test should apply when assessing whether to tack on attorneys' fees.

Under this standard, fee-shifting can occur if a lawsuit is a "necessary and important factor" in causing a defendant to fork over a "material portion" of relief requested by a plaintiff through a settlement agreement, even if there is no judicial involvement in the accord.  The bar, which is lower than federal fee-shifting standard, is necessary to avoid needlessly long and costly litigation, the top court said.

"The catalyst test best promotes the purposes of fee-shifting statutes by encouraging attorneys to take cases under such statutes to correct unlawful conduct and rewarding them accordingly when they do so," Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote in the unanimous opinion.  "The catalyst test also promotes the prompt settlement of meritorious cases, avoiding the need for protracted litigation, superfluous process, or unnecessary court involvement solely to 'prevail' in a formalistic sense to ensure an award of attorney's fees and costs."

The dry cleaner, Sturgis Cleaners Inc., had sought to enforce the federal standard set in 2001 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckhannon Board and Care Home v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, which said a party is required to win an enforceable judgment or a consent decree before being eligible to be the "prevailing party" and having the chance to collect attorneys' fees.  But the Massachusetts high court disagreed, seeing the catalyst test as a better method because it provides two crucial incentives related to all wage litigation: giving attorneys a reason to take cases where individual employees claim to have been denied wages, and adding, the opinion said, "a powerful disincentive for employers to withhold the wages in the first place."  "If such settlements did not result in the obligation to pay attorney's fees, there would be a disincentive to bring such cases in the first place, thereby leaving other unlawful conduct unaddressed and uncorrected," Justice Kafker wrote.

The former employees, Belky Ferman and Veronica Guillen, filed suit in 2014.  After two years of litigation, including the entry and lifting of a default judgment against the dry cleaner, the case settled through mediation for $20,500.  The attorney fee issue was left to the court, and a Suffolk County Superior Court judge, applying the catalyst test, ruled in favor of the employees.  "The catalyst test thus recognizes that successful litigation may be reflected in settlements as well as court rulings," Justice Kafker wrote, "as settlements are often 'the products of pressure exerted by [a] lawsuit.'"

The employees’ case was presented to the high court by Liz Soltan, a Harvard Law School student arguing as a student practitioner with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.  She told Law360 the court's decision might help combat wage theft, which studies have suggested may be problem costing workers in the Commonwealth $700 million annually.  “Wage theft is such an epidemic in Massachusetts, especially among low income and immigrant workers, this is the kind of ruling we needed for access to justice,” Soltan said.  “I am hoping it'll mean more lawyers are going to feel secure in taking these cases.”

The case is Belky Ferman & another vs. Sturgis Cleaners Inc. & another, case number 12602, in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Revisiting the American Rule: Fee-Shifting Strategies for NY Litigators

February 11, 2019

A recent the New York Law Journal article by Robert S. Friedman, “Revisiting the American Rule: Fee-Shifting Strategies for NY Litigators,” examines fee-shifting options in the context of the American Rule in which parties presumptively pay their own fees regardless of the outcome, including the offer of judgment rules under FRCP 68 and CPLR 3220.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

What is the definition of “success” in a business litigation?  This is the first question a litigator should ask their client in the initial meeting.  In some cases, there are business goals that go beyond dollars and cents.  However, in most cases, businesses will define success by comparing the aggregate cost to either the total recovery (if a plaintiff) or the reasonable exposure (if a defendant).  The expense of modern day litigation mandates that a business litigator not only provide a forecast for various stages of a commercial case but also consider proactive strategies for managing expenses.  Many companies also seek modified fee arrangements including flat fees, capped fees and structures that provide an incentive for both success on the merits and in controlling expenses.  The growth of litigation funding has added more spice to the recipe.  In this environment, fee-shifting strategies take on added importance and should be considered early and often in appropriate cases.

This article examines fee-shifting options in the context of the American Rule in which parties presumptively pay their own fees regardless of the outcome, including the offer of judgment rules under FRCP 68 and CPLR 3220.  Many of these opportunities are misunderstood and underutilized.  In doing this analysis, it is helpful to begin with an overview of the historical background for fee-shifting in the United States.

Historical Background

The “American Rule” provides that each side in a litigation bears its own attorney fees in the absence of a statute or contractual prevailing party provision.  This is in contrast to the “English Rule” where the loser pays.  There is much commentary as to which system is better. See, e.g., Steven Baicker-McKee, The Award of E-Discovery Costs to the Prevailing Party: The Analog Solution in a Digital World, 63 Clev. St. L. Rev. at 420; Robert G. Bone, To Encourage Settlement: Rule 68, Offers of Judgment, and the History of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 102 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1561, 1597-99 (2008).  Proponents of the American Rule claim that a loser-pays regime will disincentivize plaintiffs from bringing legitimate claims.  The counter is that the American Rule provides no push for parties to take a reasonable settlement position and serves to perpetuate frivolous litigation.

The American Rule has a long tradition in U.S. jurisprudence dating back to 1796. Arcambel v. Wiseman, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 306 (1796).  In the many years since, lawmakers and commercial actors have chipped away at the Rule.  Federal and state legislators have enacted statutes that provide for varying degrees of fee-shifting.  There are approximately 200 federal statutes and 2,000 state statutes that provide for some form of fee shifting.  Steven Baicker-McKee, The Award of E-Discovery Costs to the Prevailing Party: The Analog Solution in a Digital World, 63 Clev. St. L. Rev. at 419 & n.153-54.  In addition, at least nine states have offer of judgment rules that, contrary to FRCP 68, specifically allow for the recovery of attorney fees.  New Jersey is one of these states.  New York is not.

Strategic Options Under Federal and State Law

Federal Litigation: FRCP 68 provides that a defendant in a lawsuit may make an offer of judgement to the plaintiff; if the plaintiff accepts this offer, the court will automatically enter judgment against the defendant according to the offer’s terms.  However, if the plaintiff declines the offer, plaintiff is liable for costs that the defendant incurs during subsequent litigation if the plaintiff fails to obtain a judgment that is more favorable than the offer of judgement.  It is well-established that costs do not include attorney fees under Rule 68 and a party achieving a result below an offer of judgment under Rule 68 is therefore, not entitled to attorney fees.  See, e.g., Delta Air Lines v. August, 450 U.S. 346, 352 (1981).  The result is that Rule 68 is rarely used by civil defendants because attorney fees are usually the most significant expense and the upside of an offer of judgment is therefore limited.

There remain opportunities, however, to use Rule 68 strategically.  In Marek v. Chesney, 473 U.S. 1 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court held that, while attorney fees are not recoverable as part of costs, where there is statutory fee-shifting, a Rule 68 offer of judgment can establish the baseline for a successful litigant otherwise entitled to legal fees.  Marek v. Chesney 473 U.S. 1, 11 (1985).  Thus, for example, a civil defendant can stop the clock on statutory attorney fees by making an offer of judgment early in a litigation.  With the proliferation of statutory attorney fee provisions, this can be a powerful tool for defendants’ counsel in cases where the attorney fee award is the prime driver of the litigation.  See also Stancyzk v. City of New York, 752 F.3d 273, 281 (2d Cir. 2014).

Moreover, the Second Circuit has held that where there is a contractual claim for attorney fees, and the plaintiff accepts an offer of judgment that provides for dismissal of all claims that could have been made arising out of the contract, any claim for attorney fees is dismissed as well, and the question of who is the prevailing party under the contractual fee shifting agreement becomes moot.  See Steiner v. Lewmar, 816 F.3d 26, 34 (2d Cir. 2016).

Another possible tool for litigants arises out of Local Civil Rule 54.2 of the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, which provides that the court may by motion or on its own initiative require a party to file a bond covering costs or risk dismissal of the action.  Courts have held that costs in this context includes attorney fees authorized by statute or authorized by a contractual provision.  See Kensington Int’l v. Republic of Congo, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4331 (S.D.N.Y. March 21, 2005) (Preska, J.) (citing cases).  One court has suggested that if the party moving to require a Local Civil Rule 54.2 bond from the other side likewise offers to post its own bond in an equal amount, both including attorney fees, and the other side rejects the proposal, then the attorney fees provision would not be enforceable against the moving party from that point on. See RBFC One v. Zeeks, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19148, *8 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 2, 2005).  Accordingly, a party may use Local Rule 54.2 to establish a baseline for success and attempt to push a recalcitrant or unreasonable adversary to put its money where its mouth is.

The New York State Analog. CPLR 3220 is the New York cousin of Rule 68.  The legislative history seems to indicate an intent to exclude attorney fees as recoverable under 3220.  In the initial draft of the CPLR during the overhaul from the Civil Practice Act in 1957, the provision for an offer to liquidate damages conditionally provided that “[i]f the damages awarded [claimant] do not exceed the sum offered, he shall pay the reasonable expenses incurred by his opponent in preparing for the trial of the question of damages, including reasonable attorney’s fees.  The expenses shall be determined by the court.” (emphasis added).  See Advisory Committee on Practice and Procedure of the Temporary Commission of the Courts, First Preliminary Report 109 (1957).  The fact that the express mention of the recovery of attorney fees was removed from the final language of the CPLR, not just with regard to the CPLR 3220, but also tenders and offers of compromise under CPLR 3219 and CPLR 3221, respectively, weighs against the argument that “expenses” under CPLR 3220 includes reasonable attorney fees.  See also Weinstein Korn and Miller, 7 New York Civil Practice: CPLR 3220.03 (2018).  In addition, New York courts are historically strong adherents to the American Rule. 214 Wall Street Associates v. Medical Arts-Huntington Realty, 99 A.D.3d 988 (2d Dep’t 2012) internal citations omitted.

On the other hand, there is case law supporting the inclusion of attorney fees under CPLR 3220.  In Abreu v. Barkin and Associates Realty, 115 A.D.3d 624 (1st Dep’t 2014), the First Department directed the trial court to hold a hearing on the amount of the defendant’s legal fees after a 3220 offer was made.  The Court stated that “Susan Barkin is entitled to a hearing on the amount of her individual fees, if any, under CPLR 3220.  Defendant made an offer to liquidate.  Plaintiff then withdrew her claims against Barkin in a stipulation on the record at trial.  Having failed to obtain a more favorable judgment than the offer, plaintiff became liable for costs and fees.”  The Second Department, however, has held the opposite. Saul v. Cahan, 153 A.D.3d 947, 953 (App. Div. 2017).  Accordingly, there remains an open question and apparent conflict between the First and Second Departments which may require clarification from the Court of Appeals.

Notwithstanding the above, litigators may be able to use CPLR 3220 when there is a contractual prevailing party provision.  In McMahan v. McMahan, 53 Misc. 3d 1030, 1036 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co. 2016), the court held that the term “costs” in CPLR 3220 includes attorney fees that are properly recoverable in the action by agreement of the parties.  The court further held that when attorney fees are recoverable by agreement, and the offer of judgment is silent as to the treatment of attorney fees, the offer must be deemed to include attorney fees as an element of costs.  Id. at 1036.  The import of this decision in the ability of parties to create a baseline to determine the prevailing party remains to be seen.

Conclusion

The American Rule has an honored history in New York.  Still, there are opportunities for creative litigators facing unreasonable adversaries to implement strategies which put attorney fees in play.  These strategies can lead to faster, more efficient and just resolutions.

Robert S. Friedman is a partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton and heads the New York litigation group.  Bradley Rank, the managing attorney of the New York office, and Aditya Mitra, a law clerk awaiting admission, contributed to the preparation of this article.  Reprinted with permission from the “February 8, 2019” edition of the “New York Law Journal”© 2019 ALM Media Properties, LLC.  All rights reserved.  Further duplication without permission is prohibited. ALMReprints.com877-257-3382 - reprints@alm.com.