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Category: Fee Doctrine / Theory

Judge: Reed Smith Can’t Sue for Share of Attorney Fees in Class Action

November 21, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Judge Says Reed Smith Can’t Sue for $7M Slice of SAC Capital Fees,reports that a Manhattan federal judge ruled that Reed Smith can't sue former co-counsel Wohl & Fruchter in state court for a chunk of class action attorney fees.  A federal judge has shot down Reed Smith’s attempt to sue its former co-counsel law firm Wohl & Fruchter, in state court for its share of fees from a class action against SAC Capital Advisors, finding Reed Smith was “seeking a mulligan.”

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York ruled that she had misgivings about Wohl’s conduct—including its settling a case amid the expulsion of Reed Smith from the plaintiffs’ counsel group—but said Reed Smith, which had served as class co-counsel for a brief period in September 2016, missed an opportunity to seek its fees in the right venue.

“The sequence of events surrounding Reed Smith’s retention and subsequent termination certainly raises questions regarding Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] motivations.  But Reed Smith was given an opportunity to fully raise those questions, and it failed to do so,” Buchwald said, enjoining Reed Smith’s lawsuit in New York state court against the Wohl firm.

In the underlying class action case against hedge fund SAC Capital and other defendants alleging insider trading of securities, plaintiffs attorneys in May were awarded $27 million in attorney fees after obtaining a $135 million settlement.  About a month after the fee award, Reed Smith, which submitted no fee application in federal court, sued attorney Ethan Wohl and his four-attorney law firm in New York state court arguing it was entitled to fees for its work under tortious interference and unjust enrichment claims.  The firm was seeking at least $6.75 million.

Reed Smith claimed that Wohl & Fruchter, when looking for co-counsel, realized that it was a small firm “overmatched by the resources available to the SAC defendants,” represented by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Goodwin Procter and Bracewell.  After Reed Smith was retained, the firm said, it immediately committed significant resources to the SAC action.  And soon after Reed Smith filed notices of appearance in the case, the SAC defendants reached out to Wohl for settlement discussions, Reed Smith said.  “Reed Smith’s appearance was the obvious catalyst for the settlement discussions, which proved to be successful,” the firm claims.

But Reed Smith asserts that when counsel for the SAC defendants at Paul Weiss mused about a possible conflict involving Reed Smith before Southern District Judge John Koeltl, the Wohl firm saw an opportunity to eliminate Reed Smith and “intentionally exploited Paul Weiss’ statements.” Reed Smith formally withdrew from the SAC case in December 2016.

In her Nov. 16 ruling, Buchwald rejected Reed Smith’s jurisdictional arguments.  “We have jurisdiction over the fee dispute between Reed Smith on the one hand and Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter] on the other, and our jurisdiction is exclusive,” Buchwald said, adding that Reed Smith’s presentation of a tort-based theory of recovery “does not change the reality that some quantum of attorneys’ fees is the ultimate recovery sought.”

Buchwald also considered collateral estoppel issues. “The amount of fees to which [Wohl & Fruchter] was entitled was an issue that was litigated, and Judge Koeltl determined that a $27 million award was ‘fair and reasonable,’” she said.  Analyzing the case broadly, Buchwald said she found “little about either side’s conduct that is sympathetic.”

“The rapid succession of events—Reed Smith’s entry into the case, the settlement, and Reed Smith’s dismissal—naturally raises questions as to Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] actions and motivations, and these questions are amplified when the weakness of [Wohl & Fruchter's] conflicts arguments are considered,” she said.  “The record is hardly inconsistent with Reed Smith’s theory that it was terminated by [Wohl & Fruchter's] so that [Wohl & Fruchter] could obtain a larger share of attorneys’ fees.”

However, Reed Smith missed an opportunity to submit an application for fees, she noted.  “We find little equity in allowing Reed Smith to take a mulligan, through duplicative litigation, on an issue that had been squarely teed up,” Buchwald said.

Reed Smith’s explanation for why it failed to do so—that it did not want to interfere with approval of the settlement—“holds little water,” Buchwald said, noting that Reed Smith’s declaration supporting its withdrawal from the federal case detailed its grievances with Wohl and raised questions about the propriety of the settlement.

While the judge said she was enjoining Reed Smith from prosecuting the state court lawsuit “and the implicit application for fees contained therein,” she denied Wohl’s request to reject Reed Smith’s application for attorney fees in federal court.  “Reed Smith has never made a direct application for attorneys’ fees in this court, and there accordingly exists no such application for us to deny,” Buchwald said.

Jones Day Seeks Fees from EEOC After “Baseless Suit”

November 13, 2017

A recent NLJ story by Erin Mulvaney, “Jones Day Seeks $446K in Fees From EEOC After ‘Baseless Suit’ Goes Nowhere” reports that Jones Day lawyers are seeking hundreds of thousands in legal fees from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying federal regulators unfairly targeted CVS Pharmacy Inc. for alleged employment abuses that no judge sustained.  Eric Dreiband, the lead partner for CVS in the litigation, is the Trump administration's pick to lead the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The EEOC sued CVS in 2014 over a severance agreement the agency said limited the rights of employees to file complaints.  The EEOC called the severance agreement “overly broad” and argued it was part of a CVS “pattern or practice of resistance” to restrict the civil rights of the company’s employees.  The agency lost its case, EEOC v. CVS Pharmacy, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and in its appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  The appeals court concluded the agency too broadly interpreted its enforcement powers.

The dispute is back in the Seventh Circuit as Jones Day--led by partner Eric Dreiband—seeks attorney fees for the work the firm did for CVS.  The district court said CVS was entitled to legal fees.  Dreiband and the Jones Day team want $446,339 for 250 hours of work.

The dispute provides a glimpse at the billing practices at Jones Day.  In court filings, Dreiband requested legal fees for himself and Jones Day associates.  Dreiband identified his hourly rate at $560.  Ninth-year associate Jacob Roth, a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, billed at $475 per hour; Nikki McArthur at $275 per hour; and staff attorney Adria Villar at $175 per hour.

“These rates are significantly less than what Jones Day actually billed, and was paid, for the firm’s work on this matter,” Dreiband said in a declaration.  “These rates are also lower than what Jones Day typically bills for these timekeepers on other similar matters.”

Dreiband argued in the request for legal fees that the EEOC “concocted what it admits to be a novel interpretation of Title VII that would give the agency vast power” to challenge employment practices that it doesn’t like.  He argued the EEOC exceeded its authority in filing the suit—refusing any conciliation with CVS—and issuing a press release announcing the case.

“The EEOC instead rushed to file a baseless lawsuit, and blasted CVS with an inflammatory press release falsely accusing the company of interfering with Title VII rights,” Dreiband told the appeals court.  EEOC lawyers, responding to the claims, said the agency had reason to believe it would prevail and that the fees awarded were an abuse of direction.

“Although the EEOC did not prevail, this theory—which was consistent with the statutory language and this court’s precedents—was entirely plausible, and the EEOC had no reason to believe with any certainty that it would not succeed,” EEOC lawyers told the Seventh Circuit.

John Darrah, the federal trial judge who said Jones Day was entitled to fees, concluded the EEOC had violated its own internal regulations in the case against CVS.  “The EEOC’s own regulations require the agency to use informal methods of eliminating an unlawful employment practice where it has reasonable cause to believe that such a practice has occurred or is occurring,” Darrah wrote in his ruling.

CA Court: No Fee Multiplier for “Fees for Fees” in Private Attorney General Action

November 8, 2017

A recent Met News story, “Enhancement Based on ‘Risk’ Inapplicable in Seeking ‘Fees on Fees’ Award—C.A.” reports that an attorney fee award in connection with work done in securing fees in a private attorney general action would logically not be enhanced based on “risk,” the Court of Appeal for this district held.  The decision came in a case in which trial court ordered the state to pay $836,211.25 in attorney fees to lawyers for work they did in defending previous attorney fee awards in the case, a case which stretches back to the filing of a complaint on June 20, 1978, and includes a decision by the California Supreme Court.  It was alleged in the class action that the state unconstitutionally collected higher vehicle license fees and use taxes on vehicles purchased out of state.

The state appealed the latest fee awards, divided among three firms and one sole practitioner, now located in Houston; the sole practitioner and plaintiff, Patrick G. Woosley, cross appealed.  Broken down, the awards were: $14,332.50 to Jones, Bell, Abbott, Fleming & Fitzgerald L.L.P, $80,010 to the Gansinger Firm, $15,600 to the Law Offices of John F. Busetti, and $70,000 to Woosley.

Writing for Div. Five, Justice Lamar Baker said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephanie M. Bowick did not abuse her discretion in making the awards.  With respect to the enhancements Woolsey sought in connection with the risk a lawyer in a private attorney general action takes that no fees will be ordered, should there be a lack of success, and based on a delay in payment, Baker wrote:

“[W]e conclude the trial court’s decision not to enhance Woosley’s fee award for risk and delay was not error.  By the time Plaintiffs’ Counsel applied for the attorney fees at issue here, their entitlement to an award of some amount was all but inevitable (notwithstanding the State’s arguments to the contrary) based on their success in the underlying litigation and their earlier fee award…. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to enhance Woosley’s award for risk.”

He went on to say that while a small enhancement based on delay in payment is permissible, being akin to interest, the award is discretionary.  Woosley contested deductions Bowick made from the amount he requested, but Baker declared:  “The court’s method and results were both sound.”

Bowick rebuffed the state’s contention that the attorneys were entitled to no further fees.  She cited the California Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Serrano v. Unruh (Serrano IV) for the proposition if a party has received attorney fees in a private attorney general action, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, entitlement to fees in connection with gaining fees follows.

In that decision, the high court said: “We conclude that, absent circumstances rendering an award unjust, the fee should ordinarily include compensation for all hours reasonably spent, including those relating solely to the fee.”

Woosley initially scored a victory in the trial court.  Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester M. Olson awarded $13.7 million to class counsel and $1 million in fees to Woosley “for services rendered as class representative.”  The state appealed from a judgment in favor of the two classes Olson certified, and Woosley appealed from the denial of fees for his legal services.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment for the classes and reversed the denial of fees for Woosley’s legal work.

The California Supreme Court in 1992 affirmed and reversed the Court of Appeal.  Then-Chief Justice Ronald George (now retired) wrote: “[W]e hold the state violated the commerce clause of the United States Constitution by imposing vehicle license fees and use taxes on vehicles originally sold outside California that were higher than the fees and taxes charged on similar vehicles first sold within the state….

“[W]e hold the class claim filed in this case was not authorized by statute. That claim is valid only as to Woosley in his individual capacity.  Although our ruling does not automatically preclude continuation of this suit as a class action, the class may include only persons who timely filed valid claims for refunds.”  George noted that under the judgment as it stood, refunds, according to the state’s reckoning, would amount to more than $1 billion.  He also noted that the state had ceased its discriminatory practice on 1976.

The chief justice added: “Because our opinion will result in a substantial reduction in the amount of the judgment, the trial court shall reconsider the amount of its award of attorney fees to counsel for the class and the amount of its award to Woosley ‘as fees for services rendered as class representative.’”

On remand, there came a $23 million attorney fee award, with costs, which the Court of Appeal in 2010 reversed because consideration had not given “any consideration to the lack of success.” In 2014, the trial court pared the award to $2.8 million, and the lawyers appealed.

The case is Woosley v. State of California, B275402.

Novel Fee Award Factors in $5M Fee Request

September 5, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Matt Chiappardi, “C&J Energy Blasts $5M Legal Fee Bid in Merger Suit,” reports that C&J Energy Services Inc. blasted a $5 million fee request from a shareholder who unsuccessfully challenged a $2.9 billion merger with Nabors Industries Ltd. in Delaware Chancery Court, arguing the suit did not result in any corporate benefit and the bid would be squelched anyway due to C&J’s prior bankruptcy.

The suing shareholder — The City of Miami General Employees’ and Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust, whose case was thrown out by the Chancery Court a year ago — pushed for the fee award in July, arguing its lawsuit spurred a $250 million reduction in the cash price C&J paid Nabors as part of the deal, a “massive cash reduction” that benefited C&J stockholders.

But C&J counters that the lawsuit had no effect, arguing the action was essentially dormant when the price reduction took place and was eventually tossed by the Chancery Court in a decision upheld by the Delaware Supreme Court in March.

“There is absolutely no support for plaintiff’s theory that its lawsuit spooked C&J’s directors into asking for the price reduction to whitewash their alleged breaches of fiduciary duties,” C&J said in its objection to the proposed fee award.  “During the entire time that the C&J board was pursuing the price reduction, plaintiff’s lawsuit was on life support.”  C&J also argues that the Chancery Court need not even consider the merits of the fee bid, contending that it is essentially a prepetition claim in its bankruptcy case initiated in 2016 in the Southern District of Texas.

The fee request is a claim from 2015, and the suing shareholder never filed a proof of claim in the Chapter 11 case, only a statement and reservation of rights that it was not objecting to the company’s plan because the exit strategy wouldn’t affect the action against nondebtor directors in Delaware, C&J said in its objection.

But the party from whom the suing shareholder is seeking the fee award in the Chancery Court is the debtor, which has since emerged from Chapter 11 in January, C&J argues.  C&J completed its $2.9 billion merger with Nabors in 2015, with Nabors receiving about $688 million in cash and retaining 55 percent of the equity in the newly formed company.  The overall cost of the deal to C&J was scaled back by $250 million at one point for reasons that were said to reflect energy market weakening and a need to shore up stockholder support, according to court records.

The case is City of Miami General Employees' and Sanitation Employees' Retirement Trust v. C&J Energy Services Inc. et al., case number 9980, in the Delaware Court of Chancery.

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.