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Category: Scholarship on Fees

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).

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.

Why ‘Class Action Attorney Fees’ Are Such Dirty Words

July 18, 2017

A recent Law 360 article by Daniel R. Karon, “Why ‘Class Action Attorney Fees’ Are Such Dirty Words, expresses thoughts and offers insight over the public disdain for attorney fees in class action litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

“Look at this. It’s one of those class action settlement notices.”

“I can never understand those things. What’s it say?” 

“I don’t know. But whatever it says, I’m sure those plaintiffs lawyers are making out.”

How many times have we heard this discussion?  Hell, how many times have we had this discussion?  For eons, the notion that plaintiffs class action lawyers deserve payment — sometimes handsome — for their services has drawn ridicule and scorn.

But why?  Why do so many people insist that payment to plaintiffs class action lawyers deserves unrivaled scrutiny — scrutiny reserved for no other profession even when these lawyers have achieved good results?

Does the answer lie in the gauche television spots that advertise for mass tort clients?  No, those are just irksome.  Is the answer found in the manufactured law firm studies that purport to show that plaintiffs class action lawyers make gobs of money at their clients’ expense?  No, those are just lies.

Then what’s driving the public’s disdain?  Disdain that has spilled into our courts and routinely affects attorneys’ fee requests at final approval.  What has gotten people so riled up that the first thing they look for in class action settlement notices is the attorneys’ fee provision, never mind that these notices provide their readers a benefit that they didn’t have moments earlier?

When you boil it down, the issue really isn’t plaintiffs class action lawyers getting paid.  Everybody deserves to get paid for their work.  Defense lawyers deserve to get paid for their work.  Judges deserve to get paid for their work.  Other professionals, like doctors, engineers and accountants, deserve to get paid for their work.

Turning to corporate America, certainly no one would question that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg deserve to get paid for the work that they do.  Because when you do a job and when you add value, you deserve to get paid.  Just not plaintiffs class action lawyers.

Presently, I have a class action lawsuit pending against a health club chain over wages for group fitness instructors.  I also have a class action case against a health insurer over administrative contracts with cities, counties and school districts, where vital community programs and services are affected.  What I do not have is a class action case against Subway for failing to provide customers 12 inches of sandwich, despite the store’s advertisement that it would.  Nor do I have a case against Starbucks because its 10-ounce iced coffee drinks are slightly less than 10 ounces, since, after all, Starbucks needs to leave room for the ice that makes its drinks iced in the first place.

My cases are sensible.  They involve real clients.  And they strive to solve my real clients’ real problems.  Easily, Subway and Starbucks don’t fit that bill.  Those were “lawyers’ cases.”  They were intended to do but one thing — make plaintiffs counsel money.  No sensible person can fairly say that if I win my cases — if I spend thousands of hours, risk hundreds of thousands of my own dollars and forego other fee-paying opportunities — I don’t deserve to make a respectable fee.

So back to my question: What’s driving the public’s disdain for plaintiffs class action lawyers getting paid?  Actually, I answered this question when I remarked that “when you add value, you deserve to get paid.”  Because it’s not about moving papers and exchanging capital.  It’s about making a difference.  It’s about adding value.

I suspect that no one questioned class counsel’s impressive payday in the breast implant litigation.  There, attorneys recovered $3.4 billion for women who suffered autoimmune disease from defective silicone breast implants.  I also doubt anyone honestly believed that plaintiffs counsel didn’t earn their fee in the Enron securities case.  That case settled for $7.2 billion and compensated shareholders whose stock became worthless when the company collapsed.

But when 1 million owners of defective Ford trucks received the opportunity to claim coupons worth $300 or $500 toward the purchase of a new vehicle while plaintiffs lawyers took home $25 million in fees, that was a problem.  (Sounds an awful lot like Subway and Starbucks, doesn’t it?)

No one can deny the age-old maxim that risk deserves reward.  Without risk-taking plaintiffs lawyers — lawyers who put everything on the line for what they believe in — there would be no defense lawyers and corporate cheaters would run amuck, ravaging consumers and victimizing well-behaving corporations.

But no one should expect plaintiffs lawyers to risk their families’ comfort and security for the same wages as these lawyers could make performing hourly work.  Anyone who thinks different is either delusional or professionally jealous, though that jealousy tends to dissipate at the specter of no direct deposit every two weeks or at losing class certification after having spent four years and half a million dollars of your own money pursuing something you believed in.

Considering all this, it’s little wonder that in Amchem Products v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court, when centering on small recoveries, expressed that “[t]he policy at the very core of the class action mechanism is to overcome the problem that small recoveries do not provide the incentive for any individual to bring a solo action prosecuting his or her rights,” and that “[a] class action solves this problem by aggregating the relatively paltry potential recoveries into something worth someone’s (usually an attorney’s) labor.”

It’s not the class action system that’s defective.  That system is thoughtful, sensible and well intentioned.  It’s the system’s all too frequent manipulation by reckless plaintiffs lawyers and their defense colleagues’ complicity in supporting senseless settlements that’s the problem.

And when considering defense counsel’s insistence that their clients have instructed them to settle lawyers’ cases, the easiest response is for them simply to resist plaintiffs counsel’s demands for outlandish fees and to let the judge decide.  After all, it’s unethical to negotiate attorneys’ fees until the parties have settled anyway.

Stupid class action lawsuits filed by feckless lawyers are a disgrace.  They are a tax on society.  They torture Rule 23’s purpose, which is to help people on a mass basis, not hurt them.  But as destructive as bad class actions are, good class actions are that essential.

So the next time you wince at a class action settlement notice’s description of attorneys’ fees, ask yourself whether you’re troubled by the lawyers’ right to get paid or by the remedy that these lawyers obtained as their basis for doing so.  I think you’ll be surprised at how your perception has changed.

Daniel R. Karon is a class action attorney at Karon LLC in Cleveland, Ohio and a Law360 guest contributor.  He chairs the American Bar Association’s National Institute on Class Actions and teaches complex litigation at Columbia Law School.

NALFA Offers Certificate in Reasonable Attorney Fees

May 30, 2017

NALFA is the nation's leading CLE provider of events and programs on attorney fee and legal billing topics.  Since 2008, NALFA has hosted 20 different events and programs on attorney fee and legal billing matters.  Hundreds of attorneys and other professionals from across the U.S. have registered and participated in these programs.  Our faculty has included some of the nation's top attorney fee experts, scholars of attorney fee jurisprudence, and sitting federal judges.

NALFA is now offering a Certificate in Reasonable Attorney Fees for registered guests of multiple programs.  Attorneys who register for 4 or more programs within a year will earn the Certificate in Reasonable Attorney Fees.  This is the nation’s first and only certification of its kind.

“Attorney fee issues have become a substantive area of law,” said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  “This certification is an excellent way for attorneys to show clients and courts they're accredited in reasonable attorney fees.  Attorneys who earn this certification are highly knowledgeable in areas such as attorney fee ethics, fee agreements, fee entitlement, fee award factors, and fee disputes.” Jesse said.

For more on NALFA CLE and professional development programs, visit http://www.thenalfa.org/CLE-Programs/.

Question: When Is a $3 Million Attorney Fee Award Painful?

April 19, 2017

Answer:  When your fee request was $25 million higher.

And so it was in In Re: Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, pending in federal court in San Francisco.  The case arose, in the court’s words, from VW’s “deliberate use of a defeat device – software designed to cheat emissions tests and deceive federal and state regulators – in nearly 600,000 Volkswagens- and Audi-branded turbocharged direct injection diesel engine vehicles sold in the United States.” 

Here’s how the software worked, per the court:  the “defeat device” would sense when the vehicles were being tested and would then produce regulation-compliant results.  But when the vehicles were driven under normal circumstances, they’d use a less effective emissions control system.  “Only by installing the defeat device on its vehicles was Volkswagen able to obtain” the requisite governmental approvals “for its 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engine vehicles,” even though those vehicles actually emitted “nitrogen oxides at a factor of up to 40 times over the permitted limit.”

Franchise dealers of VW-branded vehicles sued VW, claiming they were damaged by this “emissions scandal.”  Class certification was sought, and a settlement was reached, encompassing a nationwide class consisting of “all authorized Volkswagen dealers in the United States who, on September 18, 2015, operated a Volkswagen branded dealership pursuant to a valid Volkswagen Dealer Agreement.”  Under the settlement, VW was required to pay $1.19 billion in cash and provide various non-cash benefits to the class.

All told, a good deal for the class.  As the court noted, the settlement “had multiple cash and non-cash components, and … ultimately will provide franchise dealer class members with a recovery of nearly all of their losses attributable to Volkswagen’s disclosure of its use of a defeat device.” 

High fives in plaintiffs’ camp!  Crack open the Veuve Clicquot! 

Class counsel then moved for attorneys’ fees, stating in their motion that their “intense negotiations with Volkswagen led to the second largest class action settlement in automotive case history … and likely one of the top 20 largest class settlements in history in any arena.  In fact, the over $2.1 million average payment to Franchise Dealer Class Members may be the highest average payment to members of a class in any class action settlement.” 

They asked the court to award them “$28.56 million in attorneys’ fees, inclusive of costs.”  And they described their request – which represented, they said, “a fee of 2.0% of the constructive settlement fund of $1.39 billion” – as a “historically miniscule fee” which was “unquestionably fair, reasonable and appropriate compensation in relation to the exceptional results achieved for the” class.  “This remarkably small request,” they declared, “is likely the second-smallest fee amount ever requested in a large common fund case.”

So why did the district court cut their requested fee by nearly ninety percent? 

Because it found that under “the unique circumstances leading to the Settlement,” the “lodestar method, as opposed to the percentage method, is the appropriate method for determining fees,” and the lodestar amount was far lower than the amount they’d requested in their fee application. 

Under the “lodestar method,” fees are calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by reasonable hourly rates.  Computing fees by this method tends to yield lower fee awards than does the percentage method, especially in cases like this one where the settlement fund is large.

The court found that using the percentage method in this case “would overcompensate” class counsel “for its work.”  Class counsel, it reasoned, “did not expend significant additional time procuring the Settlement, nor did it undertake significant additional risk, given Volkswagen’s incentive to settle quickly.”

What does that mean, “significant additional time” and “significant additional risk?”  And why did VW have an “incentive to settle quickly?”

Well, as it happens, before settling the franchise dealer case, VW had settled another emissions-related case; that one between VW, on one hand, and consumers, dealers, securities plaintiffs and government agencies, on the other.  That case settled for $10.033 billion, and class counsel in that one were awarded $167 million in fees. 

That case, in other words, was the main event.  Given that the franchise dealer settlement followed on the heels of that larger settlement, the court reasoned that the former “flowed naturally and necessarily” from the latter.  It calculated class counsels’ lodestar sum in the franchise dealer case as being “only $1.48 million,” meaning that their requested $28.56 million fee “would be a 19x lodestar multiple.”  That didn’t fly.  But a 2x multiplier did, given the risks class counsel assumed in the litigation, and so class counsel were awarded $2,954,455 in fees for work performed relating to that settlement, plus $87,538 in costs. 

And so class counsels’ fee request was mightily reduced by the court.  But they could still take solace in the praise their efforts elicited from the court.  Class counsel “achieved a great result for the franchise dealer class members, even in the face of uncertain risk and litigation length.” “The result” they “achieved is excellent.”  Words like those endure long after the fees have evaporated.

Wouldn’t you say?

The case is In Re: Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, United States District Court, Northern District of California, MDL No. 2672 CRB (JSC), and the decision was rendered on April 12, 2017.

This article, “Question: When Is a $3 Million Attorney Fee Award Painful?”, was written by Jeremy Gilman, a partner at Benesch based in Cleveland.  He has been litigating complex business cases for both plaintiffs and defendants nationwide for the past 34 years.  He is a prolific writer on legal topics, and his fiction has been nominated for a national literary prize.  He is also a musician whose first album is due out this summer.  This article was posted with permission.

Five Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses

April 4, 2017

A recent The Recorder article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses,” address ADR clauses in fee agreements.  This article was posted with permission.  The...

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When Someone Else Pays the Legal Bills

March 7, 2017

A recent CEBblog article by Julie Brook, “When Someone Else Is Paying Your Fees,” writes about when a third party pays some of all of your legal fees in California.  This article was posted with...

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