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Category: Fee Statute

Federal Circuit Wants Reasons for Mediator’s Fee Denial in EEOC Case

April 1, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Braden Campbell, “Fed. Circ. Wants Reasons for EEOC Mediator’s Fee Denial,” reports that the Federal Circuit told an arbitrator to reconsider denying fees to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mediator whose firing for a violent outburst the arbitrator reversed, directing him to explain his ultimate decision.  The panel said arbitrator John Dorsey should have explained why he denied mediator David Hamilton's request for fees while granting his request for reinstatement, saying it couldn't do its duty of deciding whether Hamilton abused his discretion with the fee denial because he didn't share his reasoning.

"In some instances, the matter may be so clear that the failure of the adjudicator to provide an explanation for its action will be harmless error, so that this court can enter judgment in accordance with the ruling below despite the absence of an explanation for that ruling," the panel said.  "But this is not such a case."

The EEOC fired Hamilton in 2017 following a mediation in which he "suddenly began to act erratically," hurling racial epithets and "engaging in physical violence" toward the parties in the dispute, according to the ruling.  Hamilton filed a grievance through his union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3599, and argued for reinstatement in arbitration.  Dorsey attributed the outburst to a one-time "major physical and/or mental breakdown" and ordered Hamilton be reinstated with back pay.  But Dorsey denied the union's request for arbitration costs and fees without explanation, and, after he reaffirmed his ruling following the EEOC's request for reconsideration, the union appealed to the Federal Circuit.

The panel frames the union as making three arguments on appeal: that Dorsey had to award fees "under the applicable standards," that he deviated from his merits decision by denying fees, and that his failure to explain the denial means it must be reversed.  The panel dispensed with the union's first two arguments briefly, saying the first amounted to a request that it find Dorsey abused his discretion "regardless of any findings," and that arbitrators can consider other factors than those behind their merits ruling in denying fees.  The panel said the third argument "has more force," discussing it in detail.

The panel said appeals ordinarily require that the adjudicator explain their reasoning "even on a matter as to which the adjudicator is given broad deference" because the reviewing body otherwise can't say whether the ruling was well reasoned.  This case illustrates why such reasoning "is typically critical to judicial review," the panel said.

The panel noted the EEOC argued in its bid for reconsideration that Dorsey rightly denied fees for two reasons: awarding fees would have been unjust, and its collective bargaining agreement with Local 3599 holds that parties in arbitration bear "fees and expenses" equally.  The EEOC later backed off the second argument, which omitted that this portion of the CBA spoke to arbitrators' fees only.  But because Dorsey did not explain his reasoning, it's unclear whether that argument factored into his fee decision, the panel said.

"Because the EEOC invited the arbitrator to deny fees on that ground, the agency is not well situated to argue that the arbitrator must have denied fees based on a valid ground, rather than on the invalid ground that the agency itself proposed," the panel said.

Barbara Hutchinson, who represents the union, said the panel's ruling "is consistent with the law, which requires an arbitrator state the findings and conclusions when ruling on a request for attorney fees and costs in arbitration cases appealable to MSPB." 

Supreme Court: ‘Full Costs’ Doesn’t Mean All Imaginable Costs

March 6, 2019

A recent NLJ story by Scott Graham, “’Full Costs’ Doesn’t Mean All Imaginable Costs, Supreme Court Rules,” reports that a copyright statute that permits an award of “full costs” does not include litigation-related expenses such as expert witness fees, jury consulting fees and e-discovery.  A unanimous Supreme Court led by Justice Brett Kavanaugh held that the phrase “full costs” in Section 505 of the Copyright Act means all of the costs specifically enumerated in the general cost shifting statutes, 28 USC Sections 1821 and 1920, such as transcripts and fees for court-appointed experts and interpreters.

“A ‘full moon’ means the moon, not Mars,” Kavanaugh wrote in Rimini Street v. Oracle.  “A ‘full breakfast’ means breakfast, not lunch.  A ‘full season ticket plan’ means tickets, not hot dogs.  So too, the term ‘full costs’ means costs, not other expenses.”  The decisions resolves a circuit split against the Ninth Circuit in favor of the Eleventh and Eighth circuits, and will cost Oracle Corp. approximately $12.8 million that had been awarded in its copyright battle with Rimini Street.

Kirkland & Ellis partner Paul Clement had argued that the U.S. government as amicus curiae was talking out of both sides of its mouth: placing limits on “full” in Oracle’s case, but arguing for an expansive version of the phrase “all the expenses” in a case involving U.S. Patent and Trademark Office attorneys fees.  The high court granted cert in the PTO case, Iancu v. NantKwest.  Clement had also argued that Congress’ use of “full” had no meaning if it was limited to the enumerated costs.  But interpreting full more broadly, Kavanaugh wrote, would then make the next sentence—which says “the court may also award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs”—superfluous.  “In order to avoid some redundancy, Oracle’s interpretation would create other redundancy,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The award stems from a 2015 jury verdict that found Rimini infringed Oracle’s copyright and violated anti-hacking statutes while performing third-party maintenance for Oracle enterprise software.  Jurors awarded $35.6 million for infringement and $14.4 million for violations of California computer hacking statutes.  U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks of Nevada tacked on $28.5 million in attorney fees, and about $17 million in costs—including the $12.8 million in dispute—and $22 million in post-judgment interest.  The Ninth Circuit reversed the computer crimes verdict and threw out that portion of the award.  It also instructed Hicks to reconsider the fee award.

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).”

Judge Blasts Attorney for Wasting Time, Awards $1.6M in Fees

January 29, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Daniel Siegal, “Judge Blasts Atty for Wasting Time, Awards $1.6M in Fees,reports that a Denver federal judge awarded a host of insurance companies nearly $1.6 million in attorneys' fees for defeating allegations that they unfairly denied coverage to homeowners, holding the plaintiffs’ attorney personally liable for most of the fees and blasting his “prolix, redundant and meandering” filings that wasted the insurers’ time.  In a 22-page ruling, U.S. District Judge John Kane granted the consolidated bid for attorneys' fees filed by dozens of defendants, including Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America Inc., Chubb Corp. and insurance standards organization ACORD, finding that their request for about $1.6 million in fees was “fully foreseeable” and reasonable given the sprawling allegations.

“Plaintiffs initiated this litigation and were in control of its course.  There is no indication defendants’ counsel acted unreasonably or stepped outside the bounds of competent representation of their clients,” Judge Kane wrote.  “Plaintiffs cannot now complain that the fees incurred by defendants are excessive because such an inordinate number were forced to take part … They have imposed costs on virtually the entire insurance industry, and under the law, they must shoulder the result.”

Judge Kane wrote that the plaintiffs’ attorney, Josue David Hernandez of the Law Office of Josue David Hernandez, must personally bear liability for the attorneys' fees incurred by the defendants in the district court, given “his incessant filing of absurdly lengthy and legally incorrect briefs” and vexatious conduct throughout the litigation.  Some fees were incurred by the defendants on appeal, and Judge Kane asked them to file only the amount of fees that applied to the district court proceeding.

Judge Kane said he analyzed the plaintiffs' positions only to the extent that he could “extract them from the morass” of the briefing filed by Hernandez.  “I have struggled to decipher plaintiffs’ legal arguments throughout this case,” Judge Kane wrote.  “Those that pertain to the attorney fee award are no exception.”  The judge sided with the defendants’ expert witness’ testimony that the hours of legal work they expended defending the case were reasonable and necessary over the plaintiffs’ argument, which was based not an expert’s testimony but an “unreliable and bewildering” 24-factor test of Hernandez’s own concoction.

Judge Kane also noted that throughout the litigation, the plaintiffs had repeatedly made extra work for the defendants, such as filing a 40-page motion for more time to respond to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  After the defendants filed a seven-page opposition to that motion, the plaintiffs followed with a 47-page reply brief that “illustrates a system gone mad,” the judge said.

Terence Ridley of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP, who represented First American Property and Insurance Co. and argued on behalf of all fee-seeking defendants, told Law360 that he was honored to argue the motion for the numerous insurers, saying that “the language of the order is important, and the order is important.”  Hernadez told Law360 via email that Judge Kane's ruling had failed to address key issues, including whether Colorado's attorneys fee statute was preempted by federal law, and the fact that the defendants had filed more papers and other documents in the case than the plaintiffs. 

"If one were to take the time to review the actual documents on the public record (which is something I would encourage anyone truly interested in the case to do), they would likely find that the ruling failed to include the necessary treatment of at least eight extremely significant issues raised," he said. 

Named plaintiff Dale Snyder and 17 others filed suit in June 2014, and in a 260-page amended complaint asserted 23 claims against 113 defendants, alleging a broad, multi-decade conspiracy to deny homeowners coverage of damages from floods and fires.  In January 2016, Judge Kane dismissed the suit due to the plaintiffs' failure to include a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” in the complaint.  The Tenth Circuit affirmed that ruling in May 2017 and ordered appellate attorneys' fees to be awarded to the defendants.

The case is Dale Snyder et al. v. ACORD Corporation et al., case number 1:14-cv-01736, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Article: When Is a Prevailing Party Not a Prevailing Party for Purposes of Awarding Fees?

January 14, 2019

A recent Daily Business Review article by Richard Bec, “When Is a Prevailing Party Not a Prevailing Party for Purposes of Awarding Attorney Fees,” reports on prevailing party attorney fees.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

The court just entered judgment in favor of your client after prevailing on its breach of contract action.  As you savor the victory, your lawyer brain begins outlining a motion for prevailing party attorney fees.  You notice, however, that the judge has reduced the damages award due to a “diminution of value” defense raised by defendant.  Following the reduction in the amount of damages, you question whether your client may still be the prevailing party for purposes of attorney fees under the subject agreement.

First thing first, look at the subject agreement.  If a clear reading of the attorney fees provision applies to the context and type of contract claim of your case, then you are off to a good start.  In Dear v. Q Club Hotel, Ltd. Liability Co., No. 15-CV-60474, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181905 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 1, 2017) the Southern District refused to grant prevailing party attorney fees to a defendant that could not show how the subject attorney fees provision “clearly” and “unambiguously” authorized an award of attorney fees and costs for the type of contract claim at issue.

Your next question should be whether the only significant issue is, without a doubt, the one in which your client prevailed.  Does your case involve a clear-cut breach of contract by the defendant and nothing else, or was it more complicated?  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals construes the term “prevailing party” to be the party that has prevailed on the “significant issues in the litigation.”

It is important to remember that it is not mandatory for courts to decide on a prevailing party.  The Florida Supreme Court has made clear that trial courts have the discretion to determine that there is no prevailing party and, thus, to decline to award attorney’s fees to either party, see Trytek v. Gale Industries, 3 So. 3d 1194, 1196 (Fla. 2009).  Rather, where one is determined to exist, “… the entitlement to attorneys’ fees is mandatory.”

Sometimes when parties win and lose on significant issues, the court will just pass on deciding who is the prevailing party.  That is what happened in Schoenlank v. Schoenlank, 128 So. 3d 118 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013).  There, neither party had completely prevailed on either major issue of the case.  The Third DCA stressed that an attorney fee award is not required whenever a contract provides for prevailing party fees and made clear that a trial court retains the discretion to deny fees to both parties when each has prevailed and lost on significant issues.

The same applies to federal courts applying Florida law. In R.S.B. Ventures v. Federal Deposit Insurance, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188109, 2014 WL 11598000 (S.D. Fla. May 20, 2014), the federal court concluded that where one party had prevailed on some issues and another party had prevailed on another issue, neither party should be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of fees, and it declined to make an award to either party.

More recently, in Winn-Dixie Stores v. Big Lots Stores, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65508, 2016 WL 2918152 (S.D. Fla. May 18, 2016) (Middlebrooks, D.J.), the court concluded that because neither party had recovered on a claim or counter-claim and because neither party had been without fault, neither was a prevailing party and neither was entitled to an award of fees.

Returning to our hypothetical at the top of this article, assuming your client’s win on the breach of contract claim is the only significant issue of the case, and your client has an applicable fee-shifting provision in the governing agreement, it is likely that your client is indeed the prevailing party.  However, a very limited result in comparison to the scope of the litigation as a whole may affect the amount of attorney fees your client may ultimately be able to recover from the court in a subsequent motion for fees see Rodriguez v. Super Shine & Detailing, No. 09-23051-CIV, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80214, at *22 (S.D. Fla. June 11, 2012).  A setoff or reduction of damages is secondary to the significant issue of the case and generally will not affect your client’s status as the prevailing party for purposes of recovery of attorney fees.

Richard Bec is an attorney with the Miami intellectual property boutique law firm of Espinosa Martinez.  He focuses his practice on practice on intellectual property and commercial litigation, real estate law and bankruptcy matters.