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Category: Fee Statute

Article: Challenge Calif. Insurer Limits on Independent Counsel Rates

November 12, 2018

A recent Law 360 article by Susan P. White, “Challenge Calif. Insurer Limits on Independent Counsel Rates,” reports on hourly rates and independent counsel in insurance coverage litigation in California.  Susan P. White is a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP in Los Angeles.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When a liability insurer agrees to defend its insured after the insured has been sued, this is often cause for celebration, as the insured believes its defense will be paid.  The insurer may reserve its rights to deny coverage, and advise that such reservation creates a “conflict of interest” entitling the insured to “independent” counsel.  Thus, instead of the insurer selecting the insured’s defense counsel, which is common under a duty to defend policy, the insured gets to choose its own counsel.  Still reason to celebrate, right?  But, as you may suspect, this selection right comes with a catch.  The insurer advises that while the insured can choose its own counsel, the insurer only agrees to pay a very low hourly rate, maybe $225 or $250 per hour (it varies, sometimes dramatically so), which is much less than what is being charged by the insured’s independent counsel.  If the litigation against the insured is significant, the delta between the rate the insurer agrees to pay and counsel’s actual rate can add up to millions of dollars.

An insurer claims it need only pay these low hourly rates pursuant to the requirements set forth in California Civil Code section 2860(c), which governs the financial relationship between an insurer and an insured’s independent counsel. Section 2860(c) states:

The insurer’s obligation to pay fees to the independent counsel selected by the insured is limited to the rates which are actually paid by the insurer to attorneys retained by it in the ordinary course of business in the defense of similar actions in the community where the claim arose or is being defended.

While section 2860(c) allows an insurer to only pay independent counsel the same rates it pays to other lawyers to defend similar actions in the same locale, an insured should not simply accept the insurer’s say so on this.  There are several ways to both challenge an insurer’s unilaterally imposed rates.  This article addresses a few such ways.

First, an insured should demand that the insurer produce detailed information about the counsel to whom it is paying these low rates.  An insurer often imposes “panel counsel rates” in these situations, which are rates that an insurer pays to certain law firms that have special agreements with the insurer, often in writing.  In these agreements, the panel counsel often agree to charge the insurer reduced hourly rates, regardless of the type of case, or location of the litigation, typically in exchange for the anticipation of a large volume of work from the insurer.  Under such a situation, an insured can argue that there is no “similarity” of actions as mandated by the statute.  Instead, the panel counsel’s rates are unaffected by the complexity, sophistication, nature of the allegations, legal claims, factual circumstances, location or any other factors of the cases in which they are appointed.  Thus, such rates provide no support under the § 2860 requirements.

Second, an insured should demand that the insurer provide detailed information about the specific cases that the insurer is touting as “similar actions in the community where the claim arose or is being defended,” to support the low hourly rates imposed.  With this information, an insured can ascertain whether such cases are, in fact, “similar” or not.  For example, are these purported “similar” actions less complex than the lawsuit against the insured? Do they involve different legal and/or factual issues?  What about the amounts in controversy — are they dramatically less and thus, the exposure potentials are not even comparable?  Also, where are these other actions pending?  Are they in different communities?  The more an insured can demonstrate dissimilarities the better to demonstrate that the insurer cannot support the hourly rate it seeks to impose pursuant to § 2860.

Third, if the parties cannot informally agree on an acceptable hourly rate for independent counsel, either party can seek to resolve the dispute through final and binding arbitration pursuant to § 2860.  And, in any arbitration, if the arbitrator determines that insurer’s evidence does not satisfy the § 2860 requirements, the insured should argue that a “reasonableness” standard should be applied to determine the appropriate rate for the insured’s independent counsel (with evidence to support that independent counsel’s actual rates are “reasonable”).  Indeed, a “reasonableness” standard is a ubiquitous standard for attorneys’ fees in insurance litigation and other contexts.

An insured need not simply accept its insurer’s word when it imposes inappropriately low hourly rates on an insured’s independent counsel.  Instead, an insured should challenge such rates, when appropriate, either informally or in arbitration.

Susan P. White is a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP in Los Angeles.  Susan resolves complex insurance coverage disputes through litigation, arbitration and mediation.  These include bad faith claims, as well as other commercial and contract matters.  She has also successfully recovered millions in attorneys’ fees and costs for her insured clients.

SCOTUS Considers Attorney Fee Caps in Social Security Disability Claims

November 5, 2018

A recent SCOTUS Blog post by Kathryn Moore Guest, “Argument Preview: Justices Consider Cap on Attorney’s Fees for Successful Representation of Social Security Disability Claimants,” reports that attorney Richard Culbertson successfully represented several Social Security disability claimants both before the Social Security Administration and in federal court.  Prior to his representation, he entered into fee agreements that provided that the clients would pay him attorney’s fees equal to 25 percent of past-due benefits for successful representation before the court as well as separate attorney’s fees for successful representation before the agency.  Following longstanding precedent of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the court below capped his attorney’s fees at 25 percent of past-due benefits for representation before both the Social Security Administration and the court.

In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve a split among the federal courts of appeals as to whether the Social Security Act imposes an aggregate cap on attorney’s fees of 25 percent of past-due benefits for representation before both the court and the Social Security Administration, or instead the 25 percent cap applies separately to representation before the court.

The Social Security Act regulates the amount and manner in which an attorney may collect fees from a disability claimant for successful representation before the agency and the court.  42 USC § 406(a) governs attorney’s fees for successful representation before the agency, while 42 USC § 406(b) governs attorney’s fees for successful representation before the court.  The Equal Access to Justice Act also authorizes a court to order recovery of “reasonable attorney’s fees” from the government in certain cases in which the claimant is successful and the government’s position was not “substantially justified.”  If attorney’s fees are awarded under the EAJA and under Section 406(b), the attorney must refund the lesser fee to the claimant.  The Social Security Administration withholds a single pool of 25 percent of past-due benefits from which to certify for payment any and all attorney’s fees awarded under Section 406(a) and/or 406(b).

Section 406(a) authorizes two avenues for recovery of attorney’s fees from a claimant for successful representation before the agency.  Under Section 406(a)(1), an attorney may file a “fee petition” with the Social Security Administration.  Alternatively, under a more recent and more commonly used, streamlined process, an attorney may seek approval of a “fee agreement” with a claimant under Section 406(a)(2).  No cap is imposed under Section 406(a)(1).  Section 406(a)(2) limits attorney’s fees to the lesser of 25 percent of past-due benefits or a specified dollar amount, currently set at $6,000.

For successful representation before a court, Section 406(b)(1)(A) provides in relevant part:

Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a claimant under [Title II] who was represented before the court by an attorney, the court may determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee for such representation, not in excess of 25 percent of the total of the past-due benefits to which the claimant is entitled by reason of such judgment.  Section 406(b)(1)(A) further provides that “no other fee may be payable or certified for payment for such representation except as provided in this paragraph.”

Focusing on the “plain meaning” of Section 406(b), Culbertson argues that the term “such representation” in Section 406(b)(1)(A) clearly refers to the antecedent phrase “represented before the court,” and thus under the plain meaning of Section 406(b), the 25 percent cap applies to representation “before the court by an attorney” and does not include representation before the agency.  Culbertson also argues that a separate cap on attorney’s fees for representation before the court is consistent with the structure of Section 406 as well as the purpose of the statute and its legislative history.

Almost 40 years ago, in the first circuit-court decision to address this issue, Dawson v. Finch, the 5th Circuit held that Section 406(b) imposes an aggregate cap on attorney’s fees for representation in the administrative proceedings as well as before the court.  In reaching this result, the 5th Circuit looked to the legislative history of the provision in order to discern Congress’ intent.  Specifically, the court focused on the fact that Congress added Section 406(b) to address two goals.  First, Congress sought to encourage effective legal representation by “insuring lawyers that they will receive reasonable fees directly through certification by the Secretary.”  Second, Congress sought to protect claimants against excessive attorneys’ fees, which in the past had reached one-third to one-half of claimants’ past-due benefits, by imposing the 25 percent cap on fees.  In 1982, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit also looked to this legislative history to hold in Morris v. Social Security Administration that Section 406(b) imposes a cumulative 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees.

More recently, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 9th and 10th Circuits have focused on the text of section 406(b) to hold that the 25 percent cap only applies to representation before a court.  See Horenstein v. Secretary of Health and Human Services; Clark v. Astrue; and Wrenn v. Astrue, respectively.

The commissioner’s position on this issue has flipflopped over the years. Almost 40 years ago, the commissioner sided with the 5th Circuit in interpreting Section 406(b) to impose an aggregate cap and opposed the grant of certiorari in Dawson.  Then about 15 years later, the commissioner sought and obtained 6th Circuit en banc review of the panel’s decision in Horenstein v. Secretary of Health and Human Services based on arguments that were logically inconsistent with an aggregate 25 percent cap.  Almost 15 years after that, the commissioner argued in briefs before the 9th and 10th Circuits that an aggregate cap honors congressional intent and it would be inappropriate to permit attorneys to potentially collect up to 25 percent of a disability claimant’s past-due benefits at both the agency and court levels.

In this case, the acting commissioner initially supported the 11th Circuit’s rule imposing an aggregate cap.  Then, after requesting four extensions to file a response, the acting commissioner filed a response siding with Culbertson and arguing that the text of Section 406(b) unambiguously applies the 25 percent cap only to attorney’s fees for representation before a court.  The acting commissioner further argues that a 25 percent cap would be inconsistent with other provisions of Section 406(a) and that the absence of an aggregate cap does not mean that the agency and courts should approve fees that in the aggregate are equal to or greater than 50 percent of a claimant’s past-due benefits.

Because the acting commissioner agrees with Culbertson, the Supreme Court appointed Amy Levin Weil, an experienced 11th Circuit appellate litigator, to serve as amicus curiae in support of the 11th Circuit’s decision. Weil argues that the statute itself does not specifically state whether combined attorney’s fees may exceed 25 percent, and that the text of Section 406(a) and Section 406(b), read together, supports the aggregate rule.  She also points to the legislative history on which the 4th and 5th Circuits relied in support of an aggregate 25 percent cap.  She contends that permitting attorney’s fees to exceed 25 percent in the aggregate could lead to attorneys suing their clients to collect fees out of their present or future Social Security benefits contrary to the Social Security Act’s purpose of ensuring beneficiaries a protected source of income.  She also argues that rejecting the 25 percent aggregate rule would lead to absurd results, with fees of up to 75 percent of past-due benefits if a favorable district court opinion is appealed and the applicant is successful in the court of appeals.  She contends that the aggregate cap allows a logical division of agency and court fees from the 25-percent-of-accrued-benefit pool in a manner that recognizes that a portion of the accrued benefits is attributable to the time that the case was pending before the agency while the other portion is attributable to the time the case was pending before the court.

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives filed an amicus brief in the case.  The NOSSCR does not address the plain meaning of the statute.  Instead, it contends that Section 406(b) cannot impose an aggregate 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees for representation before a court and the agency because Section 406(a)(1) does not impose a cap on fees before the agency.  NOSSCR further argues that a court has no discretion to impose an aggregate cap.  NOSSCR informs the court that in circuits without an aggregate cap, the prevailing market rate includes a cumulative cap either by contract or in practice.

Weil faces an uphill battle in convincing the Supreme Court to uphold the 11th Circuit’s decision.  The plain-meaning approach to statutory interpretation currently favored by the court supports Culbertson’s position.  Moreover, amici curiae appointed by the Supreme Court typically only win about 25 percent of their cases.  If, however, Weil can convince the court to look beyond the text of the Section 406(b) in isolation, it may, like Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford of the District of Vermont, find that “it would be strange indeed to believe that Congress would in 1965 denounce 50% contingency fees as excessive and enact a statute to stop them, and then, in 1968, pass a law with the effect of permitting 50% contingency fees.”

Consumer Can Recover Attorney Fees in Florida Debt Collection Action

September 17, 2018

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Consumer Can Get Fees for Winning Debt Collection Suit,” reports that a Florida appeals court ruled that a consumer who fends off an "account stated" lawsuit seeking to collect on an unpaid credit card balance can collect attorneys' fees under Florida law.  Florida's Second District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court's order denying Katrina Bushnell's request for attorneys' fees after debt buying company Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC voluntarily dismissed its suit over an unpaid credit card bill.

Bushnell had asked for attorneys' fees under the credit card agreement, which contains a provision authorizing the creditor to recover its attorneys' fees as part of its collection costs.  Under Florida Statute 57.105(7), if a contract has a provision allowing attorneys' fees to a party that has to take action to enforce the contract, the court can also allow attorneys' fees to the other party if it prevails in the dispute.

The trial court ruled against Bushnell but asked the appellate court to address the issue and answer the question of whether an "account stated" action that seeks to collect an unpaid debt is considered an action to enforce a contract.  The Second District said that it is such an action and ruled that the account stated lawsuit could not have happened if the credit card contract did not exist.  "Simply put, if there had been no credit card contract, the amount due would not have accrued in the first place," the appeals court said.  "The credit card contract and the account stated cause of action are therefore inextricably intertwined such that the account stated cause of action is an action 'with respect to the contract' under section 57.105(7)."

The appeals court relied on the Florida Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Caufield v. Cantele, in which the court concluded that the prevailing party in a lawsuit for fraudulent misrepresentation was entitled to fees under the state's reciprocity provision.  The Supreme Court reasoned that the existence of the contract and the misrepresentation claims in the case were "inextricably" linked.  The Second District applied this reasoning to the case against Bushnell and concluded that the reciprocity provision in 57.105(7) applies.  The appeals court reversed the order denying Bushnell's fees and remanded it to the trial court to determine a reasonable fee award for her counsel.

Bushnell’s attorney Jennifer Jones of McIntyre Thanasides Bringgold Elliott Grimaldi Guito & Matthew PA called the decision “a big win for the little guy in Florida.”  She said the litigation tactic used against Bushnell is common among debt buyers, who often buy charged-off credit cards accounts for pennies on the dollar and then sue without proper documentation.  The customers often cannot secure legal representation to defend themselves against these lawsuits, according to Jones.

The case is Bushnell v. Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC, case number 2D17-429, in the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida.

Judge Erred By Limiting Attorney Fees in Probate Matter in California

September 7, 2018

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Judge Erred By Limiting Fee to 10 Percent of Minors’ Recovery,” reports that the law firm founded by veteran personal injury Ian “Buddy” Herzog was shortchanged by a Los Angeles Superior Court who awarded it only 10 percent of the $18 million settlement it negotiated for its minor clients, despite a contingency fee agreement calling for 40 percent, the Court of Appeal for this district has held.

The unpublished opinion was filed Wednesday.  In it, Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild of Div. One noted that under Probate Code §3600 and §3601, a court, in approving the compromise of a minor’s claim, must determine what are “reasonable” attorney fees, and pointed to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955, which sets forth guidance for trial judges in determining reasonableness.  A 10 percent fee, she said, was unreasonable in light of the contingency fee agreement, the risk the company took in taking the case on a contingency basis, and other factors.

Herzog, Yuhas, Ehrlich & Ardell of Santa Monica represented the wife and four minor children of Rainer Schulz in a wrongful death suit, after the wealthy German businessman crashed his Cessna 750 jet while attempting to land at a small German airport.  The action against various companies was brought on a products liability theory.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey apportioned $1 to Schulz’s widow, Silke Schulz, and the remainder of the $18,125,000 to the couple’s four minor sons.

He did not credit the contingency fee agreement which the widow and the chief executive of a company the Schulzes owned negotiated with the Herzog firm.  Under it, the firm was to receive 31 percent of the proceeds if the case were settled at least 30 days before trial and 40 percent after that point.  Although settlement came a few days before trial, the Herzog firm indicated its willingness to accept a 31 percent share.

Fahey said:  “Turning to the issue of attorney’s fees, the Court is not bound by a contingency agreement when considering the best interests of the minors.  Attorney fees must be carefully scrutinized and adjusted if warranted.  Here, the attorneys hired by Silke did a good job in investigating this case.”  He added:“But paying these attorneys their requested $5 million in fees out of the settlement proceeds would be excessive, to the substantial detriment of Rainer’s sons and contrary to this Court’s duty [to] assure that no injustice is done to them.”

Two of the Schulzes’s sons have permanent disabilities as a result of being born prematurely.  Rule 7.955(a)(2) sets forth: “The court must give consideration to the terms of any representation agreement made between the attorney and the representative of the minor.…”

Rule 7.955(b) lists 14 non-exclusive factors for courts to consider when determining what fee will be reasonable, including the amount of the fee in proportion to the value of services, the experience of the attorney and the amount of time and labor involved.

Rothschild declared: “We conclude the trial court gave too little consideration to California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(a)(2).…In addition, the court did not acknowledge the factors listed in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955(b).  Although these factors are not mandatory, they provide a guide to the considerations relevant to determining whether a fee protects the interests of a minor while allowing an attorney to obtain a fair recovery.”

She continued: “All of these factors support a recovery greater than 10 percent.  One of the two attorneys who primarily worked on the case, Ian Herzog, had 47 years of experience in aviation accident cases, and the other, Thomas Yuhas, had 37 years of experience.  Both attorneys also have many years of experience as pilots, which undoubtedly gave them insight as to the causes of the crash.  In this case, both sides agree that the risk of loss was substantial.  When viewed from the perspective of the time it was signed, the representation agreement thus realistically evaluated the high risk that there could be no recovery at all or one substantially lower than was achieved.”

She noted that the firm advanced more than $300,000 in costs.  In determining the potential for a minor being taken advantage of, the rule counsels, the court should look to the “relative sophistication of the attorney and the representative of the minor.  Rothschild said that Silke Schulz is a highly sophisticated executive who took over the company after her husband’s death.  And who made an informed decision to enlist the services of a firm willing to take the case on a contingency basis.

The jurist noted that rule 7.955 had superseded prior local rules setting the baseline contingency award for minor clients, often at 25 percent.  She drew an analogy to class action attorney fee awards, which have a 25 percent starting point in the Ninth U.S. Circuit and some California courts.  She wrote: “We acknowledge that what is reasonable in applying the factors in California Rules of Court, rule 7.955 in any particular case may comprise a range of percentages.  Under the facts of this case, however, 10 percent was not within that reasonable range.  Although the trial court would be acting within its discretion to award less than 31 percent, we note that 31 percent is not out of line with awards in class actions, which, like this case, involve attorney fees to be paid by a protected class and that require court approval.”

The case is Schulz v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., B277493.

Judge Approves Fee Enhancement in GNC Age Discrimination Case

August 22, 2018

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Charles Toutant, “Judge Approves Fee Enhancement, But Not ‘Dual Fee,’ in GNC Employee’s Case” reports that a federal judge in Camden, pointing to his concern that “hourly or relatively low salaried workers may not obtain the skilled representation they deserve,” granted a 25 percent fee enhancement to a lawyer after his client obtained a $258,926 jury verdict in an age discrimination suit against vitamin and supplement retailer General Nutrition Corp.  At the same time, the judge ruled out the possibility of the lawyer recovering a statutory and contingency fee simultaneously.

The enhancement of 25 percent above the $127,215 lodestar brings Vineland attorney Richard Pescatore’s fee to $159,018, warranted because he undertook representation of the plaintiff without assurance that he would be paid, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider said in Andujar v. General Nutrition.  The judge also approved $1,823 in costs, prejudgment interest of $123,926, and a payment, in an amount to be determined, to offset negative tax consequences of a lump-sum award.  The amounts are to be paid by the defendant if the verdict is upheld on appeal.  The appeal to the Third Circuit is pending, according to the decision.

“Without the prospect of a potential high fee, the Court is concerned that hourly or relatively low salaried workers may not obtain the skilled representation they deserve,” Schneider said.  “Competent counsel should not only represent those with largesse,” he said, citing Norman v. Haddon Township, a July ruling granting a 33.33 percent fee enhancement in a police excessive-force case.

Following the October 2017 jury verdict in his client’s favor, Pescatore sought the enhanced fee as counsel to a prevailing party in a New Jersey Law Against Discrimination claim.  His retainer agreement provided him a contingency fee of 45 percent of the net recovery, the decision noted.  Initially, Pescatore contended he was entitled to the full amount of his court-awarded fee, in addition to his contingency fee, which Schneider termed “a dual fee recovery.”  Counsel for GNC did not object to the prospect of a dual recovery but said any such recovery should be taken into account when determining whether a lodestar enhancement was warranted.

After Schneider asked for supplemental briefing on whether a dual recovery was permissible, Pescatore submitted a new proposal to calculate his attorney fee, seeking 45 percent of the jury award ($115,695), plus his court-awarded lodestar ($127,215), for a total of $242,910. GNC opposed that proposal.

Later, Pescatore sought 45 percent of the total sum of the judgment plus the court-awarded fee.  Those two amounts totaled $386,141, and his 45 percent share would have been $173,763.  He also sought a 50 percent enhancement of the court-awarded fee, which would bring the total fee award to $237,000.  But Schneider rejected those terms as inconsistent with Pescatore’s written fee agreement and applicable case law.  Pescatore did not cite any case law approving such an arrangement, while GNC’s lawyer cited persuasive case law to the contrary, Schneider said.

Case law provides that “unless a fee agreement specifically refers to a statutory fee award, a lawyer may receive either the agreed upon contingency fee based on the jury award or the statutory award, whichever is greater.  Counsel may not, as is requested here, receive a portion of both,” Schneider said.  The judge awarded the $127,215 lodestar, since it was slightly greater than the contingency fee of 45 percent of the net jury award.  And since Pescatore sought a 50 percent enhancement, and GNC proposed an enhancement of 5 percent at most, Schneider settled on a “mid-range” enhancement of 25 percent.

“While the Court believes the plaintiff is entitled to an enhancement, it need not be excessive.  This was not an unduly complex case.  Nor did counsel spend an inordinate amount of time on the case.  It is unlikely plaintiff’s counsel had to [forgo] potentially lucrative work on account of his handling of this case,” Schneider said.