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Category: Fees & Arbitration

NJ Case Has Lessons on Arbitration Clauses in Attorney Retainers

February 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Hilary Gerzhoy, Deepika Ravi, and Amy Richardson, “NJ Case Has Lessons On Arbitration Clauses in Atty Retainers”, reports on arbitration clauses in attorney retainers in New Jersey.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Dec. 21, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Delaney v. Dickey, an opinion that severely limits the enforceability of arbitration provisions in law firm retainer agreements.  The court held that an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is only enforceable if an attorney provides "an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration" to a client before the client signs the retainer agreement.

The decision, which applies prospectively, tracks and builds on other jurisdictions' limitations on the enforceability of arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  Attorneys wishing to resolve client disputes via arbitration should take close note of these heightened disclosure obligations.

Delaney v. Dickey

Delaney v. Dickey addressed whether an arbitration provision contained within Sills Cummis & Gross PC's four-page retainer agreement was enforceable.  A Sills attorney provided the retainer agreement to client Brian Delaney during an in-person meeting.  The retainer agreement contained a provision stating that any disputes about the law firm's fees or legal services would be resolved by arbitration.

The arbitration provision stated that the result of any arbitration would not be subject to appeal, and that Delaney's agreement to arbitration waived his right to a trial by jury:

The decision of the Arbitrator will be final and binding and neither the Firm nor you will have the right to appeal such decision, whether in a court or in another arbitration proceeding.  You understand that, by agreeing to arbitrate disputes as provided in this retainer letter, you are waiving any and all statutory and other rights that you may have to a trial by jury in connection with any such dispute, claim, or controversy.

The retainer agreement included a one-page attachment that contained a hyperlink to the JAMS rules.  However, the Sills attorney did not provide Delaney with a hard copy of the JAMS rules at the meeting.  The attachment also stated that the arbitration would be conducted by one impartial arbitrator; that the parties waived any claim for punitive damages; that the arbitration would be binding, nonappealable and confidential; and that the parties would share the arbitrator's fees and expenses, except that the arbitrator could award costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable "[b]ecause Delaney was not given an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration."

The court recognized that the Sills attorney had disclosed, in the retainer agreement and attachment, several of the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum — but it found that disclosure insufficient.  Instead, the court required that the attorney provide an "explanation" of these differences — but it did not provide clear guidance on what is required for a sufficient explanation.  Importantly, the court held that an attorney must explain the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, even when the client is "a sophisticated businessman."

The mere recitation of these differences in the retainer agreement, and the Sills attorney's "[offer] to answer any questions" Delaney had about the retainer agreement was insufficient to meet the attorney's fiduciary obligations.  Instead, the court imposed an obligation to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an arbitration provision either orally or in writing.

Although the court did not explicitly so state, its opinion suggests that an attorney cannot merely list the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, but rather must explain how those differences might affect the client's interests in the event of a future dispute.

What Happens Outside of New Jersey?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pointed to a string of ethics opinions and case law from other states that support heightened disclosure obligations on an attorney where an arbitration provision is included in a retainer agreement.  The court also pointed to jurisdictions that require a lawyer to go even further and advise a client to seek independent counsel before agreeing to arbitrate future disputes.  Delaney closely tracks the American Bar Association's Formal Opinion 02-425, Retainer Agreement Requiring the Arbitration of Fee Disputes and Malpractice Claims, issued in 2002.

The opinion concluded that a binding arbitration provision requiring all "disputes concerning fees and malpractice claims" to be resolved via arbitration does not violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), "provided that the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has given her informed consent to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement" and the arbitration provision does not "insulate ... or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law."

Because a lawyer has a fiduciary "duty to explain matters to a client," she must "advise clients of the possible adverse consequences as well as the benefits that may arise from the execution of an agreement" that includes an arbitration provision.  Accordingly, compliance with Rule 1.4(b) requires that the lawyer "'explain' the implications of the proposed binding arbitration provision 'to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make [an] informed decision' about whether to agree to the [provision's] inclusion" in the retainer agreement.

Unlike the New Jersey opinion, the ABA concluded that just how extensie that disclosure must be will depend on "the sophistication of the client."  However, consistent with Delaney, the lawyer "should make clear that arbitration typically results in the client's waiver of significant rights, such as the waiver of the right to a jury trial, the possible waiver of broad discovery, and the loss of the right to appeal."

For these reasons, the Sills attorney's failure to explain these differences to Delaney would similarly fail under the ABA standard.  While ABA opinions are persuasive, not binding, authority on the states, they are an important road map for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical and practical obligations.

The District of Columbia takes a similar approach.  D.C. Ethics Opinion 376, published in November 2018, concludes that an agreement to arbitrate fee disputes and legal malpractice claims is otherwise permitted by the rules, provided that the lawyer has adequately informed the client about "material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to" the proposed arbitration clause such that the client is "fully informed."

That requires, at minimum, that the attorney inform the client about differences between a judicial and arbitral forum as to (1) the fees to be charged; (2) the scope of discovery; (3) a right to a jury; and (4) a right to an appeal.  Like ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the D.C. opinion also advises that the scope of the discussion depends on the level of sophistication of the client.

What Should an Attorney Explain to a Client, and How?

While the Delaney case is only controlling in New Jersey, it provides useful guidance for attorneys hoping to create binding arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  As the Delaney court noted, the differences between resolving an attorney-client dispute in arbitration or before a judicial forum can be communicated orally, in writing, or both.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division stated in Delaney that it did not hold that the "reasonable explanation" required of an attorney cannot be contained in the written retainer agreement.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion did not directly address that question, suggesting that an attorney can sufficiently explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral forum within the retainer agreement.

Rather, the court held that the disclosure in the case before it — which merely recited several of the differences between a judicial and arbitral forum, with no additional explanation provided orally or in writing about these or other differences — was insufficient.  Recognizing that not all arbitration provisions are alike, the court enumerated several differences between an arbitral and judicial forum about which a client might need to be advised including the following:

1.  An arbitration resolves a dispute before a single arbitrator and not a jury of one's peers.

2.  The arbitrator's decision is final and binding with no right of appeal.

3.  Unlike court proceedings, arbitration proceedings are conducted privately and the outcome will remain confidential.

4.  Unlike court proceedings, the arbitration process offers a more limited right to discovery.

5.  The client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator.

6.  A plaintiff prevailing in a judicial forum may be entitled to punitive damages, but that right may be waived in an arbitral forum.

7.  A judicial forum generally does not permit reasonable attorney fees to be imposed against a nonprevailing client in a nonfrivolous malpractice action, whereas an arbitral forum may permit an award that imposes costs, expenses and reasonable attorney fees against the nonprevailing party.

However, the court was silent as to how an attorney is to translate that list into a compliant explanation to a client.  Practically then, attorneys should, at a minimum, explain — not merely recite — these differences to a client prior to the client agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision.

The attorney's explanation should include, for example, that applicable arbitration procedures offer limited discovery — for instance, the JAMS procedures "limit each party to 'one deposition of an opposing [p]arty or of one individual under the control of the opposing [p]arty'" whereas judicial rules do not have a set limitation on the number of depositions available.

The attorney should also explain that, unlike a court proceeding where neither party pays for a judge's time, parties in arbitration often split the cost of the arbitrator's hourly rate, which can be costly.  And, at least in New Jersey, an attorney must provide a hard copy of the rules governing the arbitration — but note that neither D.C. Ethics Opinion 376 nor ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 imposes that requirement.  And, perhaps most importantly, an attorney must understand the relative benefits and disadvantages of arbitration so as to answer any client questions.

Conclusion

While agreements to arbitrate attorney-client disputes are routinely permitted, attorneys' ability to enforce such agreements will turn on the client's ultimate understanding of the implications of agreeing to arbitration.  Attorneys should, as always, consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and related guidance in their jurisdiction — and when in doubt, should err on the side of explaining, both orally and in writing, the benefits and disadvantages of an arbitral forum.

Hilary Gerzhoy is an associate, and Deepika Ravi and Amy Richardson are partners, at Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.

Second Circuit: No Second Shot for Milberg in $12M Fee Dispute

February 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Justin Wise, “2nd Circ. Says No 2nd Shot For Milberg in $12M Fee Dispute”, reports that the Second Circuit upheld a lower court's dismissal of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC predecessor Milberg LLP's pursuit of nearly $12 million in contingency fees from former clients, saying its petition failed to comply with a timing provision of federal arbitration law.  The decision came down in a long-running dispute between Milberg LLP, which has since merged with multiple firms, and clients it represented in Germany and Luxembourg in their suit for recovery on defaulted Argentine bonds.

The firm in 2019 sued in the Southern District of New York seeking to vacate an arbitration award that said it was entitled to only a fraction of a $11.9 million fee it claimed it earned for its work on the case.  However, the court dismissed the firm's effort over failing to adequately plead diversity of parties and for not serving proper notice of the petition within the three-month statute of limitations.  While a three-judge panel differed with the lower court on the subject of diversity, "nevertheless, we hold that Milberg failed to comply with the timing provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act."

An attorney for Milberg had previously argued in court that Hague Convention protocol made it impossible to serve notice to overseas adversaries within 90 days.  But the appeals court was not convinced, saying the firm did not "demonstrate diligence" when it came to the three-month deadline to warrant a "possible equitable extension."

"Milberg did not even notify opposing counsel of its petition to vacate the arbitral award until [the] three-month window closed, and only after opposing counsel stated it was not authorized to accept service did Milberg set the wheels in motion for service overseas," the panel wrote, citing the firm's after-hours attempt to serve notice on the day the statute of limitations expired.

Milberg had represented 10 Luxembourg and German retirement funds and two German individuals as they sought to enforce payment on defaulted Argentine bonds.  The clients stopped working with Milberg in 2016 and hired another firm before settling the dispute with Argentina for $162.3 million.  Court documents show that the settlement was similar to the terms Milberg had obtained before being discharged.

Milberg initiated arbitration seeking contingency fees in 2017, but a panel on Feb. 5, 2019, declined to award the firm what it sought. Milberg filed suit in court on May 6, 2019, and late that evening — the last day it could serve a notice for its motion — emailed counsel for their former clients asking whether it could accept service on their behalf.  The clients' counsel said it was not authorized to accept service, court documents show.

The Nation’s Top Attorney Fee Experts of 2020

June 24, 2020

NALFA, a non-profit group, is building a worldwide network of attorney fee expertise. Our network includes members, faculty, and fellows with expertise on the reasonableness of attorney fees.  We help organize and recognize qualified attorney fee experts from across the U.S. and around the globe.  Our attorney fee experts also include court adjuncts such as bankruptcy fee examiners, special fee masters, and fee dispute neutrals.

Every year, we announce the nation's top attorney fee experts.  Attorney fee experts are retained by fee-seeking or fee-challenging parties in litigation to independently prove reasonable attorney fees and expenses in court or arbitration.  The following NALFA profile quotes are based on bio, CV, case summaries and case materials submitted to and verified by us.  Here are the nation's top attorney fee experts of 2020:

"The Nation's Top Attorney Fee Expert"
John D. O'Connor
O'Connor & Associates
San Francisco, CA
 
"Over 30 Years of Legal Fee Audit Expertise"
Andre E. Jardini
KPC Legal Audit Services, Inc.
Glendale, CA

"The Nation's Top Bankruptcy Fee Examiner"
Robert M. Fishman
Cozen O'Connor
Chicago, IL

"Widely Respected as an Attorney Fee Expert"
Elise S. Frejka
Frejka PLLC
New York, NY
 
"Experienced on Analyzing Fees, Billing Entries for Fee Awards"
Robert L. Kaufman
Woodruff Spradlin & Smart
Costa Mesa, CA

"Highly Skilled on a Range of Fee and Billing Issues"
Daniel M. White
White Amundson APC
San Diego, CA
 
"Extensive Expertise on Attorney Fee Matters in Common Fund Litigation"
Craig W. Smith
Robbins LLP
San Diego, CA
 
"Highly Experienced in Dealing with Fee Issues Arising in Complex Litigation"
Marc M. Seltzer
Susman Godfrey LLP
Los Angeles, CA

"Total Mastery in Resolving Complex Attorney Fee Disputes"
Peter K. Rosen
JAMS
Los Angeles, CA
 
"Understands Fees, Funding, and Billing Issues in Cross Border Matters"
Glenn Newberry
Eversheds Sutherland
London, UK
 
"Solid Expertise with Fee and Billing Matters in Complex Litigation"
Bruce C. Fox
Obermayer Rebmann LLP
Pittsburgh, PA
 
"Excellent on Attorney Fee Issues in Florida"
Debra L. Feit
Stratford Law Group LLC
Fort Lauderdale, FL
 
"Nation's Top Scholar on Attorney Fees in Class Actions"
Brian T. Fitzpatrick
Vanderbilt Law School
Nashville, TN
 
"Great Leader in Analyzing Legal Bills for Insurers"
Richard Zujac
Liberty Mutual Insurance
Philadelphia, PA