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Category: Fees & Bad Faith

Billing Record Proves Defense Fees as Sanctions in Bad Faith Litigation

January 23, 2021

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Angela Morris, “$1.8M in Attorney Fees Awarded to Vinson & Elkins, Norton Rose Fulbright Clients,” reports that a plastic surgeon who has litigated a dispute for 14 years with a Houston hospital and medical school must pay over $1.81 million of their lawyers’ fees for sanctions for filing frivolous litigation.  The large fee award will go to lawyers at Vinson & Elkins and Norton Rose Fulbright, who since 2006 have defended Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine against claims by Dr. Rahul Nath, in seemingly never-ending litigation that has twice landed on the Texas Supreme Court’s doorsteps.

During multiple appeals, the defense lawyers have succeeded in upholding the hefty sanctions, levied because the surgeon filed suit for an improper purpose and in bad faith.  Now, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals again affirmed the sanctions award: $644,500 for Baylor and for Texas Children’s Hospital, $726,000 in trial fees and nearly $439,500 in appellate fees.

The hospital’s attorneys in the trial court were Vinson & Elkins partners Pat Mizell and Stacey Vu and associate Brooke Noble, and the appellate lawyer was counsel Cathy Smith.  The medical school’s trial lawyers were Norton Rose Fulbright partners Shauna Clark and Jamila Mensah, and its appellate lawyer was of counsel Joy Soloway.

The Fourteenth Court opinion explained that Nath used to work for Baylor and he was affiliated with Texas Children’s Hospital. The working relationship started deteriorating in 2003 because colleagues said Nath billed too much, did unnecessary procedures and was unprofessional.

He sued in 2006 for defamation and tortious interference with business relationships. In addition to Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital, another defendant was a plastic surgeon who had been Nath’s supervisor at work. Later, Nath abandoned those claims and filed a new one for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

But the trial court granted the defendants a summary judgment win. Later, the judge granted sanctions against Nath for filing the case with an improper purpose and bad faith, without having facts to back the claims. Nath’s sanctions related to his pleadings against his former supervisor.

The sanctions award has been tied up in appeals ever since it came down. Two times, his arguments went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. First in 2014, the high court found it was correct to sanction Nath for using litigation to uncover damaging personal information about his supervisor and put it into the public domain, just because he wanted for force a favorable settlement. But the justices still sent the case back to the trial court to determine if the hospital and medical school’s litigation tactics had caused higher fees.

The trial court later ruled the defendants hadn’t done anything to bump up expenses.

Nath appealed again. In 2019, the Supreme Court determined that even when a party must sanction for frivolous litigation, a trial court needs to have detailed evidence so that it can rule on how much of the fee was reasonable. The case again went back down so the defendants could prove up their fees with more evidence.

The hospital and medical school filed new fee applications and attached 350 pages of billing records to back up the amounts.

Again appealed by Nath, the 14th Court found the hospital and medical school’s evidence of fees was good enough: the billing records had dates, times, descriptions and amounts for lawyers who who worked on the case.

The appellate court did change one thing. As for future appellate fees, the hospital had evidence that based on the amount of time that various levels of Vinson & Elkins lawyers would spend, each billing between $420 and $850 per hour, the fees would come to $439,425. For some reason the trial court awarded $489,800.

The Fourteenth Court determined the additional $50,375 wasn’t backed by evidence, and sent the case back to the trial court with a suggestion to cut that amount.

Article: Courts Finally Taking Unreasonable Contest Counsel Fees Seriously

November 20, 2020

A recent Law.com article by Christian Petrucci, “Courts Finally Taking Unreasonable Contest Counsel Fees Seriously,” reports on attorney fee claims in workers’ compensation cases.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Absent the legal mechanism to pursue a bad faith claim against a workers’ compensation carrier, one of the only weapons in a claimant’s arsenal to discourage the baseless denial of claims is that of the unreasonable contest counsel fee demand.  Tragically, it is commonplace for an overly aggressive defendant to deny a claim with no factual or legal basis to do so.  Claimants are routinely forced to needlessly prosecute a petition for benefits or otherwise oppose baseless defense petitions, which causes precious judicial resources to be misallocated and inflicts significant undue stress, mental anguish and financial distress on the injured worker.

Of course, the humanitarian nature of the Workers’ Compensation Act is supposed to prevent any delay in the payment of benefits or the baseless denial of claims.  The law directs that the act be liberally construed to be remedial in nature, although one would never know it from the paucity of unreasonable contest counsel fee awards at the trial level.  The actual law provides that awarding counsel fees is to be the rule and excluding fees the exception to be applied only where the factual record establishes a reasonable contest. See Millvale Sportmen’s Club v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 393 A.2d 49 (Pa. Commw.1978).  It is also important to note that the question of whether a reasonable basis exists for an employer to have contested liability is fully reviewable on appeal as a question of law to be based upon findings supported by substantial evidence.  See Kuney v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 562 A.2d 931 (Pa. Commw. 1989).

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act provides in pertinent part: In any contested case where the insurer has contested liability in whole or in part … the employee, or his dependent, as the case may be, in whose favor the matter at issue has been finally determined in whole or in part shall be awarded, in addition to the award for compensation, a reasonable sum for costs incurred for attorney fee, witnesses, necessary medical examination, and the value of unreimbursed lost time to attend the proceedings: Provided, That cost for attorney fees may be excluded when a reasonable basis for the contest has been established by the employer or the insurer.

Despite the plain reading of the statue, unreasonable contest attorneys fees are almost never awarded and even in the most egregious situations, are awarded in a nominal amount which is stayed pending appeal in every instance.

Given this background, Gabriel v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (Procter and Gamble Products), decided by the Commonwealth Court in September, offers significant hope that the tide will be turning in the effort to police instances of bad faith in the workers’ compensation world.  At a minimum, Gabriel affords a heightened expectation that an attorney can be compensated in cases which lack a wage-loss benefit award, which is the normal corpus on which contingency fees are based.

In Gabriel, the claimant injured his arm at work and notified his employer.  The claimant treated with doctors based at the company’s plant and the employer’s insurance carrier actually paid medical expenses associated with the claim.  However, the employer inexplicably failed to file a bureau document either accepting or denying the claim within 21 days, as required by the act.  Consequently, the injured worker was forced to retain an attorney and file a claim petition, which was summarily denied by the employer.

Before the WCJ, both parties presented evidence over the course of a number of hearings and the record was eventually closed.  Perhaps sensing what was about to happen, the employer finally issued a medical only notice of compensation payable toward the end of the litigation.  The filing date was more than two years after the date of injury.

The WCJ granted the claim petition, but as is normally the case consistent with the above background, did not award unreasonable contest counsel fees or grant a penalty for failure to file a bureau document within 21 days as required by law.  The WCJ reasoned that the employer “was paying the claimant’s medical bills,” and “it was not until the last hearing in this matter that the claimant produced any medical evidence establishing a specific diagnosis for his work injury other than a puncture wound.”

The claimant appealed the denial of attorney fees and penalties, but the board affirmed the WCJ’s decision.  The board held that the WCJ did not err or abuse his discretion in not awarding a penalty or attorney fees since although the employer paid for the claimant’s medical  expenses, doing so is not an admission of liability.  The board also found that the claimant was seeking a description of injury different than what was listed on the NCP.

Following the board decision, the claimant petitioned for review by the Commonwealth Court.  The court reversed the decisions of the WCJ and the board, finding that the employer presented an unreasonable contest in defending the claim petition because it had, in fact, violated the act by failing to timely issue a bureau document.  The court also noted that the employer denied all allegations in the claim petition, including ones it knew to be true, forcing the claimant to commence needless litigation.  Moreover, the employer did not  present any evidence to contest the claim petition.  Had the employer filed a bureau document timely, the claim petition would have had to be filed.

Similarly, the court found a penalty award to be appropriate, since the employer violated the act when it did not timely issue the medical only NCP as required under Section 406.1(a) of the act, thus forcing the claimant to hire an attorney, produce evidence of the injury of which it had notice, and hire an expert to review the medical records of the employer’s own company doctors who had treated him.  The act was intended to avoid this.

As a practice tip, it is vital that claimants’ attorneys zealously demand the imposition of unreasonable contest counsel fees in almost every case.  Until insurance companies actually begin to risk the forfeiture of entire counsel fee awards during the pendency of a two-year petition, they will continue to have little incentive to voluntarily accept claims that have no defense but are denied anyway for a variety if bogus reasons.  Gabriel demonstrates that a new day may have arrived in this battle.

Christian Petrucci of the Law Offices of Christian Petrucci, concentrates his practice in the areas of workers’ compensation and Social Security disability.  He also counsels injured workers in matters involving employment discrimination and unemployment compensation benefits.

GA Appeals Court Affirms Jury’s $1.2M Attorney Fee Award

October 31, 2020

A recent Daily Report story by Greg Land, “Appeals Court Affirms Jury’s $1.2M Fee Award Blocks Fee Request Under Settlement Offer Law,” reports that affirming a trial judge, the Georgia Court of Appeals said an auto accident plaintiff who gleaned a $5 million judgment from a jury that included more than $1.2 million in attorney fees was not entitled to another fee award based on Georgia’s offer of judgment statute.  Lawyers for plaintiff Joao Junior had argued that the law—which allows a plaintiff to recover his fees and expenses if a defendant rejects a settlement demand then loses in court by a sum 125% or more than the spurned offer—was “clear and unambiguous” that the fees must be added.

A Fulton County judge ruled that such a double recovery was prohibited, and the appellate opinion authored by Presiding Judge Sara Doyle with the concurrence of Chief Judge Christopher McFadden and Judge Ken Hodges agreed.  The jury had awarded Junior’s fees under another statute, allowing for such an assessment for fees incurred in cases where a defendant “has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense.”

While Georgia law and prior appellate court precedent do not necessarily bar a double fee recovery under both statutes, wrote Doyle, Junior filed his motion for fees under the offer of judgment statute after having already been awarded fees by the jury.  “In some instances,” said Doyle, a party “may have incurred fees after a jury verdict but prior to entry of the final judgment by the trial court, in which case a subsequent award under [the offer of judgment statute] by a judge for such fees would be appropriate.  “Junior, however, does not contend that he incurred such fees,” she said, and they were therefore rightly denied. 

Defendant Sharon Graham and her insurer, USAA, were represented at trial by Cruser Mitchell Novitz Sanchec Gaston & Zimet partner R. Russell Grant, who was joined in the appeal by firm partner J. Robb Cruser along with Laurie Webb Daniel and Matthew Friedlander of Holland & Knight.  “We, of course, believe the Court reached the correct result, and did so with a thoughtful and thorough analysis,” said Daniel in an email.  Plaintiffs attorney Ben Brodhead III said the opinion misinterpreted both the law and Georgia Supreme Court precedent.

“Although I have only had the decision from the Court of Appeals for a few minutes, it appears that the issue of whether fees were ‘incurred’ might be an issue that needs clarification,” said Brodhead, who represents Junior with Brodhead Law colleagues Ashley Fournet, Holli Clark and John Nichols.

“It appears,” said Brodhead via email, “the Court of Appeals is under the impression that the attorneys’ fees under 13-6-11 [the stubbornly litigious statute] go to the attorney to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.  While that might seem reasonable on the surface, it is not how contingency fee contracts are structured.”

Regardless of the fees a jury awards, the amount a lawyer makes is governed by contract, he said: 40% of the recovery in this case.  “Accordingly, whether the money recovered is for medical bills, pain and suffering, attorneys’ fees, or lost wages, it is treated the same,” he said.  Brodhead said he would be filing a motion for reconsideration or a petition for certiorari with the Georgia Supreme Court. 

As detailed in the opinion and other filings, the convoluted case began more than a decade ago when the vehicle driven by Junior, now 61, was between two other cars at a stop sign on Old Milton Parkway when Graham hit the last vehicle in line.  Junior’s Nissan Sentra was totaled, and he ultimately underwent surgery for herniated disk.  In 2010, Brodhead sent USAA a demand for Graham’s $100,000 policy limit; the insurer replied with an offer of $14,500, which Junior declined.  In 2011, Junior sued Graham in Fulton County State Court, and in 2013 Brodhead offered to settle for $600,000, which USAA also declined.  Some years later, the insurer offered it’s $100,000 limit, which Junior refused. 

Following a trial last year before Fulton County Judge John Mather, the jury found for Junior in a final judgment totaling $4,979,066, including $1,251,554 in fees and expenses under the bad faith/stubbornly litigious statute.  Junior’s lawyers then moved to have the court award attorney fees and expenses from the time the $600,000 offer was rejected under O.C.G.A. 9-11-68, the offer of judgment statute.

In rejecting the motion, Mather wrote that “the statutory language does not explicitly preclude a determination of bad faith in either scenario.”  But, Mather wrote, “[w]hile an award under the two statutes may be based upon different conduct, the fees were expended as to one defendant under one cause of action.”

“While an award under the two statutes may be based upon different conduct, the fees were expended as to one defendant under one cause of action,” he said, and “allowing Plaintiff a further award of attorney’s fees would permit a double recovery.”  In appealing the order, Junior’s lawyers wrote that the offer of judgment statute’s mandate that a prevailing party “shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation” did not involve any other sanction issued by a court or jury. 

“Specifically,” it said, “although the amount of damages under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 and the amount of sanctions under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-68 are both calculated with reference to attorneys’ fees, they are different statutes with different language that apply to different conduct that occurs at different times,” Junior’s appellate brief said. 

In upholding Mather, Doyle cited the Georgia Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Ga. Dept. of Corrections v. Couch, 295 Ga. 469, which expressly stated that fees awarded by a jury for bad faith “must be based on conduct arising from the transaction underlying the cause of action being litigated, not conduct during the course of the litigation itself.  “By contrast, attorney fees awarded under OCGA § 9-11-68 (b) are not identified as damages; they relate entirely to conduct during the course of the litigation; and they are determined post-judgment by the court rather than during trial by the jury,” that ruling said. 

Couch, however, did not address whether a claimant could recover a full amount of attorney fees under OCGA § 13-6-11 and another full amount under OCGA § 9-11-68 (b), and such a finding is not implied in this case,” Doyle wrote.  “This is because, by the time that Junior filed his motion … he had no longer ‘incurred’ the $1,251,554 in attorney fees for which he was awarded additional damages by the jury—those costs had been compensated,” Doyle wrote.

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