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Category: Fees in Escrow

Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M Fee Reduction During Appeal

March 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Brian Dowling, “Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M State St. Fee Cut Amid Appeal,” reports that Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP failed to persuade a Massachusetts federal judge to freeze $1.1 million of its fee slated for repayment in the wake of an overbilling scandal connected to a $300 million settlement with State Street Corp.  The firm, one of three ordered to repay seven-figure sums to the settlement fund, had sought to keep the money in escrow as it asks the First Circuit to review Senior U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf's reallocations of the fee award.

Denying Lieff Cabraser's motion in a 57-page order, Judge Wolf said the firm isn't likely to succeed on appeal and also faces no threat of irreparable harm if the money isn't frozen.  Instead of facing the tough odds of potentially having to recoup distributed settlement funds from the class, Lieff Cabraser would get any increase ordered by the First Circuit from its co-counsel, Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law Firm LLP.

Labaton Sucharow and Thornton received the bulk of the blame for improprieties and overbilling practices and repaid much higher sums to the settlement fund when Judge Wolf slashed the fee award from $75 million to $60 million in February 2020.  The two firms did not appeal the reallocation but supported Lieff Cabraser's request for a stay, Judge Wolf noted.

"The repeated, egregious misconduct of Labaton and Thornton alone caused the court to decide that it was most appropriate to award $60,000,000," Judge Wolf said. "If the court had allocated an additional $1,140,000 to Lieff, it would have reduced the awards to Labaton and Thornton by that amount."

Judge Wolf disputed Lieff Cabraser's arguments that the court violated noticing requirements in sanctioning it with the lower fee award.  There was no sanction, Judge Wolf said, just the court taking into account "proven misconduct of Labaton and Thornton in deciding to make a new fee award."  The court explained that its review of the attorney overbilling referred to Lieff Cabraser's conduct as "deficient" rather than as "misconduct" delineating that the firm's shortcomings were not critical to the new lower fee award.

The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that Boston-based State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade. State Street settled the claims in 2016 for $300 million.  Judge Wolf approved the initial $75 million fee in 2016 but vacated that order after allegations of double-billing surfaced in a 2016 Boston Globe report.  He appointed retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen as a special master to investigate the fee.  The firms admitted to overstating their billing but contended the $75 million fee was still proper.

Judge Rosen in 2018 recommended the firms disgorge just over $10 million, but Judge Wolf's 160-page order in late February ruled that the cuts should be even deeper and took the firms to task in the process.  Also before Judge Wolf is a legal fight between Thornton and its liability insurer over whether the company, Continental Casualty, can avoid covering the firm's attorney fees stemming from the court-ordered overbilling probe.

Article: The Right Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?

February 7, 2021

A recent New York Law Journal article by Milton Williams and Christopher Dioguardi, “Retaining the ‘Right’ Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?,” reports on different retainer types in New York.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

This article evaluates which type of retainer agreement gives attorneys the best chance to preemptively shield their retainer fees before a client ends up in bankruptcy or the Department of Justice seizes and forfeits the client’s assets.

The scenario is this: A struggling business on the precipice of bankruptcy, or a criminal defendant whose property is subject to forfeiture, would like to hire you.  The prospective client has funds available to pay its legal fees, but what if you and/or the client expect that bankruptcy trustees or the Department of Justice will soon claim those funds for themselves?

At the outset of an engagement, an attorney can structure his or her retainer agreement to protect the retainer to the greatest extent possible in the event the client’s creditor comes knocking.  New York law recognizes three types of retainers: “classic,” “security,” and “advance payment.”  And under New York law, a retainer fee is shielded from attachment so long as the client does not retain an interest in the funds. See Gala Enterprises v. Hewlett Packard Co., 970 F. Supp. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).  For this reason, described in more detail below, it is the “advance payment” retainer agreement that will likely provide the most protection.

The ‘Classic’ Retainer

This type of retainer is typically a single, up-front payment to the lawyer simply for being available to the client—the attorney commits to future legal work for a specific period of time, regardless of inconvenience or workload constraints.  The classic retainer is not for legal services, and is therefore earned upon receipt, whether or not the attorney performs any services for the client (i.e., it is nonrefundable). See Agusta & Ross v. Trancamp Contr., 193 Misc.2d 781, 785-86 (N.Y. Civ. Ct. 2002) (general retainer compensates a lawyer for “agree[ing] implicitly to turn down other work opportunities that might interfere with his ability to perform the retainer-client’s needs” and “giv[ing] up the right to be retained by a host of clients whose interests might conflict with those of the retainer-client”).

Because the classic retainer is earned upon receipt and is nonrefundable, it without a doubt provides the most protection against would-be creditors.  However, the classic retainer is really only “classic” in the sense that it relates to antiquity.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in the modern practice of law where a client would want to pay a classic retainer.  And attorneys would be remiss to draw up a nonrefundable classic retainer agreement unless certain specific conditions are met.

In general, under New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(d)(4), “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge or collect … a nonrefundable retainer fee.” Further, under Rule 1.16(e), fees paid to a lawyer in advance for legal services are nonrefundable only to the extent they have been earned by the lawyer: “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall promptly refund any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned.” See also Matter of Cooperman, 83 N.Y.2d 465, 471 (1994) (holding that nonrefundable retainer fee agreements clash with public policy and transgress the rules of professional conduct; affirming lower court decision that the use of nonrefundable fee arrangements warranted two-year suspension.); Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219 (narrowly construing the holding in Cooperman, and holding that only retainers with express non-refundability language are invalid per se).

The Security Retainer

While the classic retainer might offer the attorney the most security, the security retainer offers little defense against a client’s future creditors.  Typically, payments pursuant to a security retainer are placed in an escrow or trust account to be drawn upon only as the fee is earned.  In other words, the security retainer remains the property of the client until the attorney applies it to charges for services rendered.

So long as the client retains an interest in escrowed funds, the escrow account is attachable.  Under New York law, a security retainer may be attached so long as it is subject to the client’s “present or future control,” or is required to be returned to the client if not used to pay for services rendered. See, e.g., Lang v. State of New York, 258 A.D.2d 165, 171 (1st Dept. 1999); Potter v. MacLean, 75 A.D.3d 686, 687 (3d Dept. 2010) (defendant owed more than $20,000 in arrears on child support obligations and subsequently paid law firm a $15,000 retainer fee; the court found that the retainer fee, which was held in escrow, was subject to restraining order); M.M. v. T.M., 17 N.Y.S.3d 588, 599 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015) (wife’s restraining notice against husband’s attorney’s security retainer was valid and enforceable); see also Pahlavi v. Laidlaw Holdings, 180 A.D.2d 595, 595-96 (1st Dept. 1992) (judgment debtor deposited $50,000 with his attorney after receipt of a restraining order and the court ordered his law firm to return them).

The Advance-Payment Retainer

Similar to the security retainer, the advance-payment retainer is a fee paid in advance for all or some of the services to be performed on a specific matter.  However, unlike a security retainer, ownership of the advance-payment retainer passes to the attorney immediately upon payment in exchange for the attorney’s promise to provide the legal services.  This type of retainer is likely the best way to ensure that the client has sufficient funds to pay for expected legal services.

Under an advance-payment retainer agreement, the law firm places the money into its operating account and may use the money as it chooses, subject only to the requirement that any unearned fee paid in advance be promptly refunded to the client upon termination of the relationship (recall Rule 1.16(e)).

A client’s contingent future interest in an advance-payment retainer, if any, that would be refunded if the firm’s services were prematurely terminated is not a sufficient basis for attachment. See Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219.  Therefore, the most secure option will likely be to require an advance payment for all services to be rendered, commonly referred to as a flat or fixed fee.  In other words, a creditor would not be able to seize such a retainer, even if part of the retainer may yet be refundable.  In Gala Enterprises, the court held that because a $150,000 flat fee as well as a $500,000 flat fee were subject to refund only if the legal services were prematurely terminated, the fees were therefore not attachable.

However, just because a client has paid an advance-payment retainer, does not mean that the retainer is untouchable.  Two specific possibilities come to mind.  First, Gala Enterprises illustrates that law firms might need to defend against fraudulent conveyance claims.  That being said, if the retainer is not excessive or unreasonable, the attorney is in a good position to defend against any such claims.  It goes without saying, when establishing a flat fee—or any fee for that matter—the fee must not be excessive. See Rule 1.5(a) (“[a] lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an excessive [] fee …”).

Second, attorneys of course must not accept funds that may have been obtained by fraud. See, e.g., S.E.C. v. Princeton Economic Intern. Ltd., 84 F. Supp. 2d 443 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (lawyer who blindly accepts fees from client under circumstances that would cause reasonable lawyer to question client’s intent in paying fees accepts fees at his peril.).

Conclusion

In sum, we offer this advice:

  1. Review the Rules of Professional Conduct and case law cited herein, as well as the relevant New York State Bar Association ethics opinions, specifically: Ethics Opinion 570, June 7, 1985; Ethics Opinion 816, Oct. 25, 2007; Ethics Opinion 983, Oct. 8, 2013; and Ethics Opinion 1202, Dec. 2, 2020.
  1. Be transparent and direct with prospective clients regarding retainer agreements.
  2. A reasonable advance-payment retainer for all services to be rendered will give attorneys the most protection against future unknown creditors.
  3. Make clear in the retainer agreement that the client acknowledges and agrees that the advance-payment will become the law firm’s property upon receipt and will be deposited into the law firm’s operating account, not into an escrow account or a segregated bank account.
  4. Acknowledge in the retainer agreement that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of advance payment based on the value of the legal services performed prior to termination.

Milton Williams is a partner and Christopher Dioguardi is an associate at Walden Macht & Haran LLP in New York.

Lieff Cabraser to Appeal Attorney Fee Reduction Before Paying It

January 27, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Chris Villani, “Lieff Wants To Appeal $1M State St. Fee Cut Before Paying It,” reports that Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP asked a federal judge to hold off on ordering the firm to pay out a $1.1 million chunk of its fee for work on a years-old $300 million settlement with State Street Corp. so it can ask the First Circuit whether the repayment is justified.  In the latest salvo stemming from revelations of overbilling and other improprieties largely laid on its co-class counsel, Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law Firm LLP, Lieff Cabraser told U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf that once the money goes out, the firm is not likely to get it back.

Lieff Cabraser is appealing its part of the overall fee reduction order by Judge Wolf that slashed the tab owed to it, Labaton Sucharow and Thornton Law from $75 million to $60 million.  "Under the fee order, absent a stay, Lieff Cabraser's escrowed funds will be distributed to the class before the First Circuit can rule on the firm's appeal from the court's decision to penalize Lieff Cabraser," the firm said.  "Recovering those funds from the class, once distributed, will be impossible — effectively mooting the appeal."

But the vast majority of the money ordered repaid can go out right away, Lieff Cabraser argued, so the class of consumers who alleged they were swindled by State Street and Employee Retirement Income Security Act lawyers who worked on the case can get the rest of the money without any delay.  Putting a pause on the $1,139,4572 of Lieff Cabraser's money would not inconvenience anyone in line for a payout since it would take some time to distribute the funds even if the firm was not appealing, it said.

"Complete settlement distributions — especially those involving settlement funds in the hundreds of millions of dollars — commonly take years, not months," the firm said.  The case has wound through the court system since the suit, led by the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, was first filed against State Street in 2011.  The parties reached a $300 million settlement and Judge Wolf approved a $75 million fee in 2016.  The order was vacated after allegations of double-billing surfaced in a Boston Globe report.

Judge Wolf appointed retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen as a special master to investigate, and the probe ran up a seven-figure tab paid by the firms under investigation.  In a February order, Judge Wolf took Labaton Sucharow and Thornton Law to task, saying they repeatedly violated the rules of professional conduct by overbilling and failing to disclose a $4.1 million finder's fee paid to a lawyer who did not work on the case.  Lieff Cabraser's appeal is the only one to come from Judge Wolf's order and challenges a narrow set of issues pertaining only to findings related to the firm and alleged violations of Rule 11, which concerns representations made to the court in civil cases.

Judge Wolf indicated he would retain counsel to represent himself and his order before the First Circuit, but no attorney appearance has been entered on the First Circuit docket and no one filed an opposition to Lieff Cabraser's appeal.  It was also unclear, both to Lieff Cabraser and to the First Circuit, whether Judge Wolf's order last February was "final."  The firm told the appellate court it felt it had to treat the February order as "final" lest it lose the chance to appeal altogether, but Judge Wolf entered a "final judgment" on Jan. 19 of this year and Lieff Cabraser acknowledged to the First Circuit that the question of whether an actual appealable order existed last summer was murky.

In September, the First Circuit said it would dismiss the appeal without prejudice, writing that "the district court appears to have simultaneously treated its order as both final and non-final; that is, the court sought to retain counsel to file a brief in this court in support of its order and at the same time has issued several post-fee orders, the cumulative effect of which may well be to alter the fee ruling."  With the final judgment entered, Lieff Cabraser plans to revive its appeal, which has centered on due process issues and is a matter of first impression in the circuit.

A strict adherence to notice requirements in Rule 11 matters is necessary, Lieff Cabraser argued, because "sanctions imposed on the court's own motion circumvent the adversarial process, putting the district court in the position of being the 'accuser, fact-finder and sentencing judge all in one.'"  Five circuits, the firm has argued, have found that sanctions like the ones imposed by Judge Wolf are problematic "when a court fails to set out the precise issues to be considered."

"This issue has not directly been addressed by the First Circuit," the firm said, "although the circuit has noted that 'judges must be especially careful where they are both prosecutor and judge.'"  The underlying suit alleged Boston-based State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.  The law firms admitted to overstating their billing but contended the $75 million fee award initially approved by Judge Wolf was still proper.  The special master, Rosen, recommended in 2018 that the firms disgorge just over $10 million, but Judge Wolf's 160-page order in late February ruled that the cuts should be even deeper.

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