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Category: Fee Issues on Appeal

SCOTUS Rules Fee Awards from Bad Faith Must Be Compensatory, Not Punitive

April 18, 2017

A recent The Recorder by Ross Todd, “At Odds With 9th Circuit, SCOTUS Nixes $2.7M in Discovery Sanctions,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court held on Tuesday that attorney fee awards resulting from acts of bad faith in litigation must be causally linked to the underlying misconduct.

In a unanimous 13-page opinion (pdf), Justice Elena Kagan reversed a $2.7 million fee award against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. finding that sanctions in civil cases “must be compensatory rather than punitive in nature.”  The upper end of fee award sanctions, Kagan wrote, should be “limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct—or put another way, to the fees that party would not have incurred but for the bad faith.”

Goodyear’s case drew amicus support from the American Bar Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.  Both warned that failure to require a direct causal link between penalties and a litigant’s discovery abuses could lead to outsized and abusive sanctions awards.

Tuesday’s decision reverses a 2015 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that put Goodyear on the hook for all $2.7 million in legal fees incurred by Leroy, Donna, Barry, and Suzanne Haeger after an alleged discovery violation in their personal injury case.  The Haegers claimed that faulty Goodyear tires caused a 2003 accident involving their motor home in which they all suffered serious injuries.

For years with the case pending at the trial court, the Haegers’ lawyer had asked the company to hand over all test results for the tire model in question.  But only after the case settled pretrial in 2010 for an undisclosed sum did the Haegers’ lawyer learn from a newspaper article that Goodyear had disclosed test results in separate litigation that he’d never seen.

In response to a motion for sanctions U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver in Phoenix issued an order in 2012 forcing Goodyear to pay its opponents legal fees and costs from the moment when she found Goodyear made its first dishonest discovery response.  Although the judge acknowledged that sanctions are limited to fees caused by the misconduct in the “usual” case, she wrote that Goodyear’s sanctionable conduct rose “to a truly egregious level.”

A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed Silver’s finding that she could grant attorney’s fees incurred “during the time when” Goodyear was acting in bad faith.  But in dissent, Circuit Judge Paul Watford wrote that his colleagues had mistakenly pointed to “a temporal limitation, not a causal one” to justify the sanction.  “A sanctioning court must determine which fees were incurred because of, and solely because of, the misconduct at issue (however serious, or concurrent with a lawyer’s work, it might have been),” wrote Watford, in a section quoted by Kagan.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in Tuesday’s decision.

Fifth Circuit: Defense Fees/Costs Can Count Against Insurance Policy Limits

April 7, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Rick Archer, “Policy Limits Apply to Hospital System’s Defense Claims,” reports that the Fifth Circuit has ruled defense costs can count against insurance policy limits, leaving Mississippi-based hospital system Singing River Health Services is on the hook for some of the legal fees it paid defending itself from pension fraud claims.  The panel reversed a district court decision that SRHS’ defense costs did not erode its policy limit with Federal Insurance Co., finding it ignored the wording of the policy.

“Reading several clauses out of the policy, including ones that make clear that a non-eroding policy will cost extra, is inconsistent with the requirement to consider the language of the policy as a whole,” Judge Catharina Haynes, writing the opinion for the panel, said.

The suit stems from costs the hospital system incurred defending against federal class actions and two state suits accusing it of failing to make annual required contributions into a retirement fund.  The hospital settled the suits in January 2016 for $156 million.

Federal Insurance had argued a $1 million policy limit applied to the defense costs, while SRHS claimed Federal was obligated to pay the entire cost.  A district court agreed the limit did not apply to defense costs, but also found a number of SRHS’ claims were barred by a policy exclusion for losses resulting from employee benefits program laws.

The panel reversed the district court on the policy limits decision, saying the policy explicitly states defense costs erode the policy limit, and that SRHS specifically declined to purchase extra coverage for defense costs.  The panel also rejected claims state law requires the defense costs be covered and that the eroding coverage clause was invalid because it was not placed in SRHS’ board’s minutes.

“Mississippi law does not allow the courts to use rules of construction to defeat the parties’ own agreement as expressed in the policy, Judge Haynes said.  The panel upheld the district court hearing on the exclusion, rejecting SRHS’ claim that it did not apply because the plaintiffs made constitutional and common law claims with an argument that those laws also govern pension plans.

“Accordingly, they ‘govern’ employee benefit plans because the obligations they create control the pension plans.  Indeed, the plaintiffs in the SRHS lawsuits only bring claims under the identified common law and statutes because they create obligations with which pension plans must comply,” Judge Haynes said.

The case is Federal Insurance Company v. Singing River Health System, case number 15-60876 in the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Attorney Fees Against Lloyd’s Underwriters Affirmed

March 31, 2017

A recent Business Insurance story by Judy Greenwald, “Bad Faith, Attorneys Fee Awards Against Lloyd’s Underwriters Affirmed,” reports that a California appeals court has upheld a $50,000 punitive damages award plus more than $1 million in attorneys fees (known as Brandt fees in California) against Lloyd’s of London underwriters in connection with its denial of coverage under a fire insurance policy because of a mistake in listing the insured.

In January 2011, the Saddleback property suffered a fire resulting in a $2,150,000 million loss, and Saddleback submitted a claim to Lloyd’s, which hired an attorney to investigate the loss.  In May 2011, the attorney sent a letter to Saddleback on behalf of Lloyd’s denying coverage “because Saddleback owned the property and J.K. Properties did not have an insurable interest in the damaged property,” according to the ruling.

J.K. Property and Saddleback filed suit against defendants including Lloyd’s in January 2012, charging breach of contract, professional negligence and bad faith.  An amended complaint added a reformation cause of action to add Saddleback as an additional insured on the policy at issue.  A reformation is a remedy available when an otherwise valid insurance policy does not reflect the parties’ true intentions.

At a bifurcated hearing in July 2014 in Santa Ana, the court determined Saddleback and Lloyd’s had intended Saddleback be named as the insured under the policy, and the court reformed the contract to list the named insured as “Saddleback Inn, LLC and JK Properties, Inc., dba Saddleback Inn.” Lloyd’s paid Saddleback $2,884,583, reflecting the $2,150,00 for the fire damage and $734,583 in interest.

During the second phase of the trial, a jury determined Lloyd’s had unreasonably denied payments and awarded Saddleback $50,000 in punitive damages, plus $1,062,117 in attorneys fees and expenses.  Lloyd’s appealed the punitive damages and attorneys fees awards, which a three-judge California Court of Appeals panel unanimously affirmed. 

“Underwriters argue there is no bad faith liability as matter of law when an insurer properly denied coverage under a policy as issued, even if a court later reforms the policy to provide coverage,” said the ruling.  However, said the court, “Ultimately, a claim for bad faith liability hinges on whether the insurer’s refusal to pay policy benefits was reasonable at the time.”

Federal Circuit: EAJA Fee Awards Must Use Local Rates

March 16, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Chuck Stanley, “Fed. Circuit Says EAJA Legal Fees Must Use Local Costs,” reports that awards for attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) must be calculated based on the location where the work was done, a Federal Circuit panel said in a precedential ruling.

The federal circuit rejected a veteran’s widow’s claim that ambiguity in the statute allows her to adjust upward the hourly rate for calculating attorneys’ fees in a benefits suit based on the consumer price index (CPI) in Washington, D.C., where the case was heard but little other work was done.

Instead, the panel ruled that Paula Parrott should have provided individual rates for work done in Dallas, San Francisco and Washington in order to win an adjustment from the statutory rate of $125 per hour, rather than using the CPI for a single city or the national CPI to calculate a single rate.

The decision upheld the Veterans Court’s decision to award Parrott fees based on the statutory rate because she failed to provide rates for each city where work had been done on the case.

“We think the local CPI approach, where a local CPI is available … is more consistent with EAJA than the national approach.  We therefore hold that the Veterans Court did not err in ruling that the local CPI approach represented the correct method of calculating the adjustment in Ms. Parrott’s attorney’s hourly rate,” the decision states.

Parrott had claimed more than $7,200 in legal expenses in a suit over benefits for her husband, a deceased veteran, based on an upward adjustment from the statutory hourly rate based on the cost of living in Washington, D.C.  Language in the EAJA, which provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to victorious parties fighting agency action, stipulates that a $125 cap on hourly rates can be adjusted upward due to an increase in the cost of living.

But Parrott argued the statute is ambiguous regarding the method used to calculate such an increase.  She further claimed the Veterans Court was obliged to accept her cost estimate because ambiguity in a statute related to veterans benefits must be construed in favor of the veteran.

However, the panel ruled the EAJA is not ambiguous because using the national CPI rather than local numbers would incentivize more attorneys to accept cases challenging government agencies in low-cost areas rather than pricier areas.  Further, the panel found Parrott’s claim the Veterans Court was required to side with her is not applicable to the EAJA since it is not a veterans benefit statute, but applies to all litigants against executive agencies.

The case is Parrott v. Shulkin, case number 2016-1450, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Attorney Fees Not Subject to Damages Cap in Wage Case

March 8, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Zack Needles, “Attorney Fees Not Subject to Damages Cap in Wage Case, Court Says,” reports that attorney fees can be awarded under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL), even if they cause the total recovery to exceed a voluntary $25,000 damages cap, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in a case of first impression.

Under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1311.1, a plaintiff can elect to limit the maximum amount of damages recoverable to $25,000 in exchange for looser evidence admission requirements at a trial following compulsory arbitration.  In a published opinion in Grimm v. Universal Medical Services, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously ruled that such a cap does not preclude an award of attorney fees under the WPCL that pushes the total recovery above $25,000.

The decision affirmed a Beaver County trial court's award of $43,080.66, comprising an $11,683.92 jury award, plus $2,920.98 in liquidated damages and $28,475.76 in attorney fees and costs under the WPCL.  The appeals court upheld Beaver County Court of Common Pleas Judge James J. Ross' ruling, which reasoned that attorney fees in excess of the damages cap should be permitted because "a prevailing plaintiff in a [WPCL] claim must be made whole and not be required to expend his or her award to pay his or her attorney."

Judge John T. Bender, writing for the Superior Court, agreed with Ross' rationale, noting that Rule 1311.1 is intended to streamline litigation in order to make it more economically feasible for plaintiffs, while the WPCL is meant to allow plaintiffs to collect unpaid wages and compensation without having to spend their entire recovery on legal fees.

"In this way, both Rule 1311.1 and the WPCL aim to make litigation more accessible and affordable to aggrieved litigants, particularly those with meritorious claims," Bender said.  "In this case, we believe we are promoting this overarching policy by interpreting 'damages recoverable' in Rule 1311.1(a) to exclude attorneys' fees under the WPCL."  Bender was joined by Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Carl A. Solano.

In Grimm, plaintiff Jeffrey P. Grimm sued defendants Universal Medical Services Inc. and Roderick K. Reeder, alleging breach of contract against Universal for failure to reimburse business expenses and a WPCL claim against both defendants on the same basis, according to Bender.

The case proceeded to compulsory arbitration, with an award in favor of the defendants.  Grimm appealed to the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, electing to cap damages at $25,000 under Rule 1311.1, and the case proceeded to a jury trial, Bender said.

The jury awarded damages to Grimm in the amount of $11,683.92 and, finding that Universal acted in bad faith in failing to reimburse him, the court added 25 percent, or $2,920.98, to the jury award, resulting in a total of $14,604.90, according to Bender.  Grimm then sought attorney fees in the amount of $25,946.25 and litigation costs in the amount of $2,529.51 under the WPCL.

While the defendants argued that the phrase "damages recoverable" in Rule 1311.1 encompassed attorney fees, Grimm contended that attorney fees are payments in addition to a jury award intended to make the plaintiff whole.

Bender noted that Ross, in his analysis, looked first at the analogous 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Allen v. Mellinger, in which then-Justice Ralph Cappy wrote in a concurring and dissenting opinion that delay damages in cases involving bodily injury, death or property damage under Pa.R.Civ.P. 238 should not be subject to the statutory cap of $250,000 when the state is a defendant in a bodily injury claim.

In the 2005 case LaRue v. McGuire, as Ross also noted in his opinion, the Superior Court relied on Cappy's reasoning in Allen to find that delay damages under Rule 238 were not subject to the Rule 1311.1 damages cap.

While the defendants attempted to distinguish Grimm from Allen and LaRue by arguing that delay damages are an extension of compensatory damages intended to make the plaintiff whole, while attorney fees serve no such purpose, Bender disagreed.

"It is clear that the award of attorneys' fees under the WPCL accomplishes the purpose of making a plaintiff whole, just like the delay damages in Allen and LaRue," Bender said.

Insurer Fights Fee Discovery in Texas

February 22, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court Told to Nix Attys’ Fee Discovery Ruling,” reports that National Lloyd's Insurance Co. urged the Texas Supreme Court to upend a lower...

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