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Category: Fee Issues on Appeal

Four Season’s $11M Fee Dispute in Arbitration

June 5, 2017

A recent the Law 360 story by Natalie Olivo, “Four Seasons Hotel’s $11M Fee Spat Sent to Arbitration,” reports that the owners of a Four Seasons-branded hotel in Los Angeles will have to arbitrate their request for the hotel chain to return an award of nearly $11 million in legal fees stemming from a contract dispute over split loyalties, after a California judge cited the companies’ arbitration agreement.

In sending Burton Way Hotels LLC’s fee request to arbitration, U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez noted that Ontario-based Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. has contended that the parties’ arbitration agreement covers the fee request, which should be decided by a new arbitration panel.  In addition, Judge Gutierrez said, Burton Way has indicated that it was also willing to have the fee request decided in arbitration.

“In light of the clear language in the parties’ arbitration agreement providing for the arbitrators’ power to adjudicate the questions presented in Burton Way’s fees motion, and the parties’ mutual agreement to bring the fees motion before the new arbitration panel, the court concludes that the fees motion is to be decided by the new arbitrators pursuant to the parties’ arbitration agreement,” Judge Gutierrez said.

The award at issue was handed down in underlying arbitration that dismissed Burton Way’s claims accusing Four Seasons Hotels of breaching their deal for the exclusive use of the brand and ordering Burton Way to pay Four Seasons $10.2 million in fees and costs.  However, after the Ninth Circuit vacated the award in October, Burton Way sought to have the payment returned, saying it is now owed more than $10.9 million with interest.

Neal Marder, an Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP attorney representing Burton Way, told Law360 that "we advised the court that Burton Way was comfortable with the panel deciding this issue so the decision was welcomed and not unexpected."

The dispute over Four Seasons' decision to manage and operate the nearby Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which Burton Way says is a direct competitor, has been barreling back toward arbitration at least since Judge Gutierrez refused Burton Way's bid last month to void an agreement to arbitrate the dispute over a licensing deal under which Four Seasons has managed the Burton Way-owned Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles since the late 1980s.

Burton Way had claimed the arbitration agreement was void because the hotel owner agreed to it only if a certain judge — who recused himself in January under a request from Burton Way alleging improper ex parte communications — was involved in the arbitration.  But Judge Gutierrez instead ruled that the provisions did not reference the judge in a way that would render the agreement void now that he has recused himself.

Following Judge Gutierrez’s order declining to void the agreement, the parties have squared off over remaining issues in the dispute.  Four Seasons in April told the court that Burton Way could not relitigate the entire contract case, arguing that the Ninth Circuit issued a very limited mandate for still-live issues to be contested when the case returns to arbitration.

According to Judge Gutierrez’s order, Four Seasons had noted that Burton Way’s fee request depends on a determination of which party is the “prevailing party, which is a question reserved for the arbitrators.

While Burton Way had also agreed to arbitrate its fee request, the company claimed that Four Seasons was trying to keep the district court from ruling on the fees motion on the grounds that it has no jurisdiction under the parties’ arbitration agreement, while at the same time asking the court to rule on the scope of the Ninth Circuit’s order, rather than allowing both issues to be arbitrated.

The case is Burton Way Hotels Ltd. et al. v. Four Seasons Hotels Ltd., case number 2:11-cv-00303, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Jenner Wins Fees in Contingency Agreement

May 23, 2017

A recent the NLJ story by Marcia Coyle, “Skadden Loses a Tax Dispute, and Jenner Wins Fee Fight,” reports that Jenner & Block won fees in a case, Parallel Networks v. Jenner & Block, that stemmed from a 2007 contingency fee arrangement in which Jenner agreed to represent Parallel Networks in two patent cases.

The fee arrangement contained a provision that allowed the law firm to withdraw from the representation and still get fees whenever it “determine[d] at any time that it is not in its economic interest to continue the representation.”  If the firm withdrew, Parallel Networks was to pay “an appropriate and fair portion of the Contingent Fee Award” at “the conclusion of any” patent lawsuit.  The agreement also called for arbitration of any disputes.

Jenner & Block did withdraw.  New counsel entered and settled the two patent cases.  In 2011, Jenner submitted a $10 million fee request that Parallel Networks would challenge.  The dispute went to arbitration and Jenner was awarded $3 million and a 16 percent future contingent stake.  On appeal, Parallel Networks argued the withdraw-and-still-pay provision was prohibited under Texas law.  Texas state courts upheld the award.

In the high court, Parallel Networks, represented by Daniel Geyser of Stris & Maher, argued the circuit courts were divided over whether public policy challenges are viable under the Federal Arbitration Act and also are confused about the permissible grounds for vacating arbitration awards following the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Hall Street Associates v. Mattel.  “There is simply no indication that Congress intended to intrude on the power of state courts, acting under settled state law, to resist arbitration awards that violate core state public policies,” Geyser wrote.

Jenner & Block waived its right to respond to Parallel Network’s petition.  In earlier litigation, the law firm had argued that it had invested 24,000 hours in the patent litigation, which formed the basis for the later successful outcome.  The firm said it had reason to withdraw because Parallel Networks was habitually late reimbursing litigation expenses.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” Geyser said.  “There was an acknowledged conflict on an important issue that has caused substantial confusion in the lower courts.  This case was an appropriate vehicle, and we wish the court had decided to take it up.”

Ninth Circuit Upholds Fees for Fees Under Statute

April 24, 2017

A recent Metropolitan News story by Kenneth Ofgang, “Panel Upholds Award of ‘Fees-on-Fees’ Under Statute” reports that a statute that permits federal judges to sanction attorneys for vexatious litigation permits an award of fees to opposing counsel for litigating the right to fees, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

In a published order, the panel—Judges Alex Kozinski, Richard A. Paez, and Marsha S. Berzon—denied reconsideration of the appellate commissioner’s ruling calculating sanctions against Boston attorney Michael J. Flynn and his client, Timothy Blixseth.  The two were ordered to pay nearly $192,000 in fees and costs incurred by several creditors of Blixseth, a co-founder of the bankrupt Yellowstone Mountain Club.  Blixseth was found jointly liable for all but around $34,000 of the award, for which Flynn was found separately liable by statute.

Blixseth and one of his ex-wives developed the Yellow Mountain Club as an exclusive resort for “ultra-wealthy” golfers and skiers.  He has blamed the 2008 mortgage crisis for the collapse of his finances.  His wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.3 billion when it named him one of the 400 wealthiest Americans in 2006.  Creditors have claimed Blixseth has hidden assets.

Blixseth, represented by Flynn, appealed the denial of a motion to recuse the District of Montana bankruptcy judge assigned to his case.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the district judge that Blixseth’s accusations were “a transparent attempt to wriggle out of an unfavorable decision by smearing the reputation of the judge who made it.”

In August 2015, the Ninth Circuit panel said Blixseth and Flynn were subject to attorney fees incurred by creditors on that appeal, citing Rule 38 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and 28 U.S.C. §1927.  “If a court of appeals determines that an appeal is frivolous, it may, after a separately filed motion or notice from the court and reasonable opportunity to respond, award just damages and single or double costs to the appellee.”

Section 1927 provides: “Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.”

In the order, the panel agreed with the appellate commissioner that fees incurred in litigating the right to fees, or “fees on fees,” cannot be awarded under Rule 38, but may be awarded under §1927.  The panel also denied, without comment, Flynn’s motion that the judges recuse themselves.

Because Rule 38 refers to “damages,” the judges said, it is not a fee-shifting statute, and the only attorney fees that may be awarded under the rule are those “incurred in defending against the frivolous issues or frivolous portions of an appeal.”

Section 1927, by contrast, “may be characterized as a fee-shifting provision, despite its sanctions trigger,” the panel said.  The legislation’s purpose, the judges said, it to shift the burden of the vexatious litigation onto the vexatious lawyer, noting that fee-shifting statutes generally are interpreted as permitting the award of “fees on fees.”

The case is Blixseth v. Yellowstone Mountain Club, LLC, 12-35986.

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.

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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