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Category: Fee Issues on Appeal

Article: Since When Do Attorneys Have to Pay the Opposing Counsel Fees?!

February 20, 2021

A recent article by Deena Duffy, “Since When Do Attorneys Have to Pay the Opposing Counsel Fees?! reports on how attorneys can be held responsible for opposing counsel fees in Ohio.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys can be Held Responsible for Opposing Legal Fees if Discovery Rules are Neglected

This may be a question that has never crossed your mind.  If so, then good for you. It means you’ve likely never been faced with sanctions.  However, just because you haven’t, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of the possibility.

What happens when your client is served discovery requests that require review of a large number of documents prior to production to the other side, yet, your client refuses to be involved in the review?  What if not only does your client refuse to engage in the review, but also refuses to engage in any negotiations aimed at making the review more manageable?  Quite clearly, these actions likely won’t bode well for your client.  Even more unfortunately for you, as this client’s attorney, you yourself could land in hot water with the court, even resulting in you being personally responsible for a portion of opposing counsel’s fees.

As we all know, some jurisdictions are more lenient when it comes to discovery rules while others – not so much.  To that extent, it is crucial to be familiar with not only the discovery rules for the jurisdiction you’re in.  Moreover, the growing importance of becoming aware of the potential ramifications of not complying with those discovery rules cannot be understated.

In a recent case out of Second District Court of Appeals of Ohio, an attorney learned the hard way what happens when you let the client run the show.  As attorneys, our duty is obviously to be zealous advocates for our clients and to provide them with advice and guidance related to their case.  However, we need to recognize that during the course of our representation, it becomes our responsibility to ensure that the client is doing what the court has ordered.

This particular discovery and sanctions issue arose out of a civil action where Plaintiff alleged that Defendant engaged in tortious interference with business relationships, defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.  During the discovery phase, which began in December 2017, the Defense served Plaintiff with several requests for document production.  In Plaintiff’s interrogatory responses, Plaintiff identified 68 witnesses as having information related to his claims.  Defense counsel proposed that Plaintiff provide his multiple email accounts and their passwords to the Defense’s expert, who would then run searches for the 68 witness names.  The Court approved of the plan; however, the Plaintiff did not, arguing that this approach did not account for the protection of privileged information.

On appeal, the case was remanded and the parties came to an agreement regarding production wherein the first search the expert would conduct would be the names of privileged individuals.  The results of that search would go to Plaintiff counsel to review and produce a privilege log related to those documents.  The remainder of the non-privileged emails that hit on the 68 witness names would then be produced.  Defense counsel provided a list of potential search terms to Plaintiff counsel, who had no objections or modifications to the list.  Herein appears to be the end of Plaintiff’s cooperation in the discovery process.

The search for privileged names returned roughly 3,200 emails.  Plaintiff’s counsel identified roughly 2,700 of them as actually being privileged and produced a privilege log, though woefully insufficient.  The second search, for the 68 witness names, returned roughly 50,000 emails.  Following the second search, Defense counsel requested that Plaintiff modify their discovery responses.  This would assist in modifying the search term list in an attempt to cull out potentially non-responsive results to make the potentially responsive population easier to manage.  Defense counsel didn’t hear anything from Plaintiff counsel for two weeks, at which point the Plaintiff refused to modify the discovery responses.  Plaintiff did suggest that Defense counsel somehow modify the search term list to be able to discern between “material” and “relevant” discoverable information, yet provided no suggestion on how this might be accomplished.  Plaintiff counsel also informed Defense counsel that Plaintiff blatantly refused to review any emails prior to 2013, arguing that there is no way they could be relevant.  Defense counsel continued attempting to negotiate with Plaintiff to methodically deal with the large population of emails; however, Plaintiff counsel never responded to Defense counsel’s suggestions.

After roughly 15 months, the Defense filed a motion for sanctions, arguing that Plaintiff (1) refused to provide a sufficient privilege log, (2) refused to review or provide any emails from pre-2013, (3) refused to review or provide any emails related to the second search, and (4) failed to respond or negotiate regarding any suggestions made by the Defendant to move forward in the discovery phase.  At the sanctions hearing, Plaintiff counsel wasn’t in any position to help himself or his client.  Plaintiff admitted that he didn’t review a single email out of the 50,000 that resulted from the search, saying that he glanced at the list but found it overwhelming, repeatedly stating that the expert never actually ran the search terms.  In response to being asked about the pre-2013 emails, Plaintiff said, “I did not even [expletive] know the defendant during that time and it wasn’t relevant to this particular action.”  The Defense claimed they were relevant for two reasons – first to prove that Plaintiff routinely engaged in vexatious litigation, and second to prove that Plaintiff had been engaging with the witnesses as early as 2010 due to his involvement with the Defendant’s church business.

Eventually, Judge Hall granted the sanctions motion, finding Plaintiff in contempt for failing to comply with the December 2018 agreed discovery order.  A few months later, a hearing was held on the matter of attorneys’ fees, of which the court ordered Plaintiff and Plaintiff counsel, jointly and severally, to pay Defense counsel’s attorney fees, totaling $11,835.00.

In its analysis, the Court routinely returned to the fact that Plaintiff not only failed to review any of the documents, but that he blatantly refused to do so.  The Court noted that the discovery order to which the parties had agreed did not give Plaintiff the option to choose to review the emails but rather the duty to do so.  Plaintiff alleged more than once that the list of documents to review was overwhelming; however, Plaintiff refused to engage in any negotiations with the Defense regarding potential modifications to make the population more manageable.

In Ohio, the civil rules allow for an attorney to be sanctioned for failing to comply with discovery orders per Civ. R. 37(B)(3).  The Court, in granting sanctions against Plaintiff counsel, argued that Plaintiff counsel continued to repeat baseless allegations about Defense counsel’s motives and that it was “especially egregious” for Plaintiff counsel to continually blame the Defendant for Plaintiff’s negligent conduct regarding discovery.

This case, while unfortunate for Plaintiff and Plaintiff counsel, should serve as a reminder to attorneys of the need to be genuine in their efforts regarding discovery.  It should go without saying that, due to attorney ethics and candor requirements, attorneys are responsible for following orders issued by the court and that failure to do so could result in the misbehaving attorney being found personally responsible for a portion of opposing counsel’s fees.

Moral of the Story

Not only is it important to understand what is required with regard to jurisdictional discovery rules, but also to understand what could happen the rules aren’t followed.

Deena Duffy is staff attorney at Spencer Fane LLP in Minneapolis.

PA Enviro Board Can Weigh ‘Bad Faith’ in Awarding Attorney Fees

February 17, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Pa. Enviro Board Can Weight ‘Bad Faith’ in Awarding Attorney Fees,” reports that the administrative board that hears appeals of decisions by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection was justified in denying attorney fees to environmental groups that reached a settlement with Sunoco over its Mariner East 2 pipeline, since the board found neither side acted in "bad faith," a state appellate court ruled.

A majority of the Commonwealth Court ruled the state's Environmental Hearing Board could deny a petition for fees from the Clean Air Council, The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association Inc. based on the so-called bad faith standard, since neither the environmental groups nor Sunoco had acted in bad faith through the groups' appeal of the DEP granting permits for the pipeline, which resulted in a settlement between the groups and the state.

The environmental groups had argued that the board should have applied the looser "catalyst test," which would have only required them to show that their appeal was the motivating factor behind some benefit conferred by the other side in order to trigger fee-shifting provisions in the state's Clean Streams Law and have Sunoco pay their nearly $230,000 legal bill.

"Contrary to objectors' assertions, the catalyst test is not the sole and exclusive standard that EHB may employ in disposing of a request for costs and fees against a permittee under ... the Clean Streams Law.  Indeed, we have specifically recognized that EHB's 'broad discretion includes the authority to adopt standards by which it will evaluate applications for costs and fees,'" wrote Judge Michael H. Wojcik for the majority.  "It was entirely within EHB's discretion, and eminently appropriate, to apply the instant bad faith standard in deciding whether or not to impose costs and fees upon a private party permittee."  The court ruled that the EHB had wide discretion when weighing whether and how to award fees, and in a separate decision it upheld another EHB ruling that had cut the fees awarded to a family that challenged the DEP permits for another part of the pipeline crossing their land.

The environmental groups had challenged 20 permits the DEP had granted Sunoco for construction of a pipeline linking gas wells in Western Pennsylvania to a refinery in the east. The matter wound its way through various proceedings before the EHB until the challengers reached a deal with the DEP in which it would establish a "stakeholder group" on pipeline construction and would put more of its permitting documents online in exchange for the groups dropping their challenge.  The DEP also agreed to pay $27,500 of the challengers' legal fees.

But the challengers then asked the EHB to make Sunoco pay additional legal bills related to their appeal, and Sunoco filed its own petition to make the environmental groups pay nearly $300,000 toward what it had spent defending the permits.  The EHB was split, with the majority saying it could apply the bad-faith standard and find that neither side had "engaged in dilatory, obdurate, vexatious, or bad faith conduct in the course of prosecuting or defending" the appeals.  The minority had agreed that neither side was entitled to fees, but said the bad-faith test was not necessary and the board had broad discretion to award fees as it saw fit.

The environmental groups and the DEP both appealed, though the Commonwealth Court found the DEP lacked standing and granted Sunoco's bid to quash that side of the appeal because the state agency hadn't formally intervened in the fee debate and would not have been affected by the EHB ruling against the private parties.

President Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, expressing concerns that the EHB's discretion might be so broad that the particular section of the Clean Streams Law might run afoul of the state constitution's requirement that the law contain standards to "guide and restrain" the administrative board's decision-making.  But because that issue wasn't brought up on appeal, and the EHB had denied either side any fees, this wasn't the case to address that with, Judge Brobson wrote.  In this case, there was no reason Sunoco should have been required to pay, he said.

"There is absolutely no basis in the record upon which the EHB could have exercised its discretion below in such a way as to compel Sunoco to pay objectors' legal fees," he wrote. "Sunoco was not a party to the settlement agreement between objectors and DEP that essentially ended objectors' appeals.  Moreover, Sunoco gave up nothing in the settlement or otherwise.  Sunoco kept its permits, unaltered, as if objectors had not even filed their appeals with the EHB."

A dissenting opinion from Judge Ellen Ceisler said the courts shouldn't apply a tougher standard to permit holders when the DEP itself could have been made to pay fees under the catalyst test.  "It does not therefore seem reasonable that, in theory, the DEP could be saddled with fees and costs in response to inadvertent mistakes or good faith, negotiated compromises or settlements, while a permittee could get off scot-free under similar circumstances unless it has conducted itself in a dilatory, obdurate, or vexatious way," she wrote.

The court then applied its ruling to a separate appeal by the DEP of another EHB order, which said the state had to pay about $13,000 of a family's requested $266,000 in fees from the DEP and Sunoco.  Huntingdon County landowners Stephen and Ellen Gerhart had convinced the EHB in 2019 that the DEP had misclassified a wetland on their property and that Sunoco had to do more work to restore it after completing the pipeline's construction.  But the EHB held Sunoco to the bad-faith standard and the DEP to the catalyst test in parceling out who was responsible for the reduced fee award.

Following the same logic as its ruling in the Clean Air Council case, the court affirmed that the EHB had the discretion to apply both standards in awarding fees.  "We agree that the statute and the case law grant broad discretion to the EHB in setting the standard and applying it," said Robert Fox of Manko Gold Katcher & Fox LLP, representing Sunoco in both cases.  An attorney for the environmental groups said they were weighing the decision and their options.

The attorney for the Gerharts said he thought the court correctly balanced the different standards for fee-shifting against the state and against private actors, but noted that in cases like his where the DEP and Sunoco essentially worked together to defend the permits, the state would have to be mindful of whether it would need to build a record to establish that the permit-holder was acting in bad faith.

Delaware Supreme Court to Decide on ‘Mootness Fee’

February 15, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Del. Justices Unsure $12M Deal ‘Mootness Fee’ Is Off-Base”, reports that a Delaware Supreme Court justice questioned calls for the reversal of a supposedly unsupported, $12 million Chancery Court "mootness fee" to stockholder attorneys whose successful challenge to a Versum Materials Inc. merger poison pill begat a deal that was $1.2 billion higher.

During arguments on an appeal filed by Versum and its directors, Justice Karen L. Valihura told the company's counsel William Lafferty of Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell LLP that Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster acknowledged concerns about both the size of the fee — amounting to about $10,700 per hour for a mooted claim — and the semiconductor industry supplier's call to pay either nothing or $680,000 based on standard rates.  "So he said you started out with a non-starter, extreme position" on the fee, "but you didn't engage with the evidence and the precedents meaningfully" to back up the position, Justice Valihura said.  "What are we supposed to do with that?" she asked Lafferty during arguments before the full five-member court.

And earlier Justice Valihura had asked Lafferty, "Isn't part of the problem here, clearly, that the vice chancellor had some misgivings about the [fee] number," but also that, if he had "meaningful help from the defendant in engaging on the matter, he might have reached a different conclusion?"  The fee approved by the Chancery Court followed relatively brief stockholder litigation in early 2019 over Versum's consideration of a $3.8 billion all-stock merger with Entegris Inc. worth about $43 per share, and the adoption of a poison pill shield for the deal after Merck KGaA offered $48 per share.

The "pill" would have given all shareholders the right to buy additional, potentially deal-blocking shares at a steep discount if another party or potential buyer acquired 12.5% or more of the company's equity.  Days after the stockholders sued, Versum dropped what the vice chancellor described as a related, "truly expansive" provision that would trigger the poison pill if individual stockholders were deemed to be "acting in concert" in discussions about the deal, regardless of their intent.  Soon afterward, the poison pill itself was withdrawn, with Merck soon winning the deal with a higher, $53 per share offer.

In approving the fee last year, the vice chancellor noted it would have been reasonably conceivable in a motion to dismiss proceeding to conclude Versum fielded the deal protections "to block a high-value cash deal and protect its merger of equals" with Entegris.  Lafferty said the vice chancellor erred by conflating the better, company-secured price with the "monetary, corporate, therapeutic benefit" resulting from removal of the pill and acting-in-concert provisions.

"Plaintiff played no role in the bidding dynamic and bidding process that led to the increased merger consideration," Lafferty said, adding that the vice chancellor's fee award "effectively rewards counsel as if they had created a monetary fund" and benefit, "which they didn't."

Michael Hanrahan of Prickett Jones & Elliott PA, counsel to the stockholders, told the justices that Lafferty was asking the court to second-guess the vice chancellor's factual findings, and said that the award amounted to about 1% of the benefit.  "The defendant basically just disagreed with the court of chancery's finding of a causal connection between the litigation and the increased merger price," Hanrahan said.  "They said no fee at all should be awarded, because the litigation did not cause Merck's offer.  The question is, what the board did" on the issues.  "They didn't put in any evidence on that."

Hanrahan said that Versum conceded on appeal that the litigation caused the removal of the acting-in-concert provision.  "That's fatal to their causation argument," he said. "The vice chancellor found those were obstacles to the Merck offer, and the removal of those obstacles caused the success of the Merck offer."  Lafferty said Versum's decision to accept Merck's offer came weeks after the stockholder suit had been mooted, while the court's fee decision was made without an assessment of the stockholder suit's likelihood of success or merit when it was filed.

"So what you're suggesting is, the process the Court of Chancery should have followed here, if your standard is likelihood of success, do they have to relitigate this case as part of the fee application?"  Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. asked. "I think what you're advocating has practical consequences for the court."  Lafferty said the case implicated important public policy considerations regarding the institutional role of shareholder suits, and the fact that past court cases have found that "generosity plays no role" in determining benefit amounts.

"If the court below wanted to exercise its discretion, if it thought there was a strong correlation between pulling the pill and the outcome, it could have awarded a multiple of plaintiff's attorney fees, not 17 times, but something reasonable," Lafferty said.  "The bottom line here is, the court of chancery had a duty to use its discretion to set a reasonable fee, and it didn't do that, we believe."

Article: Five Lessons for Recovering Attorney Fees in Texas

February 13, 2021

A recent article by Amanda G. Taylor, “Recovering Attorney’s Fees in Texas: Five Lessons” in BizLit News Blog reports on recovering attorney fees in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Obtaining an award of attorneys’ fees might be the final step in a long-waged litigation battle but to do so successfully requires careful planning and diligence from the outset of a case.  The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the evidence required to obtain and affirm such an award.  Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, 578 S.W.3d 469 (Tex. 2019).  The Texas Supreme Court also recently confirmed that these evidentiary standards apply equally when fees are sought to be recovered as a sanction.  Nath v. Texas Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 710 (Tex. 2019).  To best serve a client’s interests of recovering attorneys’ fees in Texas, whether as a prevailing party or as a sanction, lawyers should adhere to five lessons from Rohrmoos.

Lesson One:  Confirm a legal entitlement to recover fees.  “In Texas, as in the federal courts, each party must pay its own way in attorney’s fees … unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 484.  Certain claims, such as a breach of contract claim brought under Chapter 38 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, entitle a prevailing party to recover attorneys’ fees.  Other claims, such as a common law fraud claim, do not afford such a remedy.  In establishing your initial case strategy, it is important to consider which claims will and will not allow for recovery of fees, and advise your client about the pros and cons of pursuing each claim accordingly.  Also, be aware of fee-shifting procedural tools (such a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act) and various Texas statutes and rules that allow for recovery of fees as a sanction (such as Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapters 9-10, and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215).

Lesson Two: Keep accurate, contemporaneous billing records.  Although billing records are not absolutely required to prove the amount of reasonable and necessary fees, it is “strongly encouraged” to submit such proof in support of attorneys’ fees.  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 502.  It is much easier to review, summarize, and testify about the work performed (often years later) if you have been diligent in your billing practices throughout.  Time should be kept in a manner that demonstrates the “(1) particular services performed, (2) who performed those services, (3) approximately when those services were performed, (4) the reasonable amount of time required to perform the services, and (5) the reasonable hourly rate for each person performing the services.”  Id.  It is also advisable to keep time in a manner that is specific enough to cover the topic but without legalese and without so much detail that heavy redactions become necessary.  Fact finders prefer to read invoices in plain English without the interruption of hidden text.

Lesson Three:  Your fee agreement does not control the amount awarded.  “[A] client’s agreement to a certain fee arrangement or obligation to pay a particular amount does not necessarily establish that fee as reasonable or necessary.”  Id. at 488.  Translation: even if you have agreed to handle the matter for a flat fee or contingency fee, you still must demonstrate that the amount of fees sought for recovery are reasonable and necessary based on the work performed and the time incurred.  Regardless of the fee arrangement with your client, keeping accurate and contemporaneous billing records is important.

Lesson Four: Remember to timely designate fee experts.   “Historically, claimants have proven reasonableness and necessity of attorney’s fees through an expert’s testimony—often the very attorney seeking the award.”  Id. at 490.  “[C]onclusory testimony devoid of any real substance will not support a fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Because expert testimony will be required, the attorney must remember to designate herself and any other attorney who will offer an opinion about the reasonableness and necessity of the fee amount(s) as an expert witness in compliance with the scheduling order or discovery control plan governing the case.

Lesson Five: Understand the “Texas two-step” calculation method.  At step one, calculate the “base” or “lodestar” amount by multiplying the “reasonable hours worked” by a “reasonable hourly rate.”  Id. at 498.  This is an “objective calculation” that yields a “presumptively reasonable” amount.  Id. at 497-98, 502.  The determination of what is a reasonable market rate and what is a reasonable amount of time will typically include consideration of the following factors: (1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill required to perform the legal service properly, (4) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, (5) the amount involved, (6) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services, (7) whether the fee is fixed or contingent and the uncertainty of collection, and (8) the results obtained.  Id. at 500.  At step two, “adjust[] the base calculation up or down based on relevant considerations … [that were not] subsumed in the first step.”  Id.  “If a fee claimant seeks an enhancement, it must produce specific evidence showing that a higher amount is necessary to achieve a reasonable fee award.”  Id. at 501. Remember that only “rare circumstances” justify such an adjustment.  Id. at 502.

Following these five lessons from the outset of a case will be beneficial to the expert testifying about the amount of fees at the end of a case.  More importantly, it will benefit your client’s best interest in obtaining a monetary award and being able to have that award affirmed on appeal.

Amanda G. Taylor serves as Practice Group Leader of Butler Snow LLP’s Appellate Group and practices from the firm’s Austin, TX office. As a Board-Certified Civil Appellate specialist, Amanda helps to shape successful case strategy from the outset of litigation through the end of an appeal.  Amanda is a detail-oriented lawyer who represents her clients with passion, stays current on emerging trends and issues, and brings a practical perspective to problem solving.  She has a broad range of experience handling complex civil disputes regarding contracts, fraud, tax, insurance, products, employment, real property, and trust and estates.  Amanda is also committed to community service through a number of positions in her State and Local Bar Associations.

Judge Properly Awards Regular Hourly Rate for Clerical Tasks

February 12, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News Enterprise story, “Judge Properly Awards Attorney’s Fees, at Lawyer’s Normal Rates, for Clerical Work”, reports that the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday that a judge did not abuse his discretion for including in an award of attorney fees recompense, at the lawyer’s usual rate for legal services, for the time he spent in performing clerical tasks.  Justice Halim Dhanidina of Div. Three wrote the opinion which affirms a $84,107.50 award by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael L. Stern, except for a $552.50 component.  Plaintiff Albino Ojeda, who was the prevailing party in his action over Labor Code violations against Michelle and Eric Azulay, had agreed to that amount being remitted but it somehow wasn’t.

The Azulay’s complained that Ojeda should not paid for amounts charged by Encino labor lawyer Seth E. Tillmon, at his regular hourly rate of $425, for performing purely administrative chores.  Dhanidina said these tasks included “scanning, printing, and downloading documents; preparing proofs of service; preparing mailings; formatting documents; calendaring dates; and traveling to mailboxes or postal centers to mail documents.”

He wrote: “As an initial matter, necessary overhead support services that secretaries and paralegals provide to attorneys may be included in an attorney fees award….Therefore, so-called administrative tasks are recoverable in the trial court’s discretion.”

Dhanidina continued: “Although charging for purely clerical tasks at an attorney’s hourly rate is questionable, the trial judge nonetheless was the best judge of the value of the services rendered, and to reverse that judgment we must be convinced it is clearly wrong….Especially in the absence of the reporter’s transcript, which may have shed light on the time spent on so-called administrative tasks, we are reluctant to second guess the trial court.”

He noted that Tillmon is a sole practitioner, without support staff “and had to do everything himself.” The jurist observed: “His detailed time records largely show that when arguably clerical tasks were combined with clearly legal ones, the total time charged would not have been facially unreasonable for the legal task alone. 

On February 14, 2018, for example, counsel drafted 15 sets of discovery, printed copies of each, drafted proofs of service, printed mailing labels, and stuffed manila envelopes.  To do all this he spent 5.4 hours.  Spending that time on drafting discovery alone would be facially reasonable.  Further, it is possible that the trial court denied Ojeda’s request for a 1.5 multiplier, which the trial court might have otherwise awarded, as a way of ensuring that Ojeda was not compensated for performing clerical tasks.”  The Azulays also argued that fees amounting to $84,107.50 were impermissibly disproportionate to the $30,929.94 in damages Ojeda obtained.

“Azulay cites no authority for the proposition that a fee award that exceeds the client’s recovery is per se unreasonable or that California imposes a proportionality rule,” Dhanidina responded.  The case is Ojeda v. Azulay, B302440.  Armen Shaghzo of the Glendale law firm of Shaghzo & Shaghzo represented the Azulays.  There was no appearance for Ojeda.