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Category: Judicial Discretion

DC Judge Slams DOJ’s Fee Agreement with Arnold & Porter

November 24, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “DC Judge Slams DOJ’s $212K Fee Payment to Arnold & Porter,” reports that a District of Columbia federal judge criticized a deal in which the Trump administration will pay Arnold & Porter more than $212,000 in legal fees to resolve a battle over expedited traveler security clearance programs, calling the fees excessive and the government's conduct "embarrassing."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in August backed down from its defense of the policy barring New Yorkers from enrolling in some of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Trusted Traveler Programs, including Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS and FAST.  The government also admitted that it violated the Administrative Procedure Act's rulemaking process in instituting the policy and admitted that it made "inaccurate or misleading statements" about the policy.

As part of the agreement ending the case, DHS said it would not stop New Yorkers from participating in Global Entry or other traveler programs on the basis of the state's refusal to provide the federal government with access to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles' records, according to the settlement.  The government also agreed to cover the plaintiffs' counsel's fees.  To be clear, the parties don't need court approval to move forward with their agreement, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon noted in the order.  However, the government and Arnold & Porter were seeking a court order incorporating the deal into a final order of dismissal.

Judge Leon declined to do so, saying that while the other provisions of the agreement are fair and reasonable, "I am quite concerned, and have been from the outset, about the reasonableness of the amount of attorney fees agreed to by the parties."  In particular, the judge knocked the U.S. Department of Justice for not requesting the actual billing records from Arnold & Porter.  Those records show that eight total attorneys billed time on the case, a number of attorneys that he deemed "entirely unnecessary to the needs of the case."  The DOJ also chose not to suggest that attorney fees be calculated according to anything other than the firm's standard corporate rates, Judge Leon said.

Had the DOJ pushed for using rates established in the U.S. Attorney's Office's Laffey Matrix — and only covered the fees for four attorneys — the fee award would be just $82,562, he said.  "The court believes the Department of Justice should have been more aggressive in protecting the public fisc," the judge said.

Judge Lean added that "[p]erhaps, however, it is not so surprising that they weren't in this case.  After all, it is not every day the Department of Justice and their clients have to confess to written and oral misrepresentations on the record in a high profile case!"  It appears that Arnold & Porter — "unfortunately at the taxpayer expense" — simply capitalized on the government's desire to put the matter to rest as quickly as possible, he said in the order.  Judge Leon said he hopes that in the future, the DOJ's leadership will take the necessary steps to ensure that attorney fees it agrees to are indeed fair and reasonable.

As far as the conclusion of the Global Entry case, Judge Leon said the parties have two options: they can file a stipulation of dismissal or they can reduce the fees portion of their deal and get it incorporated into his final order of dismissal.  "The parties have made it clear to the court that their settlement agreement does not require judicial approval and is in fact self-executing," he said. "Fine."

He added, "Negotiating an agreement in a pro bono case that bypasses judicial approval and requires defendants to pay in excess of $200,000 in attorney fees might warrant a tip of the proverbial cap from fellow practitioners, but it is irrelevant to a judicial analysis of whether to incorporate the parties' agreement into an order of dismissal."

Stanton Jones, one of the Arnold & Porter attorneys on the case, told Law360 that it was "illegal for the federal government to try to deny Global Entry to New Yorkers in retaliation for its refusal to participate in immigration enforcement."  In a statement provided to Law360, Jones added that "all fees recovered in this case will be contributed to the Arnold & Porter Foundation, a tax-exempt private foundation that provides scholarships to minority law students, funds fellowships for recent law school graduates at tax-exempt organizations, and awards grants to other charitable and educational organizations."

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.

Judge Cites New Ninth Circuit Ruling When Considering Fee Calculation

November 12, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Koh Rips Kellogg Attys ‘Kitchen Sink’ Litigation Tactics,” reports that U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh rejected a revised $20 million deal to resolve claims Kellogg falsely labeled its sugar-loaded cereals and slammed class counsel for their "kitchen sink" approach to litigation, saying "the way you've litigated this case throughout has been overly burdensome on the court."  At the start of a hearing held via Zoom, Judge Koh took issue with a lengthy, now-mooted motion to enforce the settlement that class counsel filed after Kellogg purportedly threatened not to cooperate with a renewed bid for preliminary approval.

If approved, the proposed deal would resolve lead plaintiff Stephen Hadley's August 2016 lawsuit that alleges Kellogg Sales Co. falsely advertises its sugar-loaded Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini-Wheats and Smart Start cereals and Nutri-Grain breakfast bars as healthy.  Judge Koh told class counsel, Jack Fitzgerald, that she spent considerable time deciding the motion to enforce the settlement, which had 64 exhibits attached and included confidential information from the settlement negotiations, which Judge Koh repeatedly said isn't allowed.

But Kellogg ultimately did not oppose the class's renewed motion for preliminary settlement approval, so now the motion to enforce is moot, Judge Koh said, and the work and time she spent deciding it was a waste.  She added that she would have denied the motion.  Judge Koh noted that the motions to dismiss in the case were over 65 pages long "each time" and the lengthy motions practice is "a constant problem."  She also warned repeatedly that she'll remember how the attorneys overburdened the court if she decides to award attorney fees.

The discussion came during an hours-long hearing on the second attempt by the parties to get the deal preliminarily approved in hotly contested litigation over Kellogg's labels. For example, the Frosted Mini-Wheats and Smart Start labels say "lightly sweetened" and the Nutri-Grain bars say "wholesome goodness," which Hadley said implies those products are low in sugar, even though they contain 18% to 40% added sugars.

In February, Judge Koh rejected an initial $31.5 million class action settlement, finding the deal contained several troubling provisions and outright legal errors.  The parties went back to the negotiating table, but in July, class counsel filed a renewed motion for preliminary approval along with a motion to enforce the settlement, which Kellogg opposed.  But during the lengthy hearing on the motions, Judge Koh pointed out that the motion to enforce attached privileged mediation communication between defense counsel, class counsel and the mediator.

Judge Koh also took issue with the "mechanics" of how the proposed deal calculates attorney fees. The judge pointed out that as it is proposed, fees would need to be approved before a cash settlement is distributed, but the fees depend on how many class members choose to redeem coupons compared to those who choose cash payments, and class members need to know how much they would receive in a cash payment in order to decide whether to opt for a coupon or cash.

"It seems a bit circular," she said.  Judge Koh added that in light of the Ninth Circuit's ruling earlier this week in Chambers et al. v. Whirlpool Corp. et al., she is "more confident" that this deal qualifies as a coupon settlement for the purposes of determining attorney fees.  But Fitzgerald argued that even under Chambers, the court has the discretion to award fees and he proposed to base the fee award on using a lodestar that's calculated after they determine how many class members will redeem a coupon versus cash payment.

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Fee Calculation Method in Class Coupon Settlements

November 11, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dave Simpson, “9th Circ. Nixes $14.8M Atty Fees in Dishwasher Defect Deal,” reports that the Ninth Circuit sent back a lower court's approval of $14.8 million in fees for the attorneys representing a class of millions of owners of allegedly defective Sears and Whirlpool dishwashers, ordering it to determine the value of the settlement, which provides coupons to much of the class.

In a unanimous, published decision penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee, the panel said that while U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin was right to approve the California federal court settlement, the attorney fees were off-base.  He shouldn't have used a lodestar-only calculation, or a calculation based on attorneys' hours worked and their rates, for the coupon portion of the settlement, the panel said.  The judge should have, instead, attempted to determine the value of the coupons and based the attorney fees on that calculation, the panel said.  They remanded the approval of the attorney fees and ordered the judge to recalculate.

Further, it said, the judge was wrong to multiply the attorneys' lodestar by 1.68, disagreeing with, among other things, the judge's lauding of the settlement as "impressive."  "While observing that the parties' respective valuations of the settlement ranged from $4,220,000 to $116,700,000, the court declined to determine where in that spectrum the actual value fell," the panel said.  "Given this enormous spread, without at least estimating the settlement value, the court could not have conducted the necessary evaluation between 'the extent of success and the amount of the fee award.'"

In the case of California residents David and Bach-Tuyet Brown, their KitchenAid dishwasher overheated while they were sleeping in April 2010, filling the house with smoke and causing them to spend $70,000 to replace the entire kitchen and to lose an additional $3,000 in rental income as a result of having to vacate the property for three weeks, according to the complaint.

In September 2015, the parties reached a proposed settlement that was open-ended and involved several elements for owners, court records show. If a person had already had to repair their unit, they would get $200, or more if they saved their repair receipt showing they paid more to have it fixed, according to the deal.  And Sears and Whirlpool also agreed to repair dishwashers that weren't even part of the class but also had fire problems, according to filings in the case.

In August 2016, the lawyers duked it out in court over whether the $15 million fee request baked into the settlement up for final approval was too much. Attorneys for Sears and Whirlpool said that the plaintiffs' attorneys had worked hard, but deserved a fee award of $2 million to $3 million.  The requested amount, the defendants said, would dwarf the benefits received by the class.  The class lawyers fought back, saying the potential value of the uncapped deal was enormous and may cover between 15% and 20% of all U.S. households.

In October 2016, Judge Olguin shut down arguments by Sears Holdings Corp. and Whirlpool Corp. that attorneys at the five firms that worked to litigate the case and reach a deal last year over the allegedly defective washers were asking too much, finding that the arrangement the lawyers reached for the class — cash payments to owners of Kenmore, KitchenAid and Whirlpool home dishwashers to cover repairs or rebates toward buying a new model, plus some insurance-like deals and other protections — was highly beneficial.

The panel quickly shot down the attorneys' arguments that the Class Action Fairness Act is preempted by corresponding state law, noting that the plain language of CAFA makes clear that its attorney fees provisions top any state laws and apply to all federal court class actions.  "Indeed, it would be highly incongruous for Congress to expand federal jurisdiction for class action lawsuits based on diversity jurisdiction, but then in the same statute prevent CAFA's attorney's fee provisions from applying in those diversity jurisdiction-based cases," it said.

The panel then pointed out that precedent mandates the use of a percentage-of-value calculation for any "portion" an award "attributable to the award of the coupons."  The court's decision to use a lodestar calculation for the coupon portion of the deal was, therefore, an error, the panel found.  The panel also shot down the plaintiff attorneys' argument that the settlement provides a "rebate" rather than a "coupon."  It is a coupon, "despite the settlement agreement's refusal to use that term," the panel said.

"To use the 'rebate,' class members must spend hundreds of out-of-pocket dollars to purchase a new dishwasher," the panel said.  "And the rebates expire in 120 days, a third of the useful life of the [credits].  Given that a dishwasher typically lasts at least several years, most consumers likely will not redeem their coupons within 120 days."

Finally, the panel turned to the 1.68 lodestar multiplier, finding that the judge wrongly included the value of the coupon portion of the settlement in determining the 1.68 multiplier for the lodestar value, and also several of its reasons for enhancing the attorney fees cannot be justified, the panel said.  The judge was wrong, for instance, to find that the case was "undesirable" for attorneys to pursue, noting that this very notion is undercut by the fact that five different law firms pursued the claims for many years.

"If the mere fact that the defendants are 'large corporations' were sufficient, then most class action fee awards would automatically qualify for enhancement — contrary to the rule that multipliers are for 'rare and exceptional circumstances,'" the panel said.  "In practice, deep pockets often create an incentive to sue, particularly in the class action context."

The district court had said that the wide gap between the parties' estimated valuations for the deal meant that any attempt to determine a value of the deal "would be imprecise to the point of uselessness."  The panel ordered the court to attempt to determine a value for the deal and to consider whether, as Whirlpool argues, a negative multiplier should apply to the attorney fees.

"It becomes even more critical to crosscheck the lodestar valuation if the parties present widely divergent settlement valuation estimates," the panel said.  "It may admittedly be difficult to determine that amount with precision, but courts must try to do so to ensure the fees are not excessive."

Law Firm Urges Eighth Circuit to Reverse $1 Fee Award

September 25, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Tim Ryan, “Firm Urges 8th Circ. To Ax $1 Award Over Judge’s ‘Disdain’, reports that an Arkansas law firm that received $1 in attorney fees after settling an overtime collective action against a pipe manufacturer reinforced its request for the Eighth Circuit to reconsider the trial court's fee award, accusing the judge of having "disdain" for the firm.  Three months after being on the receiving end of a scathing opinion from U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson that labeled the firm "incorrigible," attorneys with the Sanford Law Firm returned fire in a filing that called the judge's decision to slash the fees "illegal" and claimed he is waging a personal campaign against the firm.

"The district court has expressed such animosity toward SLF such that a reasonable person would question the district court's ability to make decisions regarding appellants, who SLF represents, in an impartial manner," the firm's brief said.  For its work to win the $270,000 settlement in a wage and hour dispute with Welspun Inc, the Sanford Law Firm was supposed to receive $96,000, according to court filings.  However, Judge Wilson rejected that amount in a June decision that accused the firm of "attempted extortion" because of how it staffed and billed the case.  Judge Wilson also previously rejected a settlement offer that would have given the firm $89,000 and asked for the law firm's billing records.

The Sanford Law Firm initially petitioned the Eight Circuit to review the fee award in June, arguing it was unfairly low. Welspun defended Judge Wilson's decision earlier this month, saying the fee award was reasonable because it followed the Eighth Circuit's decision in Barbee v. Big River Steel LLC.

The firm's Wednesday reply brief, which largely focuses on the lower court judge's motivations, urged the Eighth Circuit to strike down the $1 award and send the case back to a different judge.  It claims Judge Wilson has in the past month criticized the Sanford Law Firm's billing in passing while approving other settlements the firm has worked on.  He also has accused attorneys at the firm of filing motions just to run up their bills in other cases, at one point even suggesting a summary judgment motion was unnecessary because the attorneys could have accomplished the same thing with an email to opposing counsel, according to the brief.

"Such insults are unnecessary, especially where the parties fully applied the standard imposed by the District Court," the brief said.  "They are made only to show the District Court's disdain for SLF that impacts the District Court's ability to make obviously impartial decisions in cases involving SLF."  The brief further argued judges are supposed to be deferential to the settlement agreements parties strike and that Judge Wilson was not permitted to consider the attorney fees Welspun agreed to pay when deciding whether the separate award to the employees who brought the suit was fair.

The firm's brief said Judge Wilson misinterpreted the Barbee decision as requiring parties negotiating a settlement agreement to keep their talks over attorney fees and damages separate.  Because attorney fees often far outstrip the value of an individual workers' claim, such a reading would upend the settlement negotiation process because it would prevent attorneys from bargaining with the fee award and incentivize companies to take their chances at trial, the brief said.