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Category: Judicial Discretion

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."

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.

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.