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Judge: Reed Smith Can’t Sue for Share of Attorney Fees in Class Action

November 21, 2017 | Posted in : Fee Allocation / Splitting, Fee Award Factors, Fee Dispute, Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR, Fee Doctrine / Theory, Fee Entitlement, Fee Request

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Judge Says Reed Smith Can’t Sue for $7M Slice of SAC Capital Fees,reports that a Manhattan federal judge ruled that Reed Smith can't sue former co-counsel Wohl & Fruchter in state court for a chunk of class action attorney fees.  A federal judge has shot down Reed Smith’s attempt to sue its former co-counsel law firm Wohl & Fruchter, in state court for its share of fees from a class action against SAC Capital Advisors, finding Reed Smith was “seeking a mulligan.”

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the Southern District of New York ruled that she had misgivings about Wohl’s conduct—including its settling a case amid the expulsion of Reed Smith from the plaintiffs’ counsel group—but said Reed Smith, which had served as class co-counsel for a brief period in September 2016, missed an opportunity to seek its fees in the right venue.

“The sequence of events surrounding Reed Smith’s retention and subsequent termination certainly raises questions regarding Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] motivations.  But Reed Smith was given an opportunity to fully raise those questions, and it failed to do so,” Buchwald said, enjoining Reed Smith’s lawsuit in New York state court against the Wohl firm.

In the underlying class action case against hedge fund SAC Capital and other defendants alleging insider trading of securities, plaintiffs attorneys in May were awarded $27 million in attorney fees after obtaining a $135 million settlement.  About a month after the fee award, Reed Smith, which submitted no fee application in federal court, sued attorney Ethan Wohl and his four-attorney law firm in New York state court arguing it was entitled to fees for its work under tortious interference and unjust enrichment claims.  The firm was seeking at least $6.75 million.

Reed Smith claimed that Wohl & Fruchter, when looking for co-counsel, realized that it was a small firm “overmatched by the resources available to the SAC defendants,” represented by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Goodwin Procter and Bracewell.  After Reed Smith was retained, the firm said, it immediately committed significant resources to the SAC action.  And soon after Reed Smith filed notices of appearance in the case, the SAC defendants reached out to Wohl for settlement discussions, Reed Smith said.  “Reed Smith’s appearance was the obvious catalyst for the settlement discussions, which proved to be successful,” the firm claims.

But Reed Smith asserts that when counsel for the SAC defendants at Paul Weiss mused about a possible conflict involving Reed Smith before Southern District Judge John Koeltl, the Wohl firm saw an opportunity to eliminate Reed Smith and “intentionally exploited Paul Weiss’ statements.” Reed Smith formally withdrew from the SAC case in December 2016.

In her Nov. 16 ruling, Buchwald rejected Reed Smith’s jurisdictional arguments.  “We have jurisdiction over the fee dispute between Reed Smith on the one hand and Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter] on the other, and our jurisdiction is exclusive,” Buchwald said, adding that Reed Smith’s presentation of a tort-based theory of recovery “does not change the reality that some quantum of attorneys’ fees is the ultimate recovery sought.”

Buchwald also considered collateral estoppel issues. “The amount of fees to which [Wohl & Fruchter] was entitled was an issue that was litigated, and Judge Koeltl determined that a $27 million award was ‘fair and reasonable,’” she said.  Analyzing the case broadly, Buchwald said she found “little about either side’s conduct that is sympathetic.”

“The rapid succession of events—Reed Smith’s entry into the case, the settlement, and Reed Smith’s dismissal—naturally raises questions as to Wohl and [Wohl & Fruchter's] actions and motivations, and these questions are amplified when the weakness of [Wohl & Fruchter's] conflicts arguments are considered,” she said.  “The record is hardly inconsistent with Reed Smith’s theory that it was terminated by [Wohl & Fruchter's] so that [Wohl & Fruchter] could obtain a larger share of attorneys’ fees.”

However, Reed Smith missed an opportunity to submit an application for fees, she noted.  “We find little equity in allowing Reed Smith to take a mulligan, through duplicative litigation, on an issue that had been squarely teed up,” Buchwald said.

Reed Smith’s explanation for why it failed to do so—that it did not want to interfere with approval of the settlement—“holds little water,” Buchwald said, noting that Reed Smith’s declaration supporting its withdrawal from the federal case detailed its grievances with Wohl and raised questions about the propriety of the settlement.

While the judge said she was enjoining Reed Smith from prosecuting the state court lawsuit “and the implicit application for fees contained therein,” she denied Wohl’s request to reject Reed Smith’s application for attorney fees in federal court.  “Reed Smith has never made a direct application for attorneys’ fees in this court, and there accordingly exists no such application for us to deny,” Buchwald said.