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Attorney Fees Under CA Trade Secrets Act Belong to Attorney, Not Client

September 16, 2020 | Posted in : Fee Agreement, Fee Award, Fee Entitlement / Recoverability, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Shifting, Fee Splitting / Sharing, Fee Statute, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Metropolitan News-Enterprise story, “Attorney Fees Under Trade Secrets Act Belong to Attorney, Not Client—C.A.,” reports that attorney fees awarded to a “prevailing party” under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act belong to the attorney and not the attorney’s client absent an enforceable agreement providing otherwise, the Third District Court of Appeal held.  The opinion by Acting Presiding Justice Coleman Blease affirms a judgment by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Alan G. Perkins who determined that the law firm of Porter Scott, P.C. was entitled to the attorney fees paid by the opposing party in litigation in which the firm successfully represented defendant Johnson Group Staffing Company.

The amount that was awarded initially, pursuant to Civil Code §3426.4, was $735,781.27; appeals ensued and, when paid, the fees had expanded to $917,811.48; after Perkins deducted sums which the Johnson Group had paid to Porter Scott, the remainder was $827,938.17, to which the judge added 90 percent of the interest that accrued while the money was in a blocked account.  Blease pointed to the California Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Flannery v. Prentice.  The issue was whether the client or her former lawyers and their firms had entitlement to attorney fees that were awarded under Government Code §12900, a portion of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Then-Justice Kathryn Werdegar (now retired) wrote, over the lone dissent by then-Justice Joyce Kennard (also retired): “[W]e conclude that attorney fees awarded pursuant to section 12965 (exceeding fees already paid) belong, absent an enforceable agreement to the contrary, to the attorneys who labored to earn them.”

Blease declared in yesterday’s opinion: “We thus conclude that attorney fees awarded under section 3426.4 (exceeding fees the client already paid) belong to the attorneys who labored to earn them, absent an enforceable agreement to the contrary.”

He went on to say: “Reading section 3426.4 to vest awarded ‘attorney’s fees’ in counsel would be consistent with the ordinary view that attorney fees compensate attorneys, not litigants… Reading the statute to vest fee awards in litigants, on the other hand, would at times stray from that ordinary understanding of attorney fees.”

The Johnson Group argued that Porter Scott had agreed to forego an award by consenting, in writing, to forfeit its entitlement to the past-due amount of $92,845.86, except for $25,000 of that amount, and to provide pro bono representation.  Blease noted that a footnote in the agreement provides: “Should the Johnson Group or Chris Johnson be awarded fees in the future based on Porter Scott’s underlying representation, all fees shall be reimburseable [sic] at that point and this waiver shall not apply.”

Blease added: “[A]s the Flannery court recognized, even attorneys who perform services pro bono may obtain ‘reasonable’ attorney fees under a fee-shifting statute.”

Five policies discussed by the Flannery court in support of such fees belonging to attorneys and not litigants were: 1) to encourage representation of legitimate FEHA claims and discourage frivolous suits; 2) to avoid unjust enrichment where an attorney had not been paid for services rendered; 3) to ensure fairness that the losing party pays only fees incurred and not a punitive penalty; 4) to avoid attorney fee-splitting; and 5) to avoid wrongly punishing attorneys who fail to secure written fee agreements.