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Category: Ability to Pay

NY Law Firm: Environmental Company Failed to Pay Legal Fees

November 15, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Lever, NY Firm Says Enviro Co. Failed To Pay Legal Fees” reports that Bochner IP PLLC sued environmental company Global Thermostat in New York state court over allegedly skipping out on a $102,000 bill for its work on intellectual property transactions aimed at fending off bankruptcy, saying Global Thermostat "never intended to pay" in full.

When Global Thermostat found itself at risk of bankruptcy, the company's co-founder agreed to grant it the use of her intellectual property, according to a complaint filed in New York Supreme Court.  Bochner handled the IP transactions, for which Global Thermostat paid the first few installments of the six-figure legal bill — a deliberate deception to create a false sense that Global Thermostat intended to and could pay the full bill, according to Bochner.

"Defendants successfully closed on the transactions and avoided bankruptcy, without having to fulfill their obligations to plaintiff," the complaint says.  Global Thermostat, a startup billing itself as being able to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stop climate change, was co-founded in 2010 by Graciella Chichilnisky based on technologies she patented.

Global Thermostat PBC, Global Thermostat Operations LLC and Global Thermostat Licensing LLC sought new investors to save them from a possible bankruptcy, according to the complaint.  The companies paid Chichilnisky royalties for her technology, but potential investors insisted Chichilnisky transfer the patents to the companies as a condition of investment, according to the complaint.

Chichilnisky agreed, and the companies agreed to pay her legal fees in connection with the transfer of IP as compensation for the loss of royalties.  Bochner, a civil litigation and intellectual property firm, represented Chichilnisky in the transaction.  Bochner drafted a settlement that allowed the companies to avoid bankruptcy, according to the complaint.

Global Thermostat paid Bochner's first three invoices, which were each for $20,000, before the settlement closed.  But once the settlement was finalized Aug. 12, they stopped paying, leaving $102,679.25 worth of invoices unpaid, according to the complaint.  The companies "failed to disclose material information of their intent and/or ability to pay" to give Bochner the impression they would pay the full legal bill and to keep the firm working on the settlement that would preserve their business, according to Bochner.

"Defendants made these assertions and payments in order to induce plaintiff into believing it would be paid for all further work done in negotiating and finalizing the transactions," the complaint says.  Global Thermostat also ignored demands for payment from other firms that worked on the transaction, according to the complaint.

Article: A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients

August 12, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Joshua Wurtzel, “A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients,” reports on collecting unpaid fees.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

You've done the work and sent the bill, but haven't been paid. What do you do?  This is unfortunately a question that lawyers, from solo practitioners to BigLaw partners, confront all too often.  But most lawyers struggle with the answer.  And even worse, many end up doing nothing — leaving significant receivables on the table from clients who have the ability to pay.  Struggle no longer.  Here, I offer some recommendations on how to deal with a nonpaying client. The article focuses on the law on account stated in New York.  These principles and advice are generally applicable in most U.S. jurisdictions, though you should of course consult the specific law in your jurisdiction.

Make Sure Your Retainer Agreement Gives You Adequate Protection

Good collection starts with a good retainer agreement.  There are several important clauses any retainer agreement should have.

Thirty Days to Object

Your retainer agreement should include a clause stating that if a client has an objection to an invoice, the client must make a specific objection in writing within 30 days.  Courts have upheld these types of clauses, and have further held that a client that fails to make a specific, timely objection in accordance with this clause waives objections to the invoice.

Fee Shifting

Many lawyers avoid suing clients for unpaid fees because the time spent doing so can be better spent on other, billable tasks.  But if you include a fee-shifting clause in your retainer agreement, a nonpaying client could end up being responsible for fees you incur in bringing the suit.  Make sure, however, that the fee-shifting clauses run in favor of the client as well if he or she is the prevailing party, or else it will be unenforceable.

Choice of Forum and Acceptance of Service of Process

Your retainer agreement should also include a forum selection clause in the state in which you practice so you don't have to go out of state to sue a nonpaying client.  And it should also include a clause stating that the client agrees to accept service of process by mail or email, in case you have trouble serving the client personally.

Rely on the Retaining Lien and Charging Lien

New York law strongly favors attorneys who are stiffed by their clients.  So there are some tools you can use to try to collect without having to bring a lawsuit.

Retaining Lien

When a client has an outstanding balance with his or her former lawyer, the lawyer can assert a retaining lien over the client's file. This allows the lawyer to refuse to turn over the file to the client or his or her new counsel until the outstanding balance is paid or otherwise secured.  To lift the retaining lien, the former client must either pay the amount owed to the lawyer or post a bond for that amount.

Charging Lien

Under Section 475 of the New York Judiciary Law, "from the commencement of an action," the lawyer who "appears for a party has a lien upon his or her client's cause of action," which attaches to a verdict, settlement, judgment or final order in his or her client's favor.

This section gives the lawyer a lien on the proceeds of the former client's case to the extent of the amount owed to the lawyer, with the result that no proceeds can be distributed to the former client or his or her new counsel until the former lawyer is paid.

In 1995, the New York Court of Appeals in LMWT Realty Corp. v. Davis Agency Inc. held that this lien "does not merely give an attorney an enforceable right against the property of another," but instead "gives the attorney an equitable ownership interest in the client's cause of action."

Sue for Account Stated

If all else fails and you need to sue a nonpaying client, the account stated cause of action will be your best friend.  Indeed, in New York, this cause of action allows a professional services provider to sue a client for nonpayment of an invoice if the client has retained the invoice for at least a few months and has failed to make timely, specific, written objections.  This cause of action thus provides lawyers with a substantial tool to pursue a nonpaying client.

Invoice Requirement

To state a claim for account stated, you must show only that you sent the invoices to the client and the client retained them — usually for at least a few months — without making specific, written objections.  It is thus important to maintain a record of when invoices are sent and to whom — ideally by email to an email address the client gave to receive invoices.

Oral Objections

Generally, a client must make specific, written objections to an invoice; general or oral objections will not be enough to defeat a claim for account stated. Nor will general claims by a client that he or she is dissatisfied with a particular outcome suffice.

Reasonableness of Fees

Many nonpaying clients will defend against a nonpayment suit by claiming that they were overbilled or that the quality of the work was not to their liking.  But if these objections are not made in a timely way, with specificity and in writing, courts generally hold that they are waived.

This is significant for a lawyer pursuing a nonpaying client, as most clients will defend by claiming that there was something wrong with the work done by the lawyer.  And so if an account is stated by virtue of the client's retention of the invoices, the reasonableness of the fees and the quality of the work has no bearing on the merit of the account stated claim.

Underlying Agreement to Pay

While account stated is a powerful cause of action, it works only if there is an underlying agreement to pay for the services rendered.  So a person who randomly sends out invoices without having an underlying agreement with the recipients of the invoices can obviously not rely on account stated.

But if you have a retainer agreement that properly covers the scope of the work you will be doing, you shouldn't have a problem.  Nor is there a requirement that the client has agreed to pay for the specific invoices at issue, as long as the client has agreed to pay for your services generally.

The Dreaded Malpractice Claim

Most nonpaying clients faced with a lawsuit by their former lawyer will assert counterclaims for malpractice — even if the malpractice claim has no merit.  While the lawyer must, of course, still deal with the malpractice claim, courts generally go out of their way to sever a lawyer's account stated claim from a nonpaying client's malpractice counterclaim.  This is especially so if the alleged malpractice relates to different work from what is at issue on the unpaid invoices.

Further, as a strategic matter, unless the malpractice counterclaim has merit, most nonpaying clients will drop it after the lawyer obtains a quick judgment on summary judgment at the outset of the case.

Conclusion

Suing a former client is never pleasant, and is a last resort after the attorney-client relationship has broken down. But using efficient, streamlined ways to collect from nonpaying clients can allow a law firm to provide greater value to the rest of its clients.

Joshua Wurtzel is a partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP in New York.

Article: 5 Reasons Lawyers Often Fail to Secure Litigation Funding

August 24, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Charles Agee, “5 Reasons Lawyers Often Fail To Secure Litigation Funding,” reports on litigation funding.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

It's no secret that parties seeking litigation funding face steep odds in securing a deal.  How steep?  According to my firm's research, more than 95% of commercial litigation funding deals presented to any particular funder never advance to closing.  Experience tells me one of the overarching reasons the litigation finance deal closure rate is so low is that lawyers and their clients drastically underestimate the challenges and nuances of obtaining this specialized form of financing.

For many, the downside of trying and failing to secure funding is simply that — not obtaining the funding.  So why not approach a few funders and see if one bites?  On the surface, this approach has appeal; in reality, it is fraught with hidden costs.  The litigation fundraising process can be extremely laborious, and the time sunk into an unsuccessful deal typically is not billable.  Each year, leading law firms squander millions of dollars in time alone seeking funding for deals that do not bear fruit.

Even more concerning, lawyers who are unsuccessful in obtaining funding for their clients almost always damage their credibility with the client.  The good news is that these challenges can be anticipated and, in many instances, overcome.  To overcome those challenges, however, it is important to also examine why so many parties fail to obtain litigation funding. Here are the top five reasons why.

1. Misunderstanding the Funders' Acceptance Standards

Funders reject the lion's share of deals that they are shown because most of them should never have been brought to the market in the first place.  My colleagues and I have seen that far too many lawyers and clients present litigation opportunities that make no sense to pursue, regardless of who is funding the case.  Nothing can be done to change the substance of the underlying matter, and short of committing fraud, you are not going to sneak into a funder's vault with a meritless deal.

The best — and only — advice for these weak opportunities is to avoid the litigation fundraising process altogether.  But we also see that funders also reject a significant number of matters that are meritorious and economically viable enough for experienced litigation counsel to be willing to risk their own legal fees on a successful outcome.

Why are these opportunities declined?  The reason — and it may not be a satisfactory one — is that a litigation funder's diligence process and investment criteria are generally more rigorous than that of most law firms.  Unless a lawyer has a great deal of experience with funding, this disparity can be jarring and more than a little ego-bruising, especially when clients or colleagues are watching.

To appreciate why the litigation funders' bar is set so high, it is helpful to consider the investment proposition from their perspective.  The funder must develop a high degree of confidence in a financially successful outcome of a legal dispute — usually involving complex subject matter — because it will only receive an investment return if the underlying matter resolves favorably.

As a purely passive investor, the funder also must structure the deal in a way that achieves alignment with both counsel and client, and often the economics of even the strongest of cases are insufficient to do so.  Further, unlike a venture capital fund that can accept high levels of losses because of their upside in successful investments, litigation funders' more modest returns are too low to subsidize VC-level loss rates.

Because most litigation funders are relatively new and have not yet established substantial track records, this dynamic fosters a stronger bias toward risk aversion within the industry.  A litigation funder's diligence process is designed to find reasons not to invest in an opportunity. It also tends to follow a leave-no-stone-unturned approach, which can be exhausting for the party seeking funding.  However, even the most discriminating funders' processes can be successfully navigated with proper preparation and analysis before approaching the funder.

What are the main challenges counsel will face in the litigation, and how will these be overcome? What is counsel's track record in similar matters? What level of financial risk is counsel prepared to assume?  These are just a few of the questions that parties should consider before approaching funders. Lawyers and their clients are well-served to anticipate these and other questions that a skeptical investor might ask, and be prepared with clear and thoughtful responses.

2. Failing to Approach the Most Suitable Funders for the Opportunity

Parties seeking funding often fail to approach the funders most likely to invest in their claim.  There are currently 46 active commercial litigation funders in the U.S., each with different funding criteria, risk appetites, structuring preferences and return profiles.  Most parties seeking funding only present their opportunity to a few of these funders. This is a mistake, because even the largest funders in the world are not configured to accommodate every potential type of deal.

Without adequate knowledge of the market, it is difficult to know which funders are most suitable for a particular deal. It is critical to know what a funder's investment criteria are, including preferred deal size, type of litigation, jurisdictions and stage of litigation, among others.  Too often, parties meet resistance from funders that were never a good fit for the opportunity and elect to abandon the fundraising process altogether.  If they had only identified the right audience, they might have been able to secure funding.

3. Inadequately Packaging the Presentation of the Opportunity

First impressions matter, especially in litigation finance.  Our conversations with funders inform that the largest litigation funding firms see more than 1,000 opportunities a year and don't have the bandwidth to wade through poorly packaged opportunities.  Still, parties often fail to spend the time necessary to appropriately present an opportunity. The failure to properly present an opportunity often is the difference between a yes and a no.

What are the most common deficiencies in litigation fundraising presentations?  Most lawyers are more than capable of presenting the legal merits of an opportunity; however, we have observed time and again that they tend to fall short in demonstrating a thorough approach to the economics, i.e., the damages model and the budget.  Lawyers and clients may also downplay or omit entirely a case's potential challenges, whereas a funder expects these downsides to be soberly acknowledged and addressed.

Another similar mistake is to leave too many analytical black boxes in the presentation, such as factual questions that could be investigated now but are proposed to be left for discovery, or assumptions underlying the damages model that have not been rigorously researched.  The negative impression left by these and many other deficiencies is difficult to overcome.  Parties seeking funding should prepare a thoughtful and complete presentation of their financing opportunities.

4. Lacking Awareness of Norms That Guide Negotiations With Funders

A common misconception is that litigation funding deals are easy to negotiate and that funding agreements are relatively uniform.  In reality, these deals have several peculiarities and are governed by particular legal and ethical parameters.  Even parties with experience in other types of financing or business dealings struggle to extend their acumen to litigation financing deals.

Indeed, the process is guided by certain industry norms that outsiders may not necessarily appreciate or even be aware of. Parties that neglect to understand these nuances run a considerable risk of derailing the litigation fundraising process, sometimes after many months have been spent.  Each funder approaches the investment diligence and documentation processes differently.

For instance, some will provide parties a term sheet and, after the term sheet is executed, proceed to deeper diligence and final deal documents.  Other funders might have a three-phase negotiation process where the party is expected to execute a term sheet, a letter of intent and then a litigation funding agreement. Parties should be prepared to negotiate with the funder at each phase of the process.

Prior to closing, the last document to be negotiated is the definitive litigation funding agreement, or similarly named instrument.  While no two funding agreements are identical, most agreements have certain types of provisions that are essential to the funder, given the contingent-repayment, no-control nature of the investment.  Parties seeking funding should understand that these types of provisions are nonnegotiable and that pressing too hard can sour an otherwise fruitful closing process.

5. Prematurely Agreeing to Exclusivity With a Funder

Perhaps the most critical decision in the litigation fundraising process involves granting exclusivity to a funder.  Once a term sheet has been negotiated, a funder will nearly always require a period of exclusivity — sometimes more than 60 days — to complete its diligence and documentation of the transaction. After granting exclusivity, you are largely at the funder's mercy.

Parties seeking funding almost universally misread the significance of obtaining a term sheet from a funder, mistakenly believing that the probability of closing is far higher than it actually is.  Depending on the funder and the extent of its preliminary due diligence, the term sheet can merely be a hope certificate describing what a transaction might look like. Terms may be retraded or, as is often the case, the funder declines to proceed with the deal following a deeper dive into the opportunity.

Selecting the wrong funder for exclusivity may also hamper a party's future prospects of securing a deal with another funder, if negotiations with the original funder stall.  Funders will often assume that the deal with the original funder stalled because of a fatal flaw in the deal.

In an industry that is already risk-averse by nature, this kind of red flag in the middle of a fundraising process is extraordinarily difficult to overcome.  The key to avoiding this mistake — aside from refusing to grant exclusivity — is to understand the approach, process and track record of any funder requesting exclusivity.

The party seeking funding should also assess the extent of the funder's preliminary diligence and the degree to which the funder grasps the key issues.  Of course, ensuring that all material facts have been disclosed to the funder prior to exclusivity also helps avoid surprises. But candor may not be enough to avoid this pitfall.  Exclusivity is a necessary evil in the litigation finance industry — for now — and parties seeking funding should be extremely judicious in granting it.

Conclusion

While securing litigation funding may seem daunting, there are ways to beat those odds and maximize the chances of securing funding.  Parties that approach the market in a thoughtful and informed manner have a much higher likelihood of success and of avoiding wasteful dead ends.  As the market continues to mature, funders should innovate and improve their processes to make the experience more predictable and user-friendly.  Until then, experience in the market and knowledge of the funders and their approaches will remain the key to improving the odds of obtaining litigation financing.

Charles Agee is managing partner at Westfleet Advisors.

Indian Tribe Asks To Lower Attorney Fees in Embezzlement Scheme

August 15, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Diamond Naga Siu, “Paskenta Band Asks To Lower Embezzlement Suit Atty Fees”, reports that the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians asked a California federal judge to lower the attorney fees it owes to banks it accused of helping former tribal leaders carry out a wide-reaching, multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme, arguing some fees were "not reasonably expended."  Cornerstone Community Bank and Umpqua Bank in late July each filed requests for the judge to respectively approve $277,340 and $756,882.20 in attorney fees and other costs after the judge dropped the tribe's claims and granted the banks compensation for the proceedings.

But the Paskenta Band in its dual oppositions slammed the banks for filing attorney fee requests and flouting its "repeated, good faith efforts" to pay the debts.  In light of the extra time billed for the recent motions, Paskenta Band asked the judge to shave $16,380.50 from Umpqua's request and $12,425 from Cornerstone's.  "Cornerstone cannot provide a legitimate justification for this motion.  Rather than engage with the Tribe's counsel's good faith attempts to avoid motion practice in favor of stipulating to Cornerstone's fees and costs after reviewing its billing records, Cornerstone rushed to the courthouse," the Paskenta Band wrote.

"The Tribe respectfully requests that the Court reduce Umpqua's requested fee award by $16,380.50 — the amount its records show were expended on this motion — in addition to any fees and costs that Umpqua spends preparing a reply brief or for hearing on the motion," it added in the other filing.  John Friedemann of Friedemann Goldberg LLP, counsel for Cornerstone, told Law360 in a phone interview that given the long history of the case in dealing with opposing counsel, the motion was going to be necessary.

"There was no reason to think that we would be able to achieve an amicable stipulation, especially when at the very time, counsel was reneging on an assurance that prior award would be paid within five days of becoming final and was now announcing that was not going to happen," Friedemann said.  "The payment would be made some time in the future in a single check," he added, referencing a sassy email exchange submitted as a declaration between him and Paskenta Band's counsel, where the tribe's attorney said it would only make one payment to cover multiple awards.

NJ Law Firm Wants Out After Unpaid Attorney Fees

July 29, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “Zayat’s Bankruptcy Attys Want Out Over Unpaid Fees,” reports that the law firm representing thoroughbred race horse owner Ahmed Zayat in his bankruptcy proceeding has asked a judge to be removed from the case, claiming that the businessman owes the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.  Jay L. Lubetkin, a partner at Livingston, New Jersey-based firm Rabinowitz Lubetkin & Tully LLC, told a New Jersey bankruptcy judge that Zayat owed his firm $368,273 as of June 29.

The attorney said he tried to communicate with Zayat — who bred and owns the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah — at least nine times in July, but the businessman never responded.  "The debtor has been consistently advised that absent satisfactory arrangements for the payment of the outstanding fees and expenses due to our firm and newly incurred billings, the firm would have no alternative but to seek to withdraw from the representation of the debtor," Lubetkin wrote in a motion his firm filed.

The fee dispute arises from Zayat's $18.8-million bankruptcy case in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the District of New Jersey.  In an adversary case related to Zayat's bankruptcy, MGG Investment Group LP filed claims against Zayat and his company, Zayat Stables LLC, alleging that Zayat engaged in a "fraudulent scheme" by selling off assets he had secured as collateral to loans from the investment firm.

Zayat lied to MGG about his assets and submitted false financial statements that concealed or distorted Zayat Stables' sales revenue and other financial information to deceive MGG, the investment firm claimed in court documents.  According to MGG, Zayat owes more than $24 million in unpaid loans, plus accrued interest.