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Category: Advancement of Fees

Former Twitter Executive’s Fee Bid Called ‘Egregious’

September 15, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “Musk’s X Corp. Slams Ex-Twitter Exec’s ‘Egregious’ Fee Bid”, reports that Elon Musk's social media company X Corp. urged the Delaware Chancery Court to reject three former top Twitter executives' bid seeking reimbursement for more than $1 million in legal fees, arguing that former Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde's demand, in particular, is "egregious and unreasonable."

X Corp. claims it has already paid Gadde's counsel more than $106,000 for fees related to her appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform during its investigation into the influence of social media on U.S. elections, which was in line with fees paid to counsel for other testifying Twitter executives, according to the company's brief unsealed opposing the summary judgment bid brought by Gadde, former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal and former Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal.

But Gadde is demanding an "egregious and unreasonable" $1.15 million in fees without establishing what the facts are for determining reasonableness, such as the nature of her attorneys' work and the time spent on it, according to the opposition.  "Gadde's submission hides those facts from the court's review through invoices that aggregate vague time descriptions in undifferentiated, block-billed time entries," X Corp. said. 

"The court is thus obstructed from assessing, for example only, whether the time spent 'evaluating public materials' (even the partner-in-charge could not explain what it meant) was reasonable, given there is no way of knowing how much of the time-keeper's 150-plus hours was devoted to it."  X Corp. said it doesn't dispute that Gadde is entitled to advancement of fees related to the inquiry, only that it disputes the reasonableness of her asserted fees.

Gadde, Agrawal and Segal sued the social media giant in April, saying they incurred significant expenses after becoming involved in several legal proceedings because of their former roles as Twitter executives.  They contend that per company bylaws and indemnification agreements, X Corp., as Twitter's successor, is obligated to advance their legal expenses.  Musk fired the three when he took ownership and control of the business in October 2022. Indemnification agreements covering them, however, remain in effect for proceedings related to their former position as officers, the complaint said.

In a motion for immediate payment in July, the trio argued: "Put simply, the world's richest person does not pay his bills."  And in their motion for summary judgment earlier this summer, the former executives accused the company of "perpetually making excuses" for not meeting its obligations and that it is "gaining a well-earned reputation for shirking its commitments."

They said the social media giant had advanced them roughly $575,000 for their legal costs, but is still "wrongfully" withholding about $1.1 million owed, along with roughly $270,000 in interest and "fees-on-fees" for having to litigate the Chancery suit.  But in its own motion for summary judgment, X Corp. called into question the reasonableness of fees related to Gadde's appearance in the Congressional inquiry, asking the court to reduce any advancement award to her from $1.15 million to $106,203.

In its opposition brief, the company reiterated those arguments, saying Gadde is asking the court to "rubberstamp her facially unreasonable Congressional inquiry fees simply because her counsel filed affidavits stating that, in their opinion, their fees are reasonable."  X Corp. said Gadde is seeking fees amounting to 1,100% of those incurred by two other Twitter executives who testified at the hearing.  There are issues of fact regarding the reasonableness of Gadde's fees that preclude summary judgment in her favor for advancement of fees that exceed $106,203, the opposition states.

Former Twitter Executives Seek Coverage of Legal Expenses

August 22, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Rose Krebs, “X Corp. Accused of ‘Shirking’ Its Obligations in Legal Fee Row”, reports that three former top Twitter executives continue to urge the Delaware Chancery Court to order the Elon Musk-owned social media giant, now called X Corp., to reimburse them for at least $1.1 million in legal costs, accusing the company of "perpetually making excuses" for not meeting its obligations.  In a brief, former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, former Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde and former Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal told the court that the company is "gaining a well-earned reputation for shirking its commitments."

They took aim at a cross-motion for summary judgment and accompanying brief X Corp. filed last month, after Agrawal, Gadde and Segal had already sought to have Chancellor Kathaleen St. J. McCormick summarily order the company to pay legal fees they have incurred in connection with Twitter-focused lawsuits and regulatory inquiries.

The three assert that, in their summary judgment bid, they established "beyond any doubt that Twitter has breached its advancement obligations."  "From the beginning of this dispute, plaintiffs have operated by the book — making timely demands for advancement, providing undertakings, and submitting good faith certifications from counsel attesting to the reasonableness of plaintiffs' attorneys' fees," their brief said.  "Plaintiffs have done everything prescribed by Delaware law to obtain advancement from Twitter."

They accuse the company of causing months of delays and "perpetually making excuses for its failure to meet its advancement obligations."  "Although Twitter would like to pretend it is a party that dutifully pays its contractual obligations as they come due, it is in fact perpetually delinquent and is gaining a well-earned reputation for shirking its commitments," they contend.

In a filing last month, they said the social media giant had advanced them roughly $575,000 for their legal costs, but is still "wrongfully" withholding about $1.1 million owed, along with roughly $270,000 in interest and "fees-on-fees" for having to litigate the Chancery suit.  The three sued the social media giant in Chancery Court in April, saying they incurred significant expenses after becoming involved in several legal proceedings because of their former roles as Twitter executives.

They contend that per company bylaws and indemnification agreements, X Corp., as Twitter's successor, is obligated to advance their legal expenses.  Musk fired the three when he took ownership and control of the business in October 2022.  Indemnification agreements covering them, however, remain in effect for proceedings related to their former position as officers, the complaint said.  In a filing last month, the three argued: "Put simply, the world's richest person does not pay his bills."

But, its own filing, X Corp. has called into question the reasonableness of fees related to Gadde's appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform during the committee's investigation into the influence of social media on U.S. elections.  In its own summary judgment filing last month, X Corp. called Gadde's request for fees excessive.

"Unlike many advancement actions, here, X Corp. does not challenge Gadde's entitlement to advancement of reasonable expenses — the company does not dispute that her testimony was required by reason of Gadde's role as former CLO of Twitter," the filing said. "Rather, the company here is challenging only the reasonableness of the fees for which Gadde seeks advancement with respect to the Congressional Inquiry."

X Corp. said Gadde is asking the company to advance "over $1.1 million" for fees incurred by her counsel, Sidley Austin LLP, "in connection with testifying for a single day."  That amount is "nearly 1,100%" what was incurred by two other former Twitter executives who also testified at the same hearing and were "similarly situated witnesses," X Corp. contended.

"The extreme delta between Gadde's legal fees and those of not one, but two separately represented, similarly situated, former Twitter executives who engaged similarly reputable law firms, is on its own sufficiently shocking to require that the reasonableness of Gadde's fees be thoroughly addressed now," the company argues.

X Corp. asked the court to "reduce any advancement award related to Gadde's representation in the congressional inquiry from $1,153,540.81 to $106,203.28 because Gadde failed to prove that all the fees and expenses were reasonably incurred."

But, ina filing, Gadde, Agrawal and Segal fired back.  "Twitter's challenge to these fees is particularly troubling given that Twitter's owner, Elon Musk, contributed to the exposure and complexity of the oversight inquiry when he publicly and repeatedly focused on Gadde and personally toured Capitol Hill to incite Republican lawmakers leading the oversight inquiry," their filing said.  They argued that "the record demonstrates that Gadde's fees incurred in the oversight inquiry are reasonable."

The three criticized the company for venting "invective at Gadde's counsel," including asserting that it engaged in "over-lawyering" and "extensive duplication of effort."  Gadde’s attorneys spent many hours prepping her for the committee’s questions, using five partners with hourly rates from $1,300 to $1,825, two associates charging more than $1,200 an hour and non-lawyer “policy adviser” Tracey LaTurner, who billed at $665 an hour.

"Aside from its invective, the only basis for Twitter's cross-motion is a false comparison between Gadde's attorneys' fees and the attorneys' fees of two other witnesses who testified in the same oversight inquiry," they said.

DOL Says Fund ‘Bleeding’ Legal Fees From Baker Botts

July 20, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “DOL Says Fund ‘Bleeding Money,’ Questions Baker Botts Bills”, reports that the U.S. Department of Labor has asked an Illinois federal judge to prevent trustees from entirely draining a multi-employer benefit fund — after the agency accused them of misappropriating more than $2.8 million in assets and seemingly approving "gargantuan" legal fees charged by Baker Botts LLP.

In a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, the department said that without court intervention, trustees John Fernandez and Gary Meyers will keep "bleeding money" from the United Employee Benefit Fund and leave nothing for the participants and beneficiaries.  The fund provides life insurance for at least 63 employer-sponsored plans.

The Labor Department says it has evidence that the trustees are approving or failing to scrutinize the funds' soaring expenditures toward legal fees and other costs that are rapidly depleting its assets, leading those assets to shrink from $22 million in December 2018 to roughly $12 million in April 2023, and then "dramatically less" as of this May, "to the point where there is a substantial risk that all of the fund's assets will be imminently and completely dissipated."

The agency says Fernandez and Meyers "appear to be turning a blind eye" to unreasonable legal fees, claiming to have received a letter in May from the fund's counsel, Christopher Rillo of Baker Botts, stating that the firm had billed the fund millions in fees, in part to defend against the Employee Retirement Income Security Act lawsuit, and was owed millions more, far exceeding initial estimates.

The suit, first brought by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last February, alleges that the benefit fund and its trustees used more than $2.8 million to pay home foreclosure costs and make direct payments to themselves.  The complaint also alleges that L. Steven Platt, a real estate attorney, helped transfer $1.1 million from the fund through his companies Husker Properties LLC and Mount Rinderhorn Capital LLC to save a trustee's home from foreclosure in late 2016.  Platt later argued in a motion to dismiss that he was merely following orders from the trustees.

Fernandez and Meyers were both named in the suit, as are the law firm Robbins Salomon & Patt Ltd. and real estate attorney David Schwalb, who the Labor Department alleged conducted prohibited transactions with the fund in 2016 and 2017.  Now, emergency measures are warranted because of "alarming information" the department has learned about the fund's rapidly depleting assets, the department said.

"The $1.385 million the Secretary caused to be restored to the fund between August and November 2021 is likely spent, presenting the distinct possibility that there will be nothing left to make whole the participants harmed by the trustees' violations," the DOL said.  "In addition to the very real possibility that all plan assets will be dissipated before this litigation is resolved, the issue of attorney's fees is concerning because the trustees brazenly amended the fund's governing document to allow the fund to give themselves and defendant Platt indemnification agreements that require it to advance their legal fees, including fees to defend against the Secretary's claims against them for fiduciary violations."

The agency claims that it has asked Rillo of Baker Botts numerous times for information about the fund's assets and legal bills, but it was not until days before the May mediation that he shared those details.  "Fund counsel implies that his 'substantial attorney's fees' are justified by the possibility his firm will recover more money for the fund than the Secretary's enforcement action will," the department said.  "Beyond that, the litigation Rillo filed on behalf of the fund to recover losses from ERISA violations is duplicative of the Secretary's claims — a fact belied by the fund's failed attempt to consolidate its actions with the Secretary's."

Rillo has said there is no insurance coverage available to pay the fund's legal fees in defending the ERISA action, with those costs to defend the trustees coming directly from the fund they are accused of mismanaging, the DOL said.  "Thus, it appears that the trustees are permitting the fund to cash in participants' insurance policies to obtain funds to pay their own enormous legal fees, as well as the unreasonable fees charged to the fund by fund managers," it said.

The department wants an appointed fiduciary to take control of the fund, its assets and participating plans and make sure it complies with ERISA, conduct analysis on whether the legal fees paid since Rillo became the fund's counsel are lawful and prevent the fund from cashing in any life insurance policies except for the benefit of the fund's participants.

Ex-CEO to Bankruptcy Court: No Legal Fee Clawback in Chapter 11 Case

June 8, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Vince Sullivan, “Ex-Insys CEO Says Legal Fee Clawback Unsupported in Ch. 11,” reports that the former CEO of drugmaker Insys Therapeutics told a Delaware bankruptcy judge that he shouldn't have to return $6 million in legal fees the company advanced to him for criminal defense costs because he was partially successful in his defense, despite a conviction that came with jail time.  During oral arguments over a motion for summary judgment in Wilmington, an attorney for John Kapoor said the attempt to claw back the legal fees by the liquidating trustee of Insys focuses on money spent on the successful defense of certain counts in a federal indictment.

"We've clearly shown that much of the work they're seeking to recoup on has nothing to do with his count of conviction," Brian T. Kelly of Nixon Peabody LLP told the court.  "Just because he got a significant sentence on the ultimate indictment doesn't mean he wasn't successful early on in defeating portions of the first [indictment]."

Kapoor was convicted in May 2019 on racketeering conspiracy and other counts, after a 51-day federal trial on his part in what prosecutors said was a massive, illegal campaign to boost sales of Insys opioid products through bribery, kickbacks and insurance fraud.  His sentence included a 66-month jail term and nearly $60 million of restitution.  Liquidating trustee William H. Henrich is seeking to claw back about $6 million in legal fees advanced to Kapoor under corporate indemnification agreements, saying his conviction dissolved the indemnification obligation.

But Kelly argued that since the Insys advancements covered a period between July 2016 and September 2018, Kapoor's success in defending against certain counts in an original indictment during that time should defeat the clawback effort.  After that window, Kapoor paid for his own defense, Kelly argued.  "Not all the work that was being done had anything to do with what he was ultimately convicted of," Kelly said.  Some of the advanced funds were also used in defense of civil actions against Kapoor, Kelly argued, and should not be subject to clawback.

Trustee attorney Morgan M. Menchaca of Reid Collins & Tsai LLP said the two firms retained by Kapoor for his criminal defense — Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP and Ropes & Gray LLP — only made appearances in the criminal matters involving Kapoor and did no identifiable work on the civil matters, for which Kapoor retained separate counsel.  She also said the argument that the trimming of the indictment represented some kind of successful defense for Kapoor doesn't comport with the strategies used by federal authorities in criminal proceedings.

"Kapoor's argument ignores the practical realities of what federal prosecutors do when they indict a criminal defendant," Menchaca argued. "They threw everything at the defendant in the first indictment."  The ultimate superseding indictment that was presented before trial included much more specific and narrowly tailored charges against Kapoor, she said, and led to his conviction on the racketeering count.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John T. Dorsey said he would take the matter of partial summary judgment under advisement, and that he would review the counsel engagement agreements between Kapoor and his attorneys before issuing a decision.

ABA Issues New Guidelines on Prepaid Attorney Fees

May 5, 2023

A recent Law 360 by Aaron West, “ABA Stresses Client Protections in New Prepaid Fees Guidance,” reports that a committee of the American Bar Association issued new guidance on the ethical obligations surrounding retainers and prepaid attorney fees, offering guardrails to protect clients from paying non-refundable fees for unearned legal work.  The opinion from the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility spells out how lawyers should handle advance non-contingent fees paid by clients for single-issue matters like divorce, defense of criminal charges and certain civil litigation, among others.

"[ABA Rule 1.15] requires that fees paid in advance must be held in a trust account until the services for which the fees will be paid are actually rendered, thereby allocating various risks to lawyer and client," the opinion says, referring to the flat fee rule at issue in the guidance.

According to the ABA's Formal Opinion 505, the problem it seeks to clarify stems from flat fees being classified as retainers, which are often nonrefundable. Attorneys shouldn't consider retainers as a "payment for the performance of services, but rather is compensation for the lawyer's promise of availability," according to the opinion.

"Given the rarity and unusual nature of a general retainer, and the fact that very few clients would actually need or benefit from one, the nature of the fee and lawyer's obligations and client's benefits under such an agreement must be explained clearly and in detail," the opinion states.  When it comes to handling upfront fees, the committee suggested that attorneys use "plain language."

"Instead of 'retainer' say 'advance' and explain that it is a 'deposit for fees,'" the opinion says.  "Explain that the sum deposited will be applied to the balance owed for work on the matter, and how and when this will happen."  The committee also stressed that "an advance fee paid by a client to a lawyer for legal services to be provided in the future cannot be non-refundable."

"Any unearned portion must be returned to the client," the opinion says. "Labeling a fee paid in advance for work to be done in the future as 'earned upon receipt' or 'nonrefundable' does not make it so."  The ethics committee periodically issues opinions to guide lawyers, courts and the public in interpreting and applying ABA model ethics rules to specific issues of legal practice, client-lawyer relationships and judicial behavior.

Although the ABA Model Rules provide guidance that U.S. legal jurisdictions can adopt, many states have their own rules that aren't necessarily in line with the ABA model.  In the case of ABA Rule 1.15, multiple jurisdictions have rules on the books that don't align with the new guidelines.

For instance, California and Oregon have their own model rules that clarify and outline how flat fees paid in advance of legal services should be deposited or labeled.  The ABA in its opinion acknowledges the jurisdictional discrepancy but also says that the approach "departs from the safekeeping policy of the Model Rules" and "creates unnecessary risks for the client."  While it's important to safeguard client payments from being considered non-refundable when an attorney hasn't yet earned them, too broad of an approach also risks preventing states from creating their own legal regulatory rules.