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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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."[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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: Judge Posner Called It a ‘Racket’

August 3, 2022

A recent article, “Judge Posner Called It a ‘Racket’” by Gregory Markel, Daphe Morduchowitz, and Sarah Fedner reports on mootness fees in federal merger litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, a federal Judge pushed back against the common but abusive practice of “mootness fee” payoffs in public M&A deals. In the February 2022 opinion, Judge Oetken denied a $250,000 attorneys’ fee demand by plaintiff’s counsel in an investor challenge to Microsoft’s $19.7 billion acquisition of Nuance Communications. The decision is by a court which took the opportunity to both consider and reject a widespread phenomenon that many call a meritless shakedown or transaction tax on public M&A deals. This decision is significant in that it is fairly rare for mootness fee payments to be subject to court scrutiny despite the increasingly common voluntary dismissals by plaintiffs in this type of case. For more information about the history of mootness fee and disclosure only settlements and the need for reform click here. 

The Delaware Court of Chancery’s 2016 decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, which criticized so called “disclosure only settlements” paid to plaintiffs’ counsel in exchange for supplemental disclosures that do not provide any material additional information, led to a steep decline in filings of merger litigation in the Delaware Court of Chancery.[1] Following the Trulia decision,  there was a sharp increase in merger challenges filed in  federal court. A number of plaintiffs’ firms filed cases in federal court very similar to the ones criticized in Trulia with the apparently sole purpose of obtaining attorneys’ fees in exchange for voluntary dismissals and non-material supplemental disclosures. These voluntary dismissal cases, because they are dismissed prior to class certification, generally are not subject to court approval.

Background

Beginning in 2009, filings of class action claims challenging mergers increased substantially. As of 2015, the year before the Trulia decision, roughly 95% of merger transactions valued at more than $100 million were challenged.[2] 60% of these challenges were filed in Delaware courts, and more often than not in Chancery Court, while only 19% were filed in federal courts in other states.[3]

These cases were typically resolved in early settlements with corrective disclosures and broad releases of future class claims for defendants that required court approval. Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fee requests were often approved by the courts under the common law, corporate benefit doctrine. The disclosures supposedly provided shareholders with information material to making an informed investment decision. In reality, however, the added disclosure they provided  was not meaningful and most often a makeweight to justify plaintiffs’ counsels’ attorneys’ fees. In many cases, the corrective disclosures were nearly pointless and did not affect many shareholder votes. Thus, many class actions filed in connection with M&A deals became a vehicle for plaintiffs’ firms to obtain attorneys’ fees with little, if any, meaningful benefit for shareholders. Since class actions were created to benefit a class of injured claimants, there was a fairly obvious disconnect between the theoretical purpose and the reality of the motive behind many merger cases. Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit referred to this practice by plaintiffs as “no better than a racket.” [4]

The Trulia Decision

The Delaware Chancery’s Court decision in Trulia sought to put an end to this practice by limiting disclosure-only settlements to those that resulted in disclosures that added significant value to class members and provided releases of sensible scope. The Trulia court refused to approve a proposed settlement, which included supplemental disclosures and attorneys’ fees in exchange for a broad release, finding that the proposed disclosure was not “plainly material” as defined under Delaware law.[5] The Trulia court cautioned that, unless there was “a substantial likelihood that the disclosure of the omitted fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the 'total mix' of information made available,”[6] proposed disclosure-only settlements and accompanying attorney’s fees would not be approved going forward by the Chancery Court.[7]

Federal Merger Litigation Post-Trulia

Trulia came as the culmination of several then recent Delaware Chancery Court decisions and it made clear there was a new regime in Delaware Chancery Court for settlements of merger cases. However, Trulia did not apply in other forums. As a result, certain plaintiffs’ firms took advantage of this by challenging mergers in alternative jurisdictions. In 2016, the rate of merger litigation plummeted in Delaware state court by almost 50% and continued to decrease thereafter.[8] This trend was accompanied by an immediate uptick in merger litigation in federal courts.[9] As of 2018, only 5% of completed deals were challenged in Delaware Chancery Court, while 92% were challenged in federal court.[10]

Not only did the rate of filings increase in federal court, but the number of class action cases resolved through voluntary dismissals before a class was certified skyrocketed. Starting in 2016, many merger case filings were followed by voluntary dismissals and a payment of attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs. By 2018, 92% of the federal merger challenges resulted in  voluntary dismissals and payment of mootness fees.[11]

These mootness fees cases generally do not require court approval as the cases are generally dismissed prior to class certification, and therefore without a requirement of court approval, and the fees are infrequently challenged by defendants who often elect to pay the mootness fee demands, even in  the often frivolous cases, in order to avoid delays in completing merger transactions and the costs of  fully litigating  a case on the merits.

Serion v. Nuance Communications, Inc.

In the recent Nuance decision, Judge Oetken denied plaintiff’s counsel’s fee petition, finding that  plaintiff’s counsel had not shown a “substantial benefit” to shareholders from the supplemental disclosures finding that the additional disclosure which was provided of  underlying metrics for data already disclosed did not confer a substantial benefit.” The holding is notable because the supplemental disclosures demanded by plaintiffs are typical of the truly marginal information added in connection with most cases involving mootness fee dismissals.

Conclusion

The payment of plaintiff's baseless fee demands, which individually are not large but in total are much more than trivial, to end frivolous deal challenges continues despite the Trulia decision that criticized a nearly identical practice. The cost of this frivolous deal tax is borne not just by the companies who pay them but also are passed along to consumers and other companies who do business with the payor company and the practice provides little or no benefit to shareholders in most instances. The Nuance ruling is an exception to the more common result of no court review of mootness fee settlements.  Plaintiffs, because of the procedural posture, were required to petition for court approval of the fee. Because mootness fees are not typically reviewed by the courts,  there is a strong need for legislative reform to deal with this practice. In the meantime, the “racket”  in Judge Posner’s terms likely will continue.

Gregory Markel and Daphne Morduchowitz are partners and Sarah Fedner is a senior associate at Seyfarth LLP in New York.  Partners Giovanna Ferrari, Andrew Escobar and associate Meryl Hulteng also contributed to this article.

NALFA Releases 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report

July 19, 2022

Every year, NALFA conducts an hourly rate survey of civil litigation in the U.S.   Today, NALFA released the results from its 2021 hourly rate survey.  The survey results, published in The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report, shows billing rate data on the very factors that correlate directly to hourly rates in litigation:

City / Geography
Years of Litigation Experience / Seniority
Position / Title
Practice Area / Complexity of Case
Law Firm / Law Office Size

This empirical survey and report provides micro and macro data of current hourly rate ranges for both defense and plaintiffs’ litigators, at various experience levels, from large law firms to solo shops, in regular and complex litigation, and in the nation’s largest markets.  This data-intensive survey contains hundreds of data sets and thousands of data points covering all relevant billing rate categories and variables.  This is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive survey or study on hourly billing rates in litigation.

This is the second year NALFA has conducted this survey on billing rates.  The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report contains new cities, additional categories, and more accurate variables.  These updated features allow us to capture new and more precise billing rate data.  Through our propriety email database, NALFA surveyed thousands of litigators from across the U.S.  Over 8,400 qualified litigators fully participated in this hourly rate survey.  This data-rich survey was designed to aid litigators in proving their lodestar rates in court and comparing their rates to their litigation peers.

The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report is now available for purchase.  For more on this survey, email NALFA Executive Director Terry Jesse at terry@thenalfa.org or call us at (312) 907-7275.

Article: Courts Are Right to Reject Insurer ERISA Attorney Fee Awards

May 9, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Elizabeth Hopkins, “Courts Are Right To Reject Insurer ERISA Atty Fee Award” reports on ERISA attorney fee awards.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

As the U.S. Supreme Court has often recognized, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act is remedial legislation that is primarily intended to protect plan participants and beneficiaries, promote their interests and ensure that they receive the benefits they are promised.  According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's 1984 ruling in Smith v. CMTA-IAM Pension Trust: "An important aspect of that protection is to afford [plan participants and beneficiaries] effective access to federal courts."

And one of the ways that this access is promoted is through ERISA's fee-shifting provision, which grants courts in actions brought by plan participants and beneficiaries the discretionary authority to allow a reasonable attorney fee and cost of action to either party.  Despite these protective statutory goals, individual ERISA claimants face uphill battles in attempting to reverse adverse benefit determinations.  They are not entitled to anything like a full trial in federal court, but are instead normally stuck with a trial on the record that was assembled by the decision-making fiduciary, who is in many instances entitled to great deference.

And the only recovery they can hope to achieve if they are successful is full payment of the benefits that they were always entitled to and perhaps some interest on this amount.  Given all these hurdles and limitations to recovery, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not always easy for ERISA plaintiffs to obtain counsel, especially when there is only a small amount of benefits at stake.

For this reason, as the Ninth Circuit explained in Smith, "without counsel fees the grant of federal jurisdiction is but a gesture for few [plaintiffs] could avail themselves of it."  Plan participants and beneficiaries who successfully challenge benefit denials or bring successful fiduciary breach suits against plan fiduciaries do invariably seek and almost always are awarded some attorney fees under this provision.

The Supreme Court made clear in 2010 in Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co., that participants need not even be prevailing parties in an ERISA action to qualify for fees, so long as they have had "some degree of success on the merits."  Once the success threshold has been met, to determine whether a discretionary award of fees is warranted, courts apply a five-factor test first developed in 1993 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Quesinberry v. Life Insurance Co. of North America — factors that clearly and intentionally favor successful plaintiffs.

But a potent new threat to the ability of plan participants and beneficiaries to bring suit is looming.  Increasingly, insurance companies are seeking attorney fee awards against claimants who are partially or wholly unsuccessful in overcoming deference and other substantive and procedural advantages to the plan decision makers, and are thus unable to have a denial of benefits reversed.

For the most part, courts continue to reject attorney fee applications from insurance companies that successfully defeat lawsuits seeking plan benefits.  A November 2021 decision in Martin v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky is instructive of both the heavy-handed tactics of insurance companies seeking fees from claimants and one court's reaction.  In Martin, the insurance company that insured disability benefits sought nearly $138,000 against the claimant, the father of a minor child whose only income was roughly $756 a month in veterans benefits and who had only $1,500 in his bank account.

The court seemed especially put off by Guardian's argument that Martin declined to participate in an independent medical examination and that this indicated bad faith, finding, to the contrary, that his attested reasoning for hesitation about the examination was a concern with going to an unknown medical facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the court noted that granting Guardian's motion for attorney fees "would tend to create a chilling effect on other plaintiffs seeking redress under ERISA."

Other courts have expressed similar concerns in denying fee applications asserted by insurance companies against disability plaintiffs.  For instance, in December 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Amoroso v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, declined to order the plaintiff to pay $66,000 in attorney fees to the insurance company simply because it "completely prevailed on the merits."

Noting that application of the five factors that courts apply in determining whether fees are warranted very frequently suggests that attorney fees should not be charged against ERISA plaintiffs, the court concluded that was certainly true with respect to Sun Life's application for fees in that case.  With respect to the first factor, the Amoroso court concluded that there was nothing approaching bad faith in the record.  The court found the second factor weighed strongly against a fee award because Sun Life did not show that Amoroso had sufficient assets to pay an award, and the facts that his home was valued at over $1 million and that he had a medical practice was simply irrelevant with respect to his ability to pay.

Addressing Sun Life's most revealing argument — that the third factor weighed in its favor because awarding fees would deter other participants from brining unsuccessful benefit suits — the court disagreed, reasoning that deterring disabled plan participants from suing for plan benefits was flatly inconsistent with ERISA's policy and with ERISA's fee-shifting provision.

Likewise, the court rejected out of hand Sun Life's argument that awarding fees would benefit all other participants and beneficiaries of the plan by saving the insurance company money and perhaps leading to lower premiums.  The court found instead that such an award "would deter insureds from seeking such benefits at all, and it would only embolden insurers in denying claims at the administrative level."

Considering the relative merits of the parties' positions — the final factor — the court declined to "force a losing ERISA plaintiff to pay an insurer's attorneys' fees based solely on the fact that he lost," reasoning that to do so "would not be consistent with ERISA, the better-reasoned cases decided under it, equity, or common sense."

In the court's view, such a fee award in favor of an insurer would only be justified in unusual circumstances not presented by Amoroso's case.  Numerous other recent decisions have had no trouble denying insurers' requests for attorney fee awards against unsuccessful benefit claimants.

At this point, it appears that the recent and sharp uptick in fee applications from insurance companies seeking fees against plan participants and beneficiaries who are unsuccessful in reversing a denial of benefits is meeting with little or no success in the courts.

Application of the Quesinberry test, along with a healthy reluctance to punish disabled, sick or retired plan participants for seeking to obtain plan benefits, has quite correctly led courts in all but the most unusual circumstances to reject these fee applications.  Let's hope these kinds of decisions discourage insurance companies from engaging in this unfair tactic.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a partner at Kantor & Kantor LLP in Northridge, CA.

Article: Do We Really Need An Attorney Fee Expert?

April 18, 2022

A recent article by William F. Cobb, “Do We Really Need An Attorney Fee Expert?” discusses the need to hire an attorney fee expert.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In 2002, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a decision in Island Hoppers Ltd. v. Keith 820 So. 2d 967 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) discussing whether or not expert testimony should be required to support an award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party.  The decision questioned the necessity and wisdom of the longstanding judicially-created requirement.

Justice Polen, who authored the opinion in Island Hoppers, recognized that an award of attorneys’ fees must be supported by competent substantial evidence and Florida courts have required testimony by the attorney performing the services, together with testimony by an expert fees witness as to the time and value of those services.  The expert in that case spent a scant three hours in preparation of his opinion in this wrongful death case and is accused of lacking a sufficient factual predicate to form an opinion.  Although Justice Polen and the court allowed the testimony, claiming the testimony went to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility, the opinion questions whether the longstanding rule requiring the corroborative testimony of an expert fees witness is always the best or most judicious practice. 

The opinion recognizes that expert witnesses are presented to assist with guidance to the trier of fact and fails to see what “guidance” if any a fees expert provides to judges who see various levels of skill and experience in the courtroom on a regular basis.  The opinion does recognize the expert may provide some assistance to the court in terms of a multiplier determination in the market, but distinguished the more fundamental issues of determining appropriate hours expended and rates charged and states the trial judge has greater insight and understanding regarding what is reasonable.   The Island Hoppers decision prompted a Florida Bar Journal article, authored by Robert J. Hauser, Raymond E. Kramer III and Patricia A. Leonard, of Beasley & Hauser, P.A., in January 2003 regarding the same topic, (Vol. 77, No. 1, page 38) essentially agreeing the requirement should be revisited and perhaps eliminated.  In virtually every case decided by the Florida Supreme Court, both before and subsequent to the Island Hoppers decision, the Court has found, or at least commented upon, the requirement for an expert to testify regarding the reasonableness of the time and amount of attorney’s fees being sought, together with a multiplier determination in the relevant market area, especially where there was a fee-shifting provision involved. 

In Roshkind v. Machiela, decided in 2010, the Fourth District Court of appeal again addressed the long-standing requirement of independent expert witness testimony to support a claim for attorney’s fees.  The Court recognized generally “where a party seeks to have the opposing party in a lawsuit pay for attorney’s fees incurred . . . independent expert testimony is required” and “case law throughout this state has adhered to the requirement of an independent expert witness to establish the reasonableness of fees, regardless of whether a first or third party is responsible for payment.”  Although the opinion recognizes Island Hoppers and the previously questioned judicially-created requirement of independent expert testimony to establish the reasonableness of attorney’s fees, it ruled the judicially-created requirement “remains etched in our case law.”  The Fourth District certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court regarding whether or not an expert witness is required to testify to establish attorney’s fees, seeking a final determination of the issue.  The Florida Supreme Court initially accepted jurisdiction but later issued an opinion “upon further consideration, we have determined to deny review and discharge jurisdiction” thereby denying a review and ruling on the issue.

In 2007, In re Amendments to Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, The Florida Bar Civil Procedure Rules Committee recommended adding Rule 1.526 to The Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.  The proposed rule was entitled “Expert Opinion Testimony on Costs and Attorneys’ Fees” and included “[e]xpert opinion is not required to support or oppose a claim or an award of costs, attorneys’ fees, or both, unless by prior order of the court.”  Essentially, the proposed rule would leave it to the trial judge to determine whether or not he or she would require “guidance” in the form of an expert’s opinion regarding the determination of attorneys’ fees.  In rejecting the proposed rule, the Florida Supreme Court opined “that the issue of whether expert opinion testimony is required in this context is not one that is appropriately addressed in a rule of procedure” and declined to adopt the proposed rule.

From a review of the foregoing, although at least one District Court of Appeal has questioned the judicially-created requirement for and independent attorneys’ fee expert to testify in a fee determination hearing, it is clear the Florida Supreme Court consistently has supported and recognized the longstanding requirement and has further refused to adopt a rule of procedure that would allow the trial court to determine the need for expert testimony.  In order to support an award of attorney’s fees, the attorney for the party seeking the fees, whether first or third party obligation for payment is present, is required to retain the services of an expert to offer testimony regarding the reasonableness of the hours expended and amount being sought in recovery in order to prevail.

William F. Cobb is a Partner at Cobb Gonzalez in Jacksonville, FL.