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Category: Fee Award

Seventh Circuit Tosses $11M Attorney Fee Award

May 20, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “Seventh Circ. Throws Out $11M Fee Award For Bernstein Litowitz” reports that the Seventh Circuit vacated an $11 million fee award for Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP's work on a $45 million settlement between waste disposal company Stericycle and its shareholders, finding that the district court "did not give sufficient weight" to points raised in a class member's objection.  The three-judge panel said the Illinois federal court overseeing the case should've more seriously considered evidence of related fee agreements, all the work that Bernstein Litowitz inherited from earlier litigation against Stericycle and the early stage at which the settlement was reached.

"The cumulative effect of these issues leads us to conclude that the district court's analysis did not sufficiently 'reflect the market-based approach for determining fee awards that is required by our precedent,'" the Seventh Circuit said.  The panel added, "We vacate the fee award and remand for a fresh determination more in line with what an ex ante agreement would have produced."

Objector Mark Petri appealed a 25% cut that Bernstein Litowitz got from representing investors claiming that Stericycle falsely inflated its financial results through fraudulent pricing.  In particular, Petri argued that the attorney fees were potentially inflated by a pay-to-play scheme and the case never proceeded past the motion-to-dismiss stage.

In the underlying case, lead plaintiffs Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi and the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System had pointed to briefing in a study conducted by Nera Economic Consulting.  According to that study, for securities class action cases that settled between 2014 and 2018 in amounts ranging from $25 million to $100 million, the median attorney fee award was 25%, like the share awarded to Bernstein Litowitz.

Bernstein Litowitz asked the court to approve its $11 million fee request in June 2019, and the court gave its blessing in May 2020.  But the Seventh Circuit said that the district court's analysis was incomplete.  Notably, the court didn't address a 2016 retention agreement between the firm and the Mississippi attorney general, under which Bernstein Litowitz was authorized to represent the Mississippi fund and seek a percentage of the recovery achieved for the class as compensation.  That percentage, however, was supposed to be limited to the percentage corresponding to the fund's estimated individual recovery, the panel said.

At oral argument, Bernstein Litowitz had said that the sliding scale structure outlined in that agreement only applies to the amount recovered by the fund itself, not to the total amount recovered by the class.  The Seventh Circuit said that interpretation is "improbable, arbitrary, unreasonable and not consistent with a class representative's fiduciary duty to class members."

Additionally, the district court's assessment of the risk of non-payment also didn't give sufficient weight to prior litigation involving Stericycle, litigation that substantially reduced the risk of non-payment, the panel said.  The court had found that the risk of non-payment was "substantial," but that earlier litigation demonstrating Stericycle's billing practices and other settlements signaled that class counsel was not actually taking on much risk, the Seventh Circuit said.

And on top of that, the court didn't properly consider just how early on in the litigation the case was settled, according to the decision.  At the very least, the district court should've considered whether the preliminary stage of the litigation warranted a reduction in the requested fee, it said.  The Seventh Circuit also remarked that it wasn't convinced the settlement was a good outcome for the class, but that neither Petri nor anyone else was challenging that.

Florida Panel Finds Attorney Fee Error in Irma Coverage Suit

May 19, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ben Zigterman, “Fla. Panel Finds Atty Fees Error in Irma Coverage Suit” reports that a Florida state appellate panel reversed a lower court's award of attorney fees to counsel for homeowners suing underwriters at Lloyd's of London for coverage of damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.  Instead of being paid for more than 550 hours of work to get a $52,000 jury verdict for Roniel Candelaria and Amelia Padura, the three-judge panel agreed with the underwriters that the homeowners' attorney fees should be recalculated based on 480.5 billed hours.

The panel said Judge Martin Zilber should have gone through the time records of the homeowners' counsel line by line, but instead applied an arbitrary 15% cut.  The judge awarded the homeowners' counsel a lodestar amount of $312,000, applying a 1.8 multiplier to that amount and adding other legal costs, for a total award of more than $600,000.

"The lodestar amount is not supported by competent substantial evidence because the trial court did not make 'specific findings' as to its determination," Judge Kevin Emas wrote for the panel.  While the homeowners' expert suggested a 7.5% billing hours cut, the judge instead applied a 15% cut, according to the opinion.

"The insureds' expert did not conduct a line-by-line analysis of the billing," Judge Emas wrote.  "The trial court adopted plaintiff's expert's arbitrary methodology.  Indeed, in the instant case the trial court did not merely adopt the expert's methodology but added its own across-the-board reduction of 15%."  The panel said its previous decisions require "specific findings as to disputed time entries" and "particularized reductions."

"The trial court's comments at the conclusion of the hearing reveal that it had only examined 'several' of the timesheets," instead of making a line-item review, Judge Emas wrote.  The panel also said the trial judge improperly applied the 1.8-contingency multiplier.  The trial judge lacked "competent substantial evidence to address whether the attorney was able to mitigate the risk of nonpayment in any way — specifically, whether the client could afford to pay a retainer or hourly fees," Judge Emas wrote.

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.

Judge Clears Law Firm in Overcharge Fee Suit

May 6, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ryan Harroff, “Judge Axes Benicar Fee Suit. Says Firm Didn’t Overcharge” reports that Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman LLC beat a suit that claimed it overcharged its clients in multidistrict litigation over gastrointestinal injuries related to blood pressure drug Benicar and its generic Olmesartan after the New Jersey court found a state attorney fee rule did not apply to the MDL.  A New Jersey federal judge granted Mazie Slater's motion to dismiss the proposed class action, writing that the nearly $9 million award for the firm was "well within the reasonable and equitable percentages of Third Circuit examples."  The court agreed with the firm's argument from its dismissal bid that a state rule on attorney fees that served as the backbone of the action does not apply to mass tort MDL cases.

According to the court's opinion, named plaintiff Anthony Martino misapplied New Jersey Court Rule 1:21-7(i), which requires firms to aggregate class action fees based on individual client recoveries and seek court approval for fees over $3 million, by claiming that he and his proposed class members all had "substantially identical liability issues," a requirement for the rule, since they were all litigants in a New-Jersey resident-only multicounty consolidated litigation running parallel to the broader Benicar MDL.

According to the opinion, "there can be no rational, medical, logical, or legal justification why the claims of a subset of Olmesartan registrants could be interpreted as having substantially identical liability based merely on the fact they arose in the MCL."

The product liability MDL and MCL in question sought to hold Daiichi Sankyo Inc. and Forest Laboratories Inc. accountable for injuries suffered by Benicar and Olmesartan users.  The MDL settled initially for $300 million in August 2017 and the deal later grew to $380 million after triple the expected class members registered, according to the opinion.

Mazie Slater got $8.9 million of the total attorney fee allotment from the deal, and Martino accused the firm of running afoul of the New Jersey court rule in his November complaint, which claimed legal malpractice, unjust enrichment and conversion after firm partner Adam Slater allegedly failed to tell his clients that the firm would get "substantial fees and costs for the same, or substantially same, work that he had performed for each client and for which he received a full fee under the individual retainer agreements."

The rule does not apply to MCL or MDL consolidations, the court wrote, citing a lack of case law to support its application and the "very different and the very specific factual details" of each consolidated injury, which, according to the opinion, undercut Martino's argument the MCL litigants issues are substantially identical.

Bruce Nagel of Nagel Rice LLP, counsel for Martino and the proposed class, told Law360 that it is "nonsense" for the court to say the MCL plaintiffs do not all arise from the same liability issues since they all come from the same drug.  Nagel also said the MCL plaintiffs all had retainer agreements with Mazie Slater that included the New Jersey court rule and that he believed the Third Circuit would find that rule enforceable under those retainers.

Adam Slater of Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman LLC, who is both a named defendant and counsel for himself and the firm, told Law360 that the court's decision was "absolutely correct," and that there are many variances of liability issues in the consolidated cases, such as whether a plaintiff took the drug before or after a warning about potential side effects was added in 2013.  Slater said variances like that are why the New Jersey court rule does not apply for mass torts.

"What we did here is consistent with what every New Jersey lawyer litigating mass torts in the state and federal courts of New Jersey has been doing for over 40 years, calculating fees, and it's very clear that that rule does not apply in a mass tort setting like the Benicar case or the other mass tort cases that are routinely litigated in New Jersey," Slater said.

Ninth Circuit: $260K Fee Award Proper Where Damages Were $2500

April 26, 2022

A recent Metropolitan News story, “$260,000 Fee Award Proper Though Damages Were $2,500” reports that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed an attorney fee award of nearly $260,000 in a case in which a prison inmate was awarded $2,500 based on ill-effects from a chemical grenade having accidentally been discharged, with fumes seeping into the area of the cells.  District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. of the Northern District of California made the award under California’s private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, ruling that the statutory criteria were met, including a benefit to the public that overshadows the personal benefit to the prisoner, Daniel Manriquez.

The incident underlying Manriquez’s suit occurred on June 4, 2015.  According to allegations of the operative complaint, two employees at Pelican Bay State Prison, defendants Justin Vangilder and Juan Vasquez, while inside a control booth, were “horse playing” with a “military-grade” grenade which is “designed to quickly release oleoresin capsicum (‘OC’) into the air.”  One of them dropped the grenade, it went off, and the employees “opened the windows to the control booth, allowing a fog of OC to quickly fill the surrounding space.”

The inmate prevailed at trial and his lawyers sought an award of a fee in the amount of $467,425, arguing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had “insisted on using this case as a ‘test case’ for prisoners who have been indirectly exposed to oleoresin capsicum,” had rejected reasonable settlement offers, and “forced Plaintiff to heavily litigate this case for going on three years now.”  Gilliam awarded $259,237.50.

 A three-judge panel—composed of Judge M. Margaret McKeown and Senior Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Sidney Thomas—upheld the award, saying that there was, as Gilliam found, a “significant benefit” conferred on the general public. Their memorandum opinion declares: “To be sure, the primary effect of Manriquez’s $2,500 judgment is arguably an enforcement of his personal interests against two correctional officers for an isolated incident, as there was no injunction or statewide policy changes.  But we hold that the district court did not clearly err* in its determination that Manriquez’s verdict has “larger implications” beyond his individual case. The district court explicitly took into consideration the fact that indirect exposure to chemical agents is not uncommon among inmates and that Defendants’ own witnesses testified at trial about the frequency with which chemical agents are used in prison facilities.  Moreover, the district court highlighted that there are approximately 95.000 men and women incarcerated in California, including approximately 1.900 inmates in Pelican Bay, where Manriquez was in custody.”

The Ninth Circuit judges also agreed with Gilliam that the public benefit transcends Manriquez’s personal interests, saying: “In the end, Manriquez was awarded a total of $2,500 while his counsel requested a total of $467,425 in attorneys’ fees for over 1,100 hours of work.  Had counsel not agreed to represent Manriquez on contingency, the value of the recovery for Manriquez’s pain and panic would not have justified the costs in litigating this case.  For the same reason—comparing the modest sum of the total damages to the attorneys’ fee requested—we agree with the district court that the interests of justice require the fees to not be paid out of Plaintiffs’ recovery.”

The defendants argued that even though Gilliam awarded less in fees than was sought, the amount is 84 times that allowed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).  The PLRA caps attorney fees 150 percent of any monetary which would mean a maximum award of $3,750.

The panel responded: “[T]he PLRA cannot be used as a basis to limit the attorneys’ fees granted under California Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5.  In this case. Manriquez prevailed on both his state law negligence claim as well as his Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants.  The state law claim thus served as an independent basis for awarding attorneys’ fees, the amount of which is not governed or limited by the PLRA….Moreover, the district court is not required to apportion the work between Manriquez’s Eighth Amendment claim and his negligence claim because his claims are intertwined and based on the same common core of facts.”