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Category: Fee Dispute

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.

Fourth Circuit Affirms Fee Award for Abortion Protestors

November 2, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hayley Fowler, “Abortion Protesters Keep Atty Fees in 4th Circ. Picketing Row,reports that the Fourth Circuit affirmed an attorney fee award for abortion protesters in a suit challenging the constitutionality of a North Carolina city's picketing ordinance, finding the sidewalk ministry had notched some semblance of a win in the parties' consent agreement.  In a published opinion, a three-judge panel said the consent decree allows Cities4Life Inc. to hand out pamphlets at an abortion clinic where they were previously banned from doing so, meaning the legal relationship between them and the city of Charlotte altered in such a way that Cities4Life was a "prevailing party" under the agreement.

The Fourth Circuit's decision allows the ministry to keep its $39,811 in attorney fees awarded by the district court.  "Contrary to the city's assertion at oral argument, this was no 'technical victory' — plaintiffs' previous inability to distribute literature to vehicles at the center was central to their claim," U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz wrote.  "Thus, we hold that the consent judgment here granted plaintiffs 'some relief on the merits' sufficient to establish this prerequisite for fee shifting."

Cities4Life had accused Charlotte police in 2019 of enforcing the city's picketing ordinance too liberally outside an abortion clinic that the Fourth Circuit said "performs the most abortions in the southeastern United States," where anti-abortion volunteers were allegedly inundated with citations.

One of the activities under scrutiny involved protesters stepping into the road to give literature to patients visiting the clinic. Police said it was a safety hazard that violated a city ordinance barring disrupting, blocking, obstructing or otherwise interfering with traffic.  But Cities4Life had argued police were infringing on their volunteers' First Amendment rights.  The parties reached a consent decree 17 days before the case was set to go to trial in 2020, the Fourth Circuit said.

Under the agreement, Cities4Life could approach cars with some caveats and would be issued an initial warning instead of an immediate citation if any of those conditions were violated.  The parties did not, however, settle the issue of attorney fees, which was decided at a later date by the district court.  Cities4Life had sought more than $150,000 in fees, which the judge ultimately slashed by 75% to land at the $39,000 figure.

On appeal, Charlotte argued the agreement had been a "practical resolution." Counsel for the city specifically said during oral arguments that the consent decree went "out of its way" to dismiss all the ministry's claims with prejudice, which he argued was a win for Charlotte — not the other way around.  But the Fourth Circuit said dismissing the claims with prejudice is typical of parties wanting to "ward off future litigation" and is a "poor indicator" of which one prevailed.

The panel found the decree "easily passes" its four-part test for determining fee awards, saying the parties had reached a consent decree that grants Cities4Life some relief, materially alters their legal relationship and is enforceable by the court.  In doing so, the Fourth Circuit dismantled the city's claim that an admission of liability is necessary to award attorney fees, which wasn't present in the consent decree, saying such an admission is not always necessary because judges have a "special degree" of oversight.

Construction Firm Challenges Utah’s Attorney Fee Request

October 31, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Caleb Symons, “Utah’s $100K Atty Fee Bid Excessive Construction Co. Says” reports that one of the federal contractors working on a Colorado gold mine when it ruptured in 2015 denies owing the state of Utah more than $100,000 in attorney fees for mishandling certain records, calling the request "unreasonable" because it avoided a harsher punishment for that infraction.  The sanctions dispute — part of multidistrict litigation over the Gold King Mine blowout, which released 3 million gallons of toxic waste — centers around Utah officials' claim that Harrison Western Construction Co. withheld documents detailing its construction plans at the mine.

U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson ruled earlier this year that Harrison Western must pay the state's attorney fees in those proceedings, but the company now seeks to substantially reduce an estimate of its obligation.  Noting that the judge declined to issue a more severe punishment, the Denver-based construction firm said last week that Utah should not be allowed to recoup its full legal bill after achieving only "relatively minimal success" on its March 7 sanctions request.

Rather than covering more than $100,000 in attorney fees — which includes Utah's estimate of future expenses in the ongoing spat — Harrison Western proposed paying the state less than $29,000 for those costs.  "Given Utah did not prevail on the two primary sanctions it sought, it should not be awarded fees on fees," the company said.  "At most, it should be awarded only one-third of the attorney fees and costs sought for preparation of its fee request, as it prevailed on only one of three sanctions sought."

State authorities asked Judge Johnson in early October to approve their $105,578 sanctions bill, claiming that Harrison Western "refused to participate in a good-faith effort to resolve this motion for an award of attorneys' fees without requiring judicial intervention."  The company responded that Utah is entitled to only a fraction of that sum because the judge had approved only the "least severe" of its sanction requests.

Moreover, the state's compensation formula — based on an hourly fee of $795 for partners and $550 for associates — is well above the typical rate in both New Mexico, where the MDL is located, and the Rocky Mountain region, according to Harrison Western.  Nor has Utah shared enough information about the hours worked by its King & Spalding LLP lawyers to prove an accurate accounting, the company added.

California Challenges Fee Entitlement in Tribes’ Gaming Appeal

October 28, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Caleb Symons, “California Rebuffs Tribes’ Bid for $1.1M Atty Fee in Gaming Appeal reports that California and its governor, Gavin Newsom, say five Native American tribes that earlier this year won a Ninth Circuit decision over their gaming negotiations with the state are not entitled to more than $1.1 million in attorney fees, since federal Indian law offers no such relief.  That dispute comes several months after the Ninth Circuit gave the five tribes — the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, the Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians and the Blue Lake Rancheria of the Wiyot, Yurok and Hupa Indians — major leverage in their gaming negotiations.

In the wake of that decision, in which a panel of the appellate court prohibited California from adding to the tribes' new gaming compacts any regulatory topics not directly tied to gambling, tribal leaders have sought to recoup $1,130,679 they estimated spending on the litigation.  California fired back, saying the tribes are ineligible for that relief because the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act contains no provision for recovering such expenses.

Nor can the tribes turn to state civil procedure to recoup their attorney fees, Newsom and other state officials argued, since the case involved only questions of the federal Indian gaming law, not state law.  The Ninth Circuit has already determined — in the 2018 case Independent Living Center of Southern California Inc. v. Kent — that such claims are valid exclusively in litigation over state law, according to California.

"The tribes' attempt to expand Kent to permit state law attorneys' fees awards in federal court cases that do not adjudicate a state law claim remains wholly without support," the state said.  In their Sept. 26 motion, the five Native tribes said their request of $1.1 million in attorney fees was based on reduced rates and reflected a proper "lodestar" amount, defined as the product of the number of hours reasonably spent on the litigation and a reasonable hourly rate for the attorneys.

That calculation, on the high end, proposes $980 per hour for Lester J. Marston of Rapport and Marston, which represents all the tribes except the Blue Lake Rancheria.  At the low end, it proposes $300 per hour for Marston's son, a law clerk at the same firm.  But even if the tribes are, in fact, eligible to recoup such expenses, California and Newsom responded, the state is immune from furnishing those funds under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

California never waived its sovereign immunity in the litigation, the state added, calling the tribes "mistaken" for contending that it set aside its immunity under a statute that allows for lawsuits against the state that are related to the federal Indian gaming act.  That statute, known as Section 98005, allows for "good faith" litigation under the Indian gaming act but does not waive California's immunity to attorney fees, according to state officials.  "Because Section 98005 is silent on attorneys' fees, the statute does not 'unequivocally' waive the state's immunity to a claim for such fees," they said.

Ford Challenges $550M Fee Request in $1.7B Verdict

October 27, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Johnson, “Ford Asks Judge to Punt $550M Fee Bid in $1.7B Crash Case” reports that, as the company challenges a record-shattering $1.7 billion punitive damage verdict in a lawsuit over a fatal truck crash, Ford Motor Co. has urged a Georgia state judge to deny as premature a request for at least $549 million in attorney fees being sought in the case.  Ford asked a Gwinnett County State Court judge to delay weighing the request for attorney fees until its post-trial motions in the case are considered.

Ford has requested a new trial on both liability and damages after a Georgia jury awarded $24 million in compensatory damages and $1.7 billion in punitive damages in August to the children of Voncile and Melvin Hill, who were crushed by the roof of their 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 when it rolled over in a 2014 accident on a rural Georgia road.

The jury in the design defect case found Ford 70% to blame for the deaths, and assigned 30% of the blame to Pep Boys Manny Moe & Jack Inc. and three employees, who settled with the Hills' children in 2018. Kim and Adam Hill claimed the Pep Boys defendants placed the wrong tire on their parents' truck, causing it to lose control.

Following the verdict, the Hills' children went on to file a motion last month seeking anywhere from $549 million to $686 million in attorney fees, offering the court three options for calculating the amount, plus more than $500,000 in litigation costs.  But Ford argued that the possibility of the verdict being either reduced or overturned meant it was too soon to decide how much it should pay in fees.

"These motions could moot or materially impact resolution of the fee motion, and Ford will appeal the verdicts if its motions are denied," Ford said in its response to the fee motion.  "The court should therefore refrain from ruling on the fee motion until, at a minimum, it has resolved Ford's post-trial motions."

Whether or not the court opts to wait to consider the fee request, Ford said the Hills' attorneys weren't eligible for an award under Georgia law.  Ford argued that the Hills didn't recover a final judgment that was more than 125% of the $50 million settlement offer that Ford rejected to resolve the siblings' wrongful death claims prior to trial.  Ford said that the compensatory damage verdict on the pair's wrongful death claims, which included a $6 million award for Melvin Hill and $10 million for Voncile Hill, did not meet the threshold.

"Plaintiffs had to recover more than $62.5 million on their wrongful death claims (or $31.25 million for each decedent) to satisfy the statutory requirements," Ford said. "They did not."  Ford also said that the Hills' attorneys don't qualify for attorney fees because they have not given specifics on hours spent working on the case from the time Ford rejected the Hills' settlement offer to the time of final judgment.  "Plaintiffs improperly have relied solely on the contingency fee agreement rather than providing evidence of hours, rates or other objective indications of value," Ford said.