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Category: Fee Dispute

Defense ‘Prevailing Party’ in DVPA Case Dropped by Plaintiff

October 9, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Defendant Was ‘Prevailing Party’ in Action Under DVPA Where Plaintiff Dropped Case,” reports that a judge erred in finding that a defendant was not the “prevailing party” in a civil action brought to impose a domestic violence restraining order on him, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, proclaiming that he did prevail even though the circumstances were that the plaintiff dismissed her petition after gaining such an order in a separate criminal proceeding.

But, Justice Anne H. Egerton of Div. Three said in an unpublished opinion, that does not mean that the order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jonathan L. Rosenbloom denying an award of attorney fees to the defendant in the civil case need be reversed.  Such an award is discretionary, she noted, and, under Art, VI, §13 of the state Constitution, reversal is called for only where an error has resulted “in a miscarriage of justice” which, she declared, did not occur.

Burbank attorney David D. Diamond—a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Los Angeles Superior Court who has announced his candidacy in the 2022 election—represented defendant Joshua Nathaniel Rivers in the trial court and on appeal. In seeking an award of $6,300 in attorney fees in favor of his client, sued by Marcia Bennett under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”), Diamond said in an April 2, 2019 notice of motion that his client was “was compelled to respond to and defend a frivolous action,” and set forth in his memorandum of points and authorities: “Petitioners case was adjudicated in favor of Respondent. On November 20, 2018 the Petitioner asked for an additional hearing date to retain an attorney.  On December 10, 2018, the new hearing date, she failed to appear.”

He added in a declaration: “It is my belief that Petitioner should pay for the Respondent’s attorney’s fees because she [sic] is the prevailing party.”  In an opposing declaration dated May 29, 2019, Northridge attorney Bernal P. Ojeda (who also represented Bennett in the appeal) protested:

“The Respondent’s claim as a prevailing party is misleading.  Respondent at the present time has a four year criminal restraining order against him, not mentioned in the current motion….[T]his was the reason Petitioner did not appear for the hearing in the instant case. The criminal case is a related case and the criminal protective order should have been mentioned to this court but was not.  Given the fact that there is an existing restraining order against Respondent and protecting Petitioner, Respondent cannot claim he is a prevailing party nor can he have that status.”  (Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Mirich granted the restraining order on Nov. 30, 2018, 10 days before the hearing at which Bennett did not appear.)

Ojeda said in his memorandum of points and authorities: “The criminal action now pending is a related case, involving the same parties, same incident and set of facts.”  The minute order of the June 4 hearing before Rosenbloom on the motion for attorney fees simply recites: “The Court finds Respondent is not the prevailing party.  “Motion Hearing re attorney fees is denied with prejudice.”

In her opinion upholding the outcome, Egerton said: “Rivers has not demonstrated the trial court’s erroneous prevailing party determination resulted in a miscarriage of justice….[B]ecause Rivers was the respondent on Bennett’s petition for a domestic violence restraining order, the trial court had discretion to deny his request for prevailing party attorney fees under [Family Code] section 6344, subdivision (a).”

She continued: “On the record before us, it is not reasonably probable that the court would have awarded Rivers the attorney fees he requested, even if the court had properly deemed him the prevailing party on the petition. And, based on this record, we cannot say the court’s denial of prevailing party attorney fees would have been an abuse of discretion.”  The judge went on to say: “And, given that Bennett dismissed her petition only after already obtaining the protection she sought under the DVPA, we cannot say the trial court’s denial of attorney fees on this ground would have been an abuse of discretion.”

Article: What is a Legal Fee Audit?

October 7, 2021

A recent article by Jacqueline Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego “What is a Legal Fee Audit?,” reports on legal fee audits.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys usually bill clients by the hour, in six minute increments (because those six minutes equal one tenth of an hour: 0.1).  Those hours are multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate to determine the attorney’s fee.  There is another aspect of attorney billing that is not as well known, but equally important — legal fee auditing.  During an audit, a legal fee auditor reviews billing records to determine if hourly billing errors or inefficiencies occurred, and deducts unreasonable or unnecessary fees and costs.

Both the law and legal ethics restrict attorneys from billing clients fees that are unreasonable or unnecessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives.  This can include analysis of the reasonableness of the billing rate charged by attorneys.  Legal fee audits are used by consumers of legal services, including businesses, large insurance companies, cities, public and governmental agencies, and individual clients.  Legal fee audits can be necessary when there is a dispute between an attorney and client; when the losing party in a lawsuit is required to pay all or part of the prevailing party’s legal fees in litigation; when an insurance company is required to pay a portion of legal fees, or when some issues in a lawsuit allow recovery of  attorneys’ fees and when other issues do not (an allocation of fees). 

In an audit, the auditor interviews the client, and reviews invoices sent to the client in conjunction with legal case materials to identify all fees and costs reasonable and necessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives, and potentially deduct those that are not.  The auditor also reviews all invoices to identify any potential accounting errors and assure that time and expenses are billed accurately.  The auditor may also be asked to determine if the rate charged by the attorney is appropriate.

The legal fee auditor can be an invaluable asset to parties in deciding whether to file or settle a lawsuit, and to the courts charged with issuing attorneys’ fee awards.  The court is unlikely to take the time to review individual invoice entries to perform a proper allocation of recoverable and non-recoverable fees leaving the parties with the court’s “best approximation” of what the allocation should be.  The fee audit provides the court and the parties with the basis for which to allocate and appropriately award reasonable and necessary fees. 

Audits are considered a litigation best practice and a risk management tool and can save clients substantial amounts of money in unnecessary fees.  It has been my experience, over the past two decades of fee auditing, that early fee auditing can identify and correct areas of concern in billing practices and avoid larger disputes in litigation later.  In many cases, I have assisted clients and counsel in reaching agreement on proper billing practices and setting litigation cost expectations. 

In other cases, I have been asked by both plaintiffs and defendants to review attorneys’ fees and costs incurred and provide the parties and the court with my expert opinion regarding the total attorneys’ fees and costs were reasonably and necessarily incurred to pursue the client's legal objectives.  While the court does not always agree with my analysis of fees and costs incurred, it is usually assisted in its decision by the presentation of the audit report and presentation of expert testimony on the issues.

Jacqueline Vinaccia is a San Diego trial attorney, litigator, and national fee auditor expert, and a partner at Vanst Law LLP.  Her practice focuses on business and real estate litigation, general tort liability, insurance litigation and coverage, construction disputes, toxic torts, and municipal litigation.  Her attorney fee analyses have been cited by the U.S. District Court for Northern California and Western Washington, several California Superior Courts, as well as various other state courts and arbitrators throughout the United States.  She has published and presented extensively on the topic of attorney fee invoicing, including presentations to the National Association of Legal Fee Association (NALFA), and is considered one of the nation’s top fee experts by NALFA.

Article: Ninth Circuit Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Attorney Fees in Class Actions

September 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Jason Russell, Hilary Hamilton and Adam Lloyd of Skadden Arps, “9th Circ. Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Class Settlement Fees,” reports on a recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Despite the playful tone of the Briseño v. Henderson decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June, class action litigators should take the case seriously when structuring class action settlements.  Amid a thicket of pop-culture references, the Briseño panel held that under the revised Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2), federal courts must heavily scrutinize any settlement made on behalf of a class — whether pre- or post-class certification — to ensure that counsel for the defendant and the class have not colluded on an unfair distribution of settlement funds between recovery for the class and the fees for its attorneys.

Over a decade ago, in June 2011, the Briseño plaintiffs alleged that defendant ConAgra Foods Inc. misled consumers who wished to avoid consuming genetically modified organisms by placing a "100% Natural" label on its Wesson cooking oil brand, which allegedly contained GMO ingredients.  Notwithstanding the fact that the parties had been litigating the plaintiffs' false advertising claims for nearly 10 years, the Ninth Circuit rejected the parties' settlement that was negotiated after class certification, on grounds raised by a single objector.  The panel took significant issue with the class counsel's fee award, and found that the settlement "reek[ed]" of collusion.

The panel determined that the parties' settlement agreement and fee arrangement "raise[d] a squadron of red flags billowing in the wind and begg[ed] for further review," because (1) class counsel would receive disproportionately more money than the class; (2) the defendant agreed not to challenge class counsel's requested fee award (and any reduction in fees would revert to the defendant); and (3) the labeling-change injunctive relief that class counsel secured was "worthless," so it could not be used to justify class counsel's fee here.

The panel grounded its analysis in the history and text of Rule 23(e)(2), which was revised in December 2018, and requires a court to ensure that a class settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate.  Prior to the 2018 revision, however, Rule 23(e) did not provide guidance as to what was fair, reasonable or adequate.  So the Ninth Circuit filled in the gaps by providing several factors for district courts to consider, including the strength of the plaintiffs' claims and the risk and expense of further litigation at the stage of the proceedings.

The Ninth Circuit also was particularly wary of settlements reached on behalf of a class precertification — where it found that counsel may be most incentivized to maximize their own financial gain at the expense of the class members — and in 2011, provided an additional instruction for courts to watch out for what it called "subtle signs" that class counsel was putting their own self-interest before the class.

These signs included: (1) counsel receiving a disproportionate distribution of the settlement; (2) parties negotiating a "clear sailing arrangement," under which the defendant agrees not to challenge a request for an agreed-upon attorney fee; and (3) an agreement containing a "kicker" or "reverter" clause, that returns unawarded fees to the defendant, rather than the class.  In the Ninth Circuit, these are commonly known as the Bluetooth factors.

Then, in 2018, Rule 23 was amended to set forth specific factors for courts to consider when determining whether a class settlement was adequate, including "the costs, risks, and delay of trial and appeal"; "the effectiveness of any proposed method of distributing relief to the class, including the method of processing class-member claims"; and "the terms of any proposed award of attorney's fees, including timing of payment."

The Briseño panel focused on this last factor, and held that the new Rule 23(e) "indicates that a court must examine whether the attorneys' fees arrangement shortchanges the class" for all class settlements.  As a result, the panel found, district courts should apply the Bluetooth heightened scrutiny factors for both pre- and post-class certification settlements to "smoke out" potential collusion on attorney fee arrangements.

Applying the Bluetooth factors to the Briseño class counsel's fee arrangement here, the panel concluded that the fee arrangement "features all three red flags of potential collusion."  First, the panel noted the "gross disparity in distribution of funds between class members and their class counsel raises an urgent red flag," as counsel was set to receive nearly $7 million in fees, while the class received less than $1 million.

The panel found this disparity particularly problematic here because the parties knowingly structured a relatively common claims-made settlement, requiring class members to submit a claim to obtain a recovery, for a low-ticket item, which typically results in what the panel called "notoriously low" redemption rates. In this case, class members would recover 15 cents per unit of Wesson oil purchased during the class period.

Second, ConAgra agreed not to challenge the fees for class counsel, and the panel held that "the very existence of a clear sailing provision increases the likelihood that class counsel will have bargained away something of value to the class."  Third, the agreement provided that ConAgra was to receive any remaining funds if the district court reduced the agreed-upon attorney fees for class counsel, and the panel concluded that if a court determined the "full amount unreasonable, there is no plausible reason why the class should not benefit from the spillover of excessive fees."

Significantly, the panel also held that the settlement's injunctive relief component — ConAgra's agreement to no longer market Wesson oil as "100% Natural" — could not be used to justify the class counsel's excessive fee.  The panel panned the injunctive relief as "virtually worthless," "illusory" and "meaningless," because ConAgra had already decided to stop using the "100% Natural" label two years before the settlement agreement was reached — for reasons it stated were unrelated to the litigation — and no longer even owned the Wesson oil brand.

Although ConAgra's sale of the Wesson oil brand in Briseño clearly presents an uncommon circumstance, the panel made clear that going forward, courts must eliminate inflated valuations of injunctive relief "untethered to reality" that are used to justify excessive fee awards for class counsel.  Briseño's discussion of worthless injunctive relief will have significant repercussions for future settlement of many California federal class actions, as many companies often make labeling changes for business reasons before any complaints are even filed.

While the panel expressly stated that its decision did not mean that "courts have a duty to maximize the settlement fund for class members," and a "class does not need to receive much for a settlement to be fair when the class gives up very little," the practical effect of, and takeaway from, Briseño is that class counsel should expect significantly more resistance from defense counsel and courts to high attorney fee awards in class action settlements.

This will especially impact low-value and/or labeling claims arising from a plaintiff's subjective beliefs of purported harm — particularly when a defendant has already decided to make a labeling change for business reasons.  In such cases, the relief that counsel can secure for the class is likely to be limited, and Briseño plainly requires a commensurate fee award for class counsel.

Jason D. Russell is a partner, and Hillary A. Hamilton and Adam K. Lloyd are associates, at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Attorney Fees, PA Justices Told

September 24, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Atty Fees, Pa. Justices Told,” reports that a worker told the Pennsylvania high court that he should be allowed to seek attorney's fees from PennDOT after he won a workers' compensation case, arguing the lower court improperly shut the door on injured workers getting their employers to pay legal bills.  Arguing before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, an attorney representing injured PennDOT worker Vincent Lorino said Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson's opinion misstated that workers' compensation judges "shall" deny fees when an employer's challenge of a worker's claim for benefits is reasonable, when the law says "may."

"I was surprised at how blunt and direct Judge Brobson's opinion was, when it said 'despite the General Assembly's use of the word may, this court has always interpreted Section 440' this way," said George Badey of Badey Sloan & DiGenova.  "You can't do that, respectfully.  The courts can't do that."  Badey asked the justices to rule that Lorino could still ask for PennDOT to pay his legal fees and that the lower court had run afoul of the Statutory Construction Act in substituting its own wording for the legislature's.

According to court records, Lorino sprained his lower back and hip on the job in 2016 and started getting regular steroid injections that allowed him to return to work.  PennDOT, which was covering his medical costs but providing no missed-work benefits, sought to terminate the medical payments in 2017 and offered a doctor's opinion that Lorino's work-related injury had fully healed.  A workers' compensation judge reversed PennDOT's denial in 2018 but ruled that Lorino had to pay his own legal bills because PennDOT's challenge to his claim had been reasonable.  On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Judge Brobson said in August 2020 that the workers' compensation judge was right and that the courts had always interpreted that section of the law as denying fees unless the challenge was unreasonable.

In the argument to the high court, Badey said courts had to interpret the law as it was written and could not change the wording.  He said siding with his client would affect only a narrow group of workers like him who were still working and not getting wage benefits that could be split with an attorney as part of a contingency fee agreement.  Chief Justice Max Baer pressed Badey on whether reopening the possibility of fees would just shift the debate to whether an employer's challenge was reasonable, which would be up to the workers' compensation judge's discretion.

Gibson Dunn Under Fire for Billing Practices

September 23, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rose Krebs, “Gibson Dunn Under Fire For Billing in Landmark Theatres Suit,” reports that Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and Ross Aronstam & Moritz LLP have been accused of problematic billing in a Delaware Chancery Court suit over a price adjustment dispute that followed the 2018 sale of Landmark Theatres to billionaire real estate developer's Charles S. Cohen's theatrical production and distribution company.

In a brief, Cohen Exhibition Company LLC told Vice Chancellor Paul A. Fioravanti Jr. that a request by Gibson Dunn and Ross Aronstam to have the buyer reimburse roughly $840,000 of the sellers' legal costs and expenses should be reduced by no less than about $396,000.  A lesser-than-sought amount should be awarded, in part, due to the firms' "failure to support the hourly billing rates" included in the fee motion, the brief says.

The sellers, Roma Landmark Theaters LLC and MCC Entertainment LLC, which are represented by the two law firms, told the court in August that buyer Cohen Exhibition Company should have to pay costs and expenses they incurred litigating a battle over post-closing adjustments that ended up being largely decided in their favor.

But Cohen raised issues with the billing.  "Both the Ross Aronstam and Gibson Dunn invoices contain significant redactions of time entries," Cohen said in Tuesday's filing.  "The redactions are particularly problematic insofar as they not only completely obscure the services performed ... but also because they even obscure the timekeeper and amount of time spent."  Cohen argues that due to the redacted information it is "completely impossible" for the court to assess the reasonableness of certain invoices.

The company also pointed to "excessively high charges for Westlaw research, in one month totaling over $20,000 alone" in Gibson Dunn's bills.  The online legal research service "offers attorneys a plan with unlimited access to Delaware cases, statutes, and briefs at a flat monthly fee," according to Cohen. Granting those fees would effectively mean Cohen paying for "Gibson Dunn's overhead in maintaining a legal research account with Westlaw," the company said.

Cohen additionally took aim at what it described as the "high hourly rates billed by the attorneys at Gibson Dunn."  "Here, plaintiffs' attorneys have not provided any proof as to what their customary billing rates are for comparable matters," the brief said, highlighting one rate of up to $1,645 per hour.  "Nor have they provided any evidence as to each attorney's background and years of experience to support the respective claimed rates."  Cohen also protested what it said was the firms' request for reimbursement for "preparing and litigating" an unsuccessful motion to dismiss counterclaims lodged by the buyer in the litigation.

Roma and MCC said in court papers that an arbitration decision went in their favor, entitling them "to receive nearly all of the escrowed funds." Thus, they argued they are entitled to reimbursement for costs and expenses, especially since alleged legal posturing by the buyer led to a delay in escrow funds being turned over.  The Chancery Court confirmed the arbitration decision and the seller plaintiffs were awarded roughly $2.6 million plus additional interest and other costs, according to the motion, which added, "The fee award sought here is fair and reasonable in light of these positive results."

Harvard Sues Insurer Over Attorney Fees

September 20, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Eli Flesch, “Harvard Sues Insurer For Legal Fees in Affirmative Action Suit,” reports that Harvard University sued Zurich American Insurance Co. for excess coverage of...

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