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Category: Fee Jurisprudence

Compare & Prove Hourly Billing Rates with NALFA Survey

December 4, 2021

NALFA conducts custom hourly rate surveys for clients such as law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our hourly rate surveys provide accurate data on hourly rates within a given geography market and/or practice area(s).  Indeed, our hourly rates surveys have been cited by litigators in court documents and referenced by court adjuncts in court proceedings.  Our surveys can also be used for internal purposes, such as rate comparisons.  Some of our recent hourly rate survey engagements include:

  • A boutique law firm in Boston engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of associate and partner level billing rates in litigation in the greater Boston area.
  • A large Miami law firm hired NALFA to conduct a survey of plaintiffs’ and defense rates in commercial litigation in South Florida.
  • A small plaintiffs’ law firm in Dallas engaged NALFA to conduct a survey and report of hourly rates in consumer class actions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. This survey was cited by a federal judge in his attorney fee award.
  • An insurer hired NALFA to conduct a survey of billing rates of defense counsel in insurance coverage litigation throughout California.
  • A large law firm in Seattle engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly billing rates in regular and complex litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington jurisdiction.
  • A small law office in Albany hired NALFA to conduct a national survey of billing rates in public interest and civil rights litigation in federal court.
  • A technology firm engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in large and mid-size law firms in patent litigation in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley region.
  • A defense law firm with offices throughout North Carolina hired NALFA to conduct an hourly rate survey of similarly sized law firms in the Charlotte area so they could compare billing rates with their litigation peers.
  • A government agency engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in large Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases, nationwide.
  • A mid-size law firm in Atlanta hired NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in IP litigation in several major markets.

NJ Judge Denies Attorney Fees Awarded By Magistrate

November 24, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “NJ Judge Denies $991K Atty Fees Awarded By Magistrate,” reports that a New Jersey federal judge ordered a magistrate judge to recalculate attorney fees for Arent Fox LLP in a patent dispute, finding that the jurist failed to apply prevailing precedent addressing applicable forum rates.  U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler ordered the magistrate judge to reconsider the $991,624 award through the lens of the Third Circuit's decision in Interfaith Community v. Honeywell International, a 2005 decision holding that counsel fee awards should be calculated using the forum of the dispute, subject to exceptions.

The award at issue was computed using the rates in Arent Fox's home forum of Washington, D.C., which are pricier than the dispute's forum of New Jersey federal court in Camden.  The Interfaith decision held that a party seeking to use the home forum of its counsel in the attorney fee calculation versus the dispute forum must show that the firm has expertise unavailable in the dispute forum or that the local counsel wasn't available.

"In the final analysis, then, since the order did not rely upon Interfaith as the prevailing precedent, Sabinsa had not been tasked to meet its legal burden under Interfaith and fully prove the reasonableness of its requested fees," Judge Kugler wrote, directing the magistrate judge to first determine the proper forum rate before recalculating the fees.

The award stems from a patent infringement case, in which Arent Fox and Saiber LLC represented the plaintiff, East Windsor, New Jersey-based Sabinsa Corp., which claimed that Prakruti Products Pvt. Ltd. was selling a turmeric supplement for which Sabinsa held the patent.  During a "contentious" discovery process, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen M. Williams found that "Prakruti had withheld certain information from Sabinsa and also spoliated pertinent evidence," according to court documents.  She sanctioned Prakruti with an adverse inference, finding that Sabinsa's legal efforts to prove Prakruti's misconduct warranted an award of attorney fees against Prakruti.

Saiber claimed it billed $98,352 for legal services to Sabinsa, while Arent Fox claimed it billed $980,169.  On May 21, Judge Williams awarded Sabinsa's counsel $991,624 in attorney fees and costs in the amount of $13,035.  However, Judge Kugler said that Sabinsa showed "neither that Arent Fox had special expertise as patent attorneys not available from local attorneys in this vicinage nor that Sabinsa was unable to get needed patent expertise from local firms."

In its challenge to the magistrate judge's award, Prakruti also targeted the inclusion of Saiber, Sabinsa's local counsel, in the fee calculation.  Since Sabinsa cannot show Saiber was unwilling to represent the company as its patent counsel, the calculation of fees based on two different rates — the non-forum rate of the Arent Fox patent litigators and the forum rate of Saiber as local counsel — goes against the proper application of Interfaith, Prakruti argued.

Judge Kugler granted Prakruti's motion as to the time entries of Arent Fox, but denied the exclusion of Saiber in the fee calculation.  He remanded the time entries of Arent Fox to the magistrate judge for recomputation using the specific, relevant forum rate for the legal skill level with which the entry was executed, unless an Interfaith exception is demonstrated.  Judge Kugler said that the proper forum rate for the patent litigation expertise expended by Arent Fox must be first established.  He rejected Prakruti's assertion that Saiber's fees were duplicative of Arent Fox's and shouldn't have been factored in the attorney fee.

Judge May Not Base Fee Award On Previous Awarded Rates

November 8, 2021

A recent story by Metropolitan News, “Judge May Not Base Fee Award on Previous Awards to Firm,” reports that a judge must make a fresh determination in each case of whether attorney fees that are sought are in line with prevailing rates in the community, rather than comparing the amounts claimed with those awarded to the same law firm in other cases of the same nature, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.  Circumstances unique to that case must also be weighed, according to the memorandum opinion.  A three-judge panel—comprised of Ninth Circuit Judges Daniel Aaron Bress and Lawrence VanDyke, joined by Tenth Circuit Judge David M. Ebel, sitting by designation—reversed a $11,349 award in favor a client of the Center for Disability Access (“CDA”).  The amount sought was $20,459.

CDA—which files torrents of actions throughout the state under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Callifornia’s Unruh Civil Rights Act—is a division of the San Diego firm of Potter Handy, LLP.  The plaintiff, Brian Whitaker, according to defendants SMB Group and Yoon Jeong Row, has filed more than 1,100 for in the Central District of California since 2014 claiming disability discrimination.  In the present case, the Ninth Circuit declared, District Court Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald of the Central District made some reasonable downward adjustments in the amount awarded, but erred in relying on past awards in actions brought by CDA “instead of considering other evidence of the prevailing community rates.”

The opinion says: “We cannot discern that, in its explanation of why it reduced the hourly rates sought by CDA, the district court analyzed the complexity of the case, the type of work involved, rates for non-CDA lawyers of comparable skill in the relevant community, whether the legal work was performed by lawyers at the appropriate levels of seniority, or other relevant factors….  “It may be that the district court here considered the above factors and thus the hourly rates the district court applied were appropriate.  But we cannot make that determination on the current record.  Accordingly, the district court’s fee award is vacated and the case is remanded for review consistent with this memorandum.”

The appellate judges said Carter did justify his reduction in hours spent—including subtracting hours supposedly spent at a hearing that did not take place and on an unnecessary motion—and paring block-billed hours.  At oral argument on Aug. 8, Dennis J. Price II of Potter Handy argued that the lodestar system of calculating attorney fees—multiplying hours spent times the hourly rate—“is not advisor—it’s a mandatory system” that judges must use.  He alleged that Fitzgerald “effectively ignored these rules.”

The hourly rates that were sought ranged from $450 to $595.  Those awarded went from $350 to $425.  Bress questioned whether the rates that were set by the judge would have been supportable had Fitzgerald “put in more than he did in his order.”  Price responded that the evidence would not support the lower rates.  However, asked the same question by VanDyke, he said that if Fitzgerald had “done the leg work,” he “wouldn’t have any argument that the rate was incorrect,” later reverting to his original position that “the evidence doesn’t support” the rates that were set.  Janice Ryan Mazur of the El Cajon firm of Mazur & Mazur argued for SMB Group and Row.  She said Fitzgerald did apply the lodestar method, but then adjusted it downward.

Article: Recovering Attorney Fees in Arbitration

November 1, 2021

A recent article by Charles H. Dick, Jr., “Recovering Attorney Fees in Arbitration,” reports on recovering attorney fees in arbitration.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

An accurate assessment of damages is crit­ical for case evaluation, and the cost of dispute resolution plays an important role in deciding to pursue claims.  Even strong liability cases can fail to make economic sense.  That is why a thorough case appraisal should thoughtfully consider the attorney fees to be incurred.  And equally important, an objective case valuation should assess the likelihood of recovering attor­ney fees.

The “American Rule,” which specifies that each party must bear its own attorney fees, is a lesson for law school’s first year, and though the rule has been slightly modified to encour­age certain litigation in the public interest, fee-shifting remains the exception rather than the rule.  Against this background, professional responsibility obliges counsel to keep clients informed about litigation economics (Cal. Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 1.4)—something critically important as a case approaches the in­evitable mediation.  Unfortunately, experience teaches that an exacting analysis of litigation cost and exposure to fee-shifting often is an afterthought, and that the development of case strategies, discovery plans, and tactical maneu­vers occurs without thoughtfully weighing the implications of the American Rule and its ex­ceptions.  This is a recurring issue in arbitration.

Perhaps litigators approach attorney fee recovery casually, thinking there will be ample time to deal with the question before a final judgment is entered.  Arbitration, however, is different.  The binding nature of arbitration makes appellate relief unlikely.  An arbitrator’s award of attorney fees is unlikely to be sec­ond-guessed by a court, even if there is no stat­utory or contractual basis for the award. (See Moncharsh v. Heily & Blasé (1992) 3 Cal.4th 1, 33; id. at p. 11 [“it is the general rule that, with narrow exceptions, an arbitrator’s decision cannot be reviewed for errors of fact or law.  In reaffirming this general rule, we recognize there is a risk that the arbitrator will make a mistake.”].)  When it comes to recovering attor­ney fees in arbitration, counsel needs to get the issue correct from the beginning.

California has codified the American Rule in Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.  Con­tractual arrangements can modify the rule and provide for fee-shifting, but a careful study of the parties’ language is critical. (See Valley Hard­ware, LLC v. Souza (Nov. 20, 2015, D067076) 2015 Cal.App.Unpub. Lexis 8347 [affirming arbitrator fee award in face of inconsistent contract provisions].)  Contractual language inevitably varies: Some agreements provide for recovery of fees “when permitted by law”; some say fees “actually incurred” are recoverable; some limit attorney fees to a percentage of the damages awarded; some say the prevailing party “shall” recover fees, while others use the uncertain “may.” Civil Code section 1717 de­fers to the contracting parties, subject to minor tweaks that limit fees to a “reasonable” amount and require that fee recovery be reciprocal.

In addition to carefully scrutinizing con­tract language, one also needs to know the procedural rules that will be applied in arbi­tration.  For example, in a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration regarding the investment brokerage industry, the arbitral panel is directed to determine the “costs and expenses,” yet absent some statutory exception to the American Rule, fee-shifting still depends on the parties’ underlying agree­ment (see FINRA rule 12902(c)).  Unless the parties’ agreement forbids fee-shifting, the rules of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (CPR) authorize the arbitration tribunal to apportion costs for “legal representation and assistance … incurred by a party to such extent as the Tribunal may deem appropriate” (see CPR 2019 Adminis­tered Arbitration Rules, rule 19.1(d) & 19.2). Rule 24(g) of the JAMS Comprehensive Arbi­tration Rules & Procedures is the mirror image: “[T]he Arbitrator may allocate attorneys’ fees and expenses … if provided by the Parties’ Agreement or allowed by applicable law” (ac­cord, Uniform Arbitration Act, § 21).

If all parties request an award of attorney fees, rule 47(d)(ii) of the American Arbitra­tion Association’s Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures authorize an award of attorney fees even if the underlying agreement is silent on the issue.  Throwing in a boilerplate prayer for attorney fees and costs without considering the consequences can result in fee-shifting.  And during arbitration, even casual discourse about attorney fees can be a basis for fee-shifting, absent an express agreement to the contrary.  (Marik v. Univ. Vill. LLC (Oct. 3, 2013, B247171) 2013 Cal.App. Unpub. Lexis 7143 [brief asserting entitlement to recover fees provided basis for arbitrator’s fee award]; see Prudential-Bache Securities, Inc. v. Tanner (1st Cir. 1995) 72 F.3d 234, 242-243 [“costs and expenses” under New York Stock Exchange Rules interpreted to permit award of attorney fees when both sides to dispute requested attorney fee award].)

Counsel should be mindful of an arbitra­tor’s predisposition to produce an award that is “fair to all concerned,” and this may include fee-shifting as an exercise in equity. (See Co­hen v. TNP 2008 Participating Notes Program, LLC (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 840, 877 [absent parties’ agreement limiting arbitrator power, award of attorney fees on basis of equity and conscience affirmed].)  Further, misconduct of counsel may be a reason to “sanction” a party by reducing an attorney fee award. (E.g., Karton v. Art Design & Const., Inc. (2021) 61 Cal.App.5th 734 [fees reduced for incivility of counsel].)  And consider JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration rule 24(g), which authorizes an arbitrator to consider noncompliance with discovery orders when awarding attorney fees.

Attorney fees incurred prosecuting or defending a complaint to compel arbitration may be recoverable, but the procedural posture of the civil court action will determine when fee-shifting may occur. (E.g., Otay River Const. v. San Diego Expressway (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 796.)  Though there is authority to the contrary (Benjamin, Weill & Mazer v. Kors (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 40 [allowing recovery of fees even though liability on claim awaited arbitration]), the better-reasoned view is expressed in Roberts v. Packard, Packard & Johnson (2013) 217 Cal. App.4th 822.  In that case, clients filed suit against their former lawyers, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty and conversion in connection with settlement of qui tam litigation.  The law firm’s motion to compel arbitration was grant­ed, and the trial court awarded the firm its fees as the prevailing party.  On appeal, the court was persuaded the phrase “an action” means an entire judicial proceeding; procedural steps in the course of a lawsuit, such as a motion to compel arbitration, are steps in the prosecution or defense of an action, but they are not the entirety of an action on a contract.  The Roberts case stands for the proposition only one side can “prevail” in a lawsuit, and fee-shifting had to await the arbitrator’s final determination of the clients’ professional liability claims. (Id. at p. 843.)

Civil Code section 1717 defines the “pre­vailing party” as the person who recovers the greater amount on a contract.  Yet, Hsu v. Ab­bara (1995) 9 Cal.4th 863, makes it clear this involves more than a mathematical calculation.  The “court is to compare the relief awarded on the contract claim or claims with the parties’ demands on those same claims and their liti­gation objectives as disclosed by the pleadings, trial briefs, opening statements, and similar sources.” (Id. at p. 876.)  Thus, it is possible for a party to prevail by achieving litigation objectives, even though an opponent may have obtained a favorable verdict on liability theories.  Generally, however, when a verdict on contract claims is good news for one party and bad news for another, a court is obligated to treat the happy litigant as the prevailing party.

The identity of a prevailing party becomes more complicated when results of an arbitra­tion are mixed. In this regard, Marina Pacific Homeowners Association v. Southern California Financial Corp. (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 191, is instructive.  This case between a homeowners’ association and a finance institution exempli­fies litigation that produces some wins and some losses for both sides.  The case involved a claim by the homeowners that they did not owe monthly fees the financial institution contended amounted to $97 million over the life of a lease.  The trial court found against the homeowners and declared there was an obligation to make monthly payments.  But the court also found the monthly payment rate was only 40% of the financial institution’s demand.  On appeal, the court declined to consider settlement communications as being a reliable expression of a party’s litigation objectives and concluded the “substance” of the result was a $58 million loss for the defendant.  Invoking the decision in the Hsu case, the court con­cluded there was no simple, unqualified result pointing to either side as a prevailing party, and the trial court had acted within its discretion in denying recovery of attorney fees.

One lesson regarding “prevailing parties” is the need for caution in over-pleading one’s case. Some counsel cannot resist converting a straight-forward breach of contract action into a fraud case with overtones of unfair business practices and assorted tort claims.  Pleading multiple claims that eventually are discarded for want of proof can be dangerous, especially unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.  In De La Questa v. Benham (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 1287, 1295, an appellate court acknowledged the practice of overstating one’s claims, which makes it more difficult to determine the victor.  In a case producing mixed results, unsupported claims may lead to an opponent’s recovery of fees.

Counsel in arbitration need to address fee-shifting with a laser focus, beginning with the preliminary hearing, which is the first op­portunity to meet the arbitrator and learn his or her preferences.  Arbitrators can be expected to employ the lodestar method recognized as acceptable by a long line of California cases (e.g., PLCM Group v. Drexler (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1094).  Several issues can be dis­cussed at the hearing: What procedures will the arbitrator use to deal with attorney fee and cost issues?  Will these matters be bifurcated until an interim or tentative award on the merits is de­livered? Does the arbitrator have requirements for form, style, and specificity of time records? Will “block billing” be accepted? If more than one law firm will be appearing for a party, the conference also is an opportunity to explain why and set the stage to defuse a later argument about duplicated efforts.

In a case with both contract and tort claims, counsel should consider keeping a separate re­cord of time spent on matters that may not be entitled to recovery of attorney fees.  Counsel should be prepared to demonstrate that time records were prepared contemporaneously with the work reported, since there often is a lack of daily time recordation, let alone contem­poraneous reporting.  The fee application also should explain how the litigation team was de­ployed and why individual tasks were assigned to team members.

Proving the reasonableness of time and rates ordinarily can be accomplished by declarations of counsel regarding the usual, customary, and regular timekeeping and billing practices of the law firm.  Resumes of the personnel involved and a summary of the work may be useful.  (See, e.g., Syers Properties III, Inc. v. Rankin (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 691, 702.)  And this informa­tion can be supplemented by the opinions of other lawyers objectively knowledgeable about actual practices within the community.  Survey data often is available for firms in metropolitan areas, and those reports also carry credibility.  But counsel should be alert to differences between posted or rack rates and hourly rates actually realized, because there often is a ma­terial difference.  As with hotels and rental cars, there may be a significant disparity between the advertised rate and what people actually pay.

Nemecek & Cole v. Horn (2012) 208 Cal. App.4th 641 makes it clear that a calculation of “reasonable fees” does not hinge on what fees actually were paid.  In that case, defense counsel had been compensated on the basis of negotiat­ed insurance panel rates.  The arbitrator refused to be controlled by such rate structures and declined to use the Laffey Matrix employed by the United States Department of Justice in de­termining rates the federal government believes are reasonable.  Instead, the award of attorney fees was based on an independent assessment of what would be reasonable, and the appellate court affirmed confirmation of that award. (See Chacon v. Litke (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 1234, 1260 [awarding reasonable rate $50 greater than counsel’s regular rate].)

There are three important things to remember about recovering attorney fees in arbitration.  First, carefully study the parties’ agreement to understand the rights it extends and the limitations it imposes.  Second, avoid pleading unnecessary claims that make it seem the end result tips in favor of one’s opponent.  Third, vacating an erroneous fee award is unlikely, so make your best case regarding fee-shifting before the entry of a final award.

Charles H. Dick, Jr. is a neutral with JAMS, and he serves as a mediator and an individual arbitrator or member of multi-arbitrator panels in complex commercial matters, securities and investment disputes, professional liability cases, products liability issues, and other business-related controversies.

Federal Judge Cites NALFA Survey in Attorney Fee Award

October 1, 2021

A federal judge has cited a NALFA survey in a class action attorney fee award.  U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant of the U.S. District for the Eastern District of Texas referenced NALFA’s hourly rate survey in awarding attorney fees and expenses in Cone v. Porcelana Corona de Mexico, S.A.de C.V. et. al (“Vortens”).  The NALFA survey independently showed prevailing market rate data of class counsel in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 

“To support its submitted rates, Class Counsel commissioned and submitted a survey conducted by the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis ("NALFA").  The sample of the NALFA survey was Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area plaintiffs’ counsel practicing in consumer related or product liability class-action work.  Class Counsel’s submitted hourly rates, while on the higher side, falls within the accepted range,” wrote Judge Mazzant.

NALFA conducts custom hourly rates for clients such as law firms to independently prove billing rates in court.  Lead plaintiffs’ counsel commissioned NALFA to conduct a billing rate survey of plaintiffs’ rates in class actions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  NALFA conducted this survey via email, employing its best practices measures.  In his 26-page fee order (pdf), Judge Mazzant accepted the hourly rate data and survey results and awarded over $4.3 million in attorney fees in the Vortens class settlement.