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Category: Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR

Client Drops Attorney Fee Dispute Against Law Firm

May 16, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Caroline Simson, “Taiwanese Co. Says It Won’t Arbitrate Fisch Sigler Fee Dispute” reports that a Taiwanese manufacturer of smartphone camera lenses is pressing a DC federal court to quash arbitration initiated by intellectual property boutique Fisch Sigler LLP seeking millions in additional fees for its work on a "meandering, inconclusive" and expensive patent lawsuit that settled last year.  Largan Precision Co. Ltd. told the court in the lawsuit filed May 10 that it never gave its informed consent to arbitrate the dispute with Fisch Sigler, which is set to be heard by the DC Bar Attorney/Client Arbitration Board, or the ACAB.

The company noted that while the DC Court of Appeals requires any attorney who is a DC Bar member to submit to arbitration before the ACAB if a client chooses that venue to pursue a fee dispute in matters with some connection to DC, there has never been any such rule for clients.  Largan argued that since it intends to challenge the validity of an arbitration agreement that was "quietly added" to its engagement agreement with the firm near the end of their negotiations, that question should be left to the court.

"[G]overning precedent makes plain that only a court, and not an arbitration panel, can decide the threshold issue of whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties agreed to have that question decided by the arbitrators," the company wrote.  "There is nothing here to suggest that the parties ever discussed, let alone agreed to, the ACAB deciding the specific issue of arbitrability."

Largan alleges in the litigation that the firm has already gotten $4.5 million in "fixed fee" payments.  It's now seeking an additional $5.6 million in success fees — despite the fact that Largan agreed to settle the litigation in Texas due to the outcome of parallel litigation in Taiwan that Fisch Sigler had not worked on, according to the brief.  The underlying dispute for which Largan engaged Fisch Sigler involved another Taiwanese company called Ability Opto-Electronics Technology Co. Ltd., which Largan accused of misappropriating its trade secrets in 2013.

While litigation was ongoing in Taiwan, Largan hired Fisch Sigler to file a patent infringement lawsuit in the U.S. against Ability Opto-Electronics Technology and two other entities in Texas.  Largan alleges that while the lawsuit was ongoing, Fisch Sigler charged a fixed fee despite not doing all the work that was supposed to be included under that fee.  That included depositions and a hearing in mid-2020 that Largan says never took place.

Largan won some $50 million in the Taiwanese litigation in early 2021, and it subsequently approached Fisch Sigler about settling the Texas litigation.  The company claims that the litigation had gone poorly, and that there was no reason to continue with it at that point.  It was then that the firm attempted to collect the success fee "based on the resolution of a litigation in Taiwan in which it had no role — and despite achieving nothing resembling success from the meandering, inconclusive, yet very expensive litigation it had pursued for Largan against [Ability Opto-Electronics Technology] and others in Texas and, later, California," according to the suit.

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.

Brown Rudnick Accused of $22M in Overbilling

February 25, 2022

A recent Reuters story by David Thomas, “Ex-Client Wans $22 mln From Brown Rudnick, Saying Lawyers Overbilled” reports that an Austrian multinational construction company went on the offensive in a fee dispute with U.S. law firm Brown Rudnick, claiming the firm routinely overbilled it and demanding $22 million.  Brown Rudnick sued Christof Industries Global GmbH in September, alleging the industrial plant builder owed $8 million in attorney fees and interest from an international arbitration over a failed construction project.

But the law firm racked up more than $6 million in fees after promising in writing to not exceed a $2 million fee estimate, Christof alleged in its countersuit, filed in Boston federal court.  The law firm improperly overbilled, Christof alleged, saying one attorney billed more than $145,000 for 231 hours preparing to examine one witness.  The law firm billed more than 40 hours for assembling binders, the company said.

"In a number of time entries that verge on satire, Brown Rudnick attorneys even billed for drafting and corresponding about a proposal for their 'binder compilation strategy,'" Christof said in its suit.

The dispute stems from Brown Rudnick's work arbitrating a conflict arising from a Christof subsidiary's work as a contractor during the construction of a fiberboard production plant in South Carolina.  Christof said it signed an agreement with the firm so that its legal costs would not exceed $40,000 a month, plus a $200,000 retainer up front.  But it said Brown Rudnick billed more than $250,000, not including the retainer, just in its first month.

A panel awarded Christof more than $24.5 million in damages in the underlying arbitration, which was offset by about $20 million in advanced contract payments the company had received.  The final award was for $6.68 million.

$5M Attorney Fee Dispute in Live Nation Injured Worker Case

January 31, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ivan Moreno, “Injured Live Nation Worker, Atty Take $5M Fee Spat to Court,” reports that an event worker who won a historic award from Live Nation over an accident that left him with severe brain injuries is embroiled in an acrimonious dispute over attorney fees with his lawyer, who is suing him in New York over a $5.5 million fee.  Mark Perez, whose $20 million award for pain and suffering is the largest ever in the state, denies agreeing to the 10% contingency fee for post-trial work by Benedict P. Morelli of Morelli Law Firm PLLC.

"Despite Morelli's efforts to strong-arm his client into agreeing to an enhanced contingency fee for the appeal, Mr. Perez never agreed," he said in response to Morelli's lawsuit, filed last week.  Morelli sued after one of Perez's lawyers started demanding the $5.5 million that Morelli is holding in escrow, according to court papers.

Morelli maintains he repeatedly made Perez aware of that fee throughout the appeals process.  Although Morelli acknowledged his client objected to the fee, he said Perez and his family "made clear that they wanted MLF, and nobody else, to handle the appeal."  But Perez said Morelli insisted on handling the appeals despite knowing he was not agreeing to the contingency fee.

Perez suffered catastrophic injuries in 2013 when a forklift operated by a Live Nation employee crashed into a booth Perez was setting up, sending the 30-year-old tumbling to the ground, where he suffered a fractured skull and traumatic brain injuries.  He now has frequent and severe seizures and will require around-the-clock care for the rest of his life, according to court documents.  Live Nation was found liable on summary judgment in 2016.  After a trial to determine damages, a jury awarded Perez $102 million in 2019.   That was reduced several times after appeals, and the case settled in September for $55 million, an amount that includes $20 million for pain and suffering.

Morelli's firm got $18.3 million in attorney fees, not counting the $5.5 million in dispute. Perez's share was $28.6 million.  "These amounts did not satisfy Morelli. He chose to help himself to an additional $5.5 million out of Mr. Perez's settlement funds," Perez said in the countersuit, insisting he was clear about his objection to the additional fees.

"Mr. Morelli, I don't expect anybody to work for free," Perez said in a 2020 phone call, according to his countersuit.  "I do believe you're entitled to have some money. Okay ... it's just not going to be 10%. End of story."  Morelli said during a call that he's confident he'll win the dispute over the $5.5 million, citing New York case law that permits charging a 10% contingency fee for appeal work.

Houston Attorneys Sued for $5M Over Altered Fee Agreement

December 19, 2021

A recent Law360 story by Jessica Corso, “Houston Attorneys Sued for $5M Over Altered Fee Agreement,” reports that three Houston-based attorneys are being sued for around $5 million by a former client who claims that they deceived her into changing their fee agreement during a legal fight over her late father's will.  Caroline Allison sued Jorge Borunda, Nicholas Abaza and Michael Trevino in Harris County District Court on Nov. 9, arguing that the attorneys should return most of the money she paid them to represent her in a probate dispute involving the will of her father, who died in 2017.

Allison claims that she agreed in 2019 to hire the lawyers on an hourly basis but, a year later, they asked for a change to a contingency fee agreement whereby they would get 35% of any money or assets she collected from her father's estate.  According to the lawsuit, the lawyers made Allison believe that the case would go to trial and end up costing a lot of money.  In reality, they knew that her father's second wife, with whom Allison was fighting over the estate, was close to a settlement at the time they asked for the 35% fee, according to the lawsuit.

"By October of 2020, the lawyers determined that the estate was worth more than $18 million," according to the complaint. "Unsatisfied with their current arrangement with Caroline, and with dollar signs in their eyes, the lawyers set upon a course of conduct to fraudulently induce Caroline to change her agreement from an hourly rate to a contingency fee."  Six months after signing the new contingency agreement, the case settled, with Allison and her brother, who had also hired Borunda and Abaza, together receiving around $9.5 million, according to the lawsuit.

Allison claims that she ended up paying the lawyers $1.65 million more than she would have had she stuck to an hourly rate.  She is suing for that money back, plus treble damages she said she was owed under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  She is alleging violations of the Texas law, as well as negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.

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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