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Category: Billing Practices

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.

Feds Push Back on $1.9M Fee Request in GMO Salmon Action

April 28, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Feds Push Back On Bid For $1.9M Fees in GMO Salmon Suit” reports that the federal government has opposed a motion from environmental groups seeking $1.9 million in attorney fees and costs in a suit alleging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrongly approved the first genetically modified salmon for human consumption, saying the "excessive" fees request follows a "narrow" suit victory.  In an opposition brief, the government said the groups, led by the Institute for Fisheries Resources, saw limited success and repeated losses in the suit, prevailing narrowly on only three of the 14 claims, including losing all claims under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

That limited success should in turn limit the amount that the court awards in fees, according to the brief, and the government said if the court decides to award fees at all, they should be capped at $246,333.37, while expenses should max out at $1,135.91.  In particular, the government said, the groups should not be able to recover fees for their unsuccessful claims, such as the claims under the FDCA and the bulk of their claims under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The plaintiffs sued the FDA in March 2016, claiming the agency's groundbreaking 2015 approval of a genetically engineered salmon for human consumption poses unknown dangers to food, health and the environment.  AquaBounty used genetic material from a Pacific Chinook salmon and from another fish, the ocean pout, to create a line of fish that grow to full size in about half the standard time, according to court documents.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in November 2020 found the FDA should have looked deeper into regulating genetically modified salmon, saying the agency didn't meaningfully analyze what might happen to normal salmon if the genetically engineered salmon were able to establish a population in the wild.

The environmental groups asked for the $1.9 million in attorney fees in March, after a previous bid — seeking $2.9 million — was rejected in February.  In March's motion, the groups said they had cut down their billable hours to 3,190.6.  In the brief, the government further argued that the plaintiffs had used "unreasonable" hourly rates that go beyond the market standards in the attorneys' home markets by using the benchmark of San Francisco rates despite three out of four core counsel working out of Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

And the hours claimed are excessive, the government wrote, with the plaintiffs presenting vague time entries and block billing that make it impossible for the government defendants to figure out what hours apply to which claims.  In addition, the time sheets include hours that are not compensable, the government wrote, such as hours spent in separate regulatory proceedings, client solicitation, media activities and challenges to the FDA's deliberative processes.

In other cases, the attorneys' time sheets included duplicative time entries for overlapping efforts among multiple attorneys, resulting in excessive hours for which they should not be billed.  The government also challenged particular time entries linked to tasks that they say were well in excess of the actual time spent on those actions, such as 240 hours marked as being spent on a procedural motion that "did not necessitate so many hours."

Finally, the government argued that the plaintiffs should not be granted any fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows fees to be granted to the prevailing party unless the government shows its actions were substantially justified.  Both the FDA's approval decision and its conduct in the litigation were substantially justified, the government argued, saying the FDA had diligently examined AquaBounty's application and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with its determination.  That the government prevailed on the bulk of the claims in the suit is further evidence that its position was reasonable, according to the brief, and therefore no fees should be awarded under the EAJA.

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.

NJ Law Firm Loses Challenge to Attorney Fee Reduction

December 13, 2021

A recent Law360 story by Nick Muscavage, “NJ Firm Loses Fee Cut Challenge in Walmart Injury Case,” reports that the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey-based Law Offices of Andrew Park PC has lost its bid for a larger cut of the fees from a personal injury case against Walmart, after failing to submit a certificate of services detailing the work the firm put into the case.  A New Jersey Appellate Division panel found that the lower court correctly allocated to the Park firm one-third of the $41,666.66 contingency fee, or about $13,888, that was earned in the underlying slip-and-fall case against Walmart, which settled for $125,000 in 2017.

The other two-thirds of the award, which equaled about $27,777, was also correctly awarded to the plaintiff's former counsel, the Fort Lee, New Jersey-based Jae Lee Law PC, the appellate panel found.  The trial court, according to the appellate panel, rightly followed the principles in La Mantia v. Durst, a 1989 New Jersey Appellate Division opinion that laid out the principles that judges must follow when allocating fee awards.

In La Mantia, the court instructed trial judges to review the following circumstances when determining fee awards: the length of time each firm spent on the case relative to the total amount of time expended to conclude the case, the quality of the representation, the result of each of the firms' efforts, the reason why the client changed attorneys, the viability of the claim at counsel transfer and the amount of recovery resulting from the underlying lawsuit.  "Here, the trial court properly recognized that the allocation of the fee should be based on the principles enunciated in La Mantia as we directed," the appellate panel wrote in its Dec. 10 opinion.

As a result, the ruling by the trial court resulted from "appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law" under La Mantia, the appellate panel added.  Additionally, the appellate panel noted that the Park firm did not submit a certification of services with supporting documents detailing the time the firm spent on the case, which was essential to the court's decision.  An affidavit or certification of services is required when a firm is seeking a fee allocation, according to the appellate panel.

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.