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Category: Coverage of Fees

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.

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 costs it incurred fighting a lawsuit challenging its affirmative action policies, saying the insurer wrongly denied coverage on the basis that it didn't get a timely notice of the suit.  The Ivy League school told a Massachusetts federal court that Zurich was ducking its obligation under a $15 million excess insurance policy to pay for legal fees connected to allegations that it has engaged in illegal racial balancing to the detriment of Asian American applicants.  Harvard defeated the underlying suit in two lower courts but still faces a government investigation and a potential U.S. Supreme Court fight.

In an 11-page complaint, one of Harvard's governing boards told the court that it had already maxed out its $25 million coverage limit under its policy with AIG unit National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh.  The university said it would continue to accrue legal fees because of a pending U.S. Department of Justice inquiry and the writ of certiorari that could bring the Title VI allegations of discrimination to the Supreme Court.

Harvard said it provided notice to Zurich of its claim in May 2017, far before its coverage under the AIG policy had been exhausted.  Despite that, the university said, Zurich denied its claim in October 2017 on the basis of "purported" late notice.  The insurer told Harvard in several letters that it would have been entitled to coverage under the policy had timely notice been given, according to the complaint.

But Harvard argued that the Zurich policy, which carried much the same terms as the AIG policy, required the university to tender notice of the claim "as soon as practicable," which it did.  Moreover, Zurich personnel were well aware of the discrimination suit, the university said, pointing out the considerable media attention drawn by the allegations.  The university is seeking a declaration of coverage and a finding of breach of contract.

The underlying suit, brought by Students for Fair Admissions, claimed that Harvard violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  The group lost its case in 2018 after a closely watched three-week bench trial, a finding that the First Circuit upheld in November.  In June, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled it might take up the landmark challenge to Harvard's affirmative action admissions policy when it invited President Joe Biden's administration to weigh in on whether the school's race-conscious system is legal.

Article: New Attorney Fee Law May Be Boon To Florida Property Insurers

September 1, 2021

A recent article by Christine Renella and William Zieden-Weber, “New Fla. Atty Fee Law May Be Boon To Property Insurers,” reports a new law in Florida that amends Florida's attorney fees statutes, Sections 626.9373 and 627.428 of the Florida Statutes, as they apply to property insurance disputes.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Florida S.B. 76, designed to curb first-party property insurance litigation in Florida, took effect on July 1.  While the bill addresses several critical property insurance topics including roof-surface reimbursement schedules, regulation of contractors, proper notice, the right to inspect, and determination of whether abatement is applicable, the crown jewel of the bill amends Florida's infamous attorney fees statutes, Sections 626.9373 and 627.428 of the Florida Statutes, as they apply to property insurance disputes.

Background to Florida Attorney Fees Statutes

In most jurisdictions in the U.S., each party to insurance litigation pays its own attorney, regardless of the outcome of the litigation.  In fact, a court may only award attorney fees to the prevailing side if authorized by statute or agreement of the parties to the litigation.

Florida, however, is one of the minority jurisdictions that has allowed an insured to recover his or her own attorney fees if the insured prosecutes a lawsuit to enforce an insurance policy for more than a hundred years.  Florida has kept some version of this law on the books since 1893, and it reads in pertinent part as follows, with the underlined text added by S.B. 76:

Upon the rendition of a judgment or decree by any of the courts of this state against an insurer and in favor of any named or omnibus insured or the named beneficiary under a policy or contract executed by the insurer, the trial court or, in the event of an appeal in which the insured or beneficiary prevails, the appellate court shall adjudge or decree against the insurer and in favor of the insured or beneficiary a reasonable sum as fees or compensation for the insured's or beneficiary's attorney prosecuting the suit in which the recovery is had.  In a suit arising under a residential or commercial property insurance policy not brought by an assignee, the amount of reasonable attorney fees shall be awarded only as provided in s. 57.105 or s. 627.70152.

The Florida Supreme Court has historically supported the need for fee and cost reimbursement in the realm of insurance litigation as being deeply rooted in public policy.  The court has given the Legislature deference in this area of the law, recognizing its sentiment on how essential it is to level the playing field between the economically advantaged insurance companies and the individual citizen.  However, practicing Florida attorneys have seen a perversion of this intent play out in recent years.  In first-party coverage disputes specifically, an insured would often file a lawsuit in instances in which the dispute was simply over the scope of damages.

This created a situation in which, as long as an insured prevailed in its lawsuit with a judgment greater than any amount of the insurance proceeds originally paid by the insurer — even $1 — the insured would be entitled to attorney fees.  As such, insureds were often able to leverage larger settlements using the attorney fees statutes.

Section 627.70152 Notice Requirement

Florida's new legislation effectively puts an end to the attorney fees statutes as they pertain to property insurance, which historically established a strong presumption that using a "lodestar fee" to compensate attorneys for property insurance claims was considered sufficient and reasonable.  This presumption is only rebutted in rare and exceptional circumstances with evidence that competent counsel could not have been retained in a reasonable manner.

Instead, S.B. 76 creates a new statute, Section 627.70152, which establishes a scheme for attorney fees structured around a presuit notice requirement.  Now that S.B. 76 has passed, the path to attorney fees for an insured is less certain, and insurers are hopeful that the vast number of suits filed against insurers in Florida every year will decrease.  Specifically, the burden has essentially shifted to an insured to prove entitlement through the imposition of a judgment between 20%-50% higher than the presuit settlement offer in order to obtain fees.

Additionally, the notice requirement provides an additional hurdle for insureds in that a suit may not be filed prior to the issuance of a written notice of intent.  Specifically, the notice statute imposes a notice requirement on claimants, stating that as a condition precedent to filing suit under a property insurance policy, a claimant must provide the insurer with written notice of intent to initiate litigation.  Under the notice statute, this notice must be served by certified mail, return receipt requested, or electronic delivery at least 10 days before filing suit, but may not be served before the insurer has made a coverage determination under Section 627.70131.

The immediate effect of the statute is the prohibition of suit prior to a coverage determination being issued.  This alone will lead to less litigation as insurer's often file suit before the conclusion of the investigation of a claim and issuance of a coverage determination.  Additionally, the statute requires that each notice include the following information: (1) that the notice is being provided pursuant to this section; (2) the alleged acts or omissions of the insurer giving rise to the action;and (3) that the notice has been provided to the insured if represented by an attorney.

In cases in which the notice is provided following a denial of coverage, the notice must include an estimate of damages.  In cases in which the notice is provided following something other than a denial of coverage, the notice must include the disputed amount of damages and a presuit settlement demand itemizing damages, attorneys fees and costs.  The online form used to submit the notice can be found on the civil remedy and required legal notices webpage of Florida's Division of Consumer Services.

The additional information required per the statute including the disputed amount of damage and presuit settlement demand in cases other than a denial of coverage will provide insurers with the requisite information necessary to evaluate the claim prior to suit being filed.  Prior to the imposition of the statute, insureds were able to file suit at anytime without having ever provided insurers with supporting documentation that in many cases would obviate the need for suit altogether. However, after July 1, insurers are in a position to address disputed damages in an attempt to avoid lawsuits.

In response to the notice, an insurer is now required to respond in writing within 10 days.  Specifically, in the response to a notice regarding denial of coverage, the insurer must either (1) accept coverage, (2) deny coverage, or (3) assert the right to reinspect the property within 14 business days.  Conversely, in the response to a notice regarding something other than denial of coverage, the insurer must respond by making a settlement offer or requiring the insured to participate in an appraisal process.

As a check and balance on the presuit process, the notice statute allows a court to dismiss without prejudice any suit in which the claimant failed to provide notice or the presuit period did not properly conclude, again reducing the amount of frivolous lawsuits that insurers are forced to defend.  If a claimant commences an action in a Florida court based upon or including the same claim against the same adverse party that such insured has previously voluntarily dismissed, then the court may order the insured to pay the attorney fees and costs of the adverse party resulting from the action that had previously been voluntarily dismissed.

Finally, the notice statute states that the notice and other documentation is admissible as evidence in a civil action or an alternative dispute resolution proceeding.  The notice and submissions requirements do not limit the evidence of attorney fees, damages or loss that may be offered at trial.  They also do not relieve any obligation that an insured or assignee has to give notice under any other provision of law.  While the notice statute imposes more stringent requirements on policyholders, the effect in practice will likely be a dramatic reduction in the amount of suits filed.  Accordingly, litigation costs for insurers will decrease, while meritorious suits are likely take less time to filter through the courts.

Section 627.70152 Attorney Fees Scheme

Most importantly, the notice statute sets a forth a new scheme for calculating the amount of attorney fees allowed to be awarded, which is based on the difference between the amount ultimately obtained by an insured compared to the amount originally in dispute.  That difference can then result in three distinct scenarios:

  1. The claimant does not recover attorney fees — when the difference between the amount obtained by the insured and the presuit settlement offer by the insurer is less than 20% of the amount in dispute during the presuit notice period, a claimant may not be awarded attorney fees under Sections 626.9373 and 627.428.
  2. The claimant recovers 20%-50% in attorney fees — when the difference between the amount obtained by the insured and the presuit settlement offer by the insurer is between 20%-50% of the amount in dispute during the presuit notice period, a claimant may recover the same percentage of attorneys fees under Sections 626.9373 and 627.428.
  3. The claimant recovers all attorney fees — when the difference between the amount obtained by the insured and the presuit settlement offer is greater than 50% of the amount in dispute at the presuit during the presuit notice period, a claimant the full amount of attorney fees under Sections 626.9373 and 627.428.

With the applicability of fees now based on this mathematical formula, courts will have considerably less discretion to order payment of attorney fees and costs, and insureds will be less inclined to race to the courthouse.  Many Florida practitioners hope that the notice statute will tip the scales in favor of a more balanced scheme for the imposition of attorney fees and costs.  While previously insureds were able to recover fees upon the rendition of a judgment alone, now insureds will be forced to show entitlement through the imposition of a judgment at least 20% higher than the amount in dispute during the notice period.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the notice statute is expected to bring much needed change to the landscape of property insurance litigation in Florida by adding some semblance of balance to a historically hostile environment for property insurers.

Insurer Overpaid Policyholder’s Attorney Fees, Judge Finds

August 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Daphne Zhang, “Insurer Overpaid For Policyholder’s Legal Bills, Judge Finds,” reports that a New York federal judge said that an insurer's decision to stop paying a GoPro accessory maker's attorney fees was reasonable, finding the policyholder's defense counsel billed administrative work at partner rates and logged excessive working hours.  U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino denied 360Heros Inc.'s motion for summary judgment against Main Street America Assurance Co., saying the carrier's payment of more than $2 million in attorney fees fully satisfied its defense obligations.

The judge sided with Main Street in finding that 360Hero's defense counsel, Gauntlett & Associates, repeatedly charged "unreasonable and excessive" legal fees in an underlying patent infringement suit with GoPro.  The camera company sued 360Heros alleging the harness maker used its copyrighted pictures and infringed two of its trademarks.  The suit was settled in May 2018. 360Heros sued Main Street in 2017 after the insurer stopped paying for its defense costs.

"Based on Gauntlett's repeated practice of billing excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours the court finds that a 15% reduction in Gauntlett's fees is warranted," the judge said.  According to the order, a Main Street attorney found in 2017 that the insurer overpaid for defense costs after retroactively reviewing the payment history.  Main Street subsequently stopped paying the policyholder's legal bills, which 360Hero claimed violated its insurance policy.  "The amount of unpaid fees is significantly less than the amount that the court finds were reasonably expended," Judge D'Agostino found, saying that Main Street was fully entitled not to pay because the defense counsel overcharged on legal bills.

Some of Gauntlett's invoices were billed without any tasks designated to a paralegal, the judge pointed out, and the firm repeatedly charged administrative work at partner rates. Gauntlett also charged full rates for travel, which should have been billed at half of their hourly rates, Judge D'Agostino said.  "For travel to a one-day out-of-town settlement conference, [one Gauntlett attorney] billed for $418.48 in meals," she said.

Insurers Fail to Disqualify Law Firms in Recovery of Attorney Fees

August 10, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Pete Brush, “Effort By NHL Insurers to DQ Skadden, Proskauer Rejected”, reports that a New York judge declined to disqualify Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and Proskauer Rose LLP from representing the NHL in its effort to recover tens of millions of dollars of legal fees from insurers for concussion litigation, finding no conflict between the firms and hockey.

During a video hearing, New York Supreme Court Justice Melissa A. Crane turned aside a motion by Chubb and other insurers to remove the BigLaw firms from a dispute over who will be on the hook for what insurers say are $92 million of legal bills associated with an underlying $19 million concussion settlement.  I'm denying the motion.  The interests of the NHL and Skadden are aligned and the underlying case is over," Judge Crane said.

The NHL sued insurers including TIG Insurance, Chubb and Zurich last year, alleging a refusal to fund fees stemming from litigation over retired hockey players' claims that they endured long-term injuries.  The suit seeks damages and interest for an alleged breach of duty under policies dating back to 1974.  The suit says only about 25% of fee requests have been paid.

The defendant insurers dispute liability and, in a 2021 motion, some claim that "Skadden and Proskauer's fees and expenses for the underlying litigation were, in large part, unreasonable and unnecessary."  In a later filing, they say fees and expenses have thus far totaled $92 million.  The law firms counter that the insurers are using a meritless disqualification bid as a "ploy" to further their effort to angle for a "lowball" settlement.

During brief argument counsel for the insurers, Andrew Poplinger, said the firms are unable to be "objective" about their own billing practices.  Counsel for Skadden, Lawrence Spiegel, said insurers are engaging in "gamesmanship," with a "borderline frivolous" motion.

Judge Crane rejected the insurers' contention that lawyers from the firms cannot be permitted to act as witnesses in a case that centers on "reasonableness and necessity of their own legal fees."  The judge found not only that the NHL has waived the conflict, but also that different groups of lawyers will be at work on the fee case than were at work in the underlying concussion litigation.  "You're just going to add more fees if we switch it up now," Judge Crane also observed.