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Category: Coverage of Fees

Insurer Asks Judge to Reduce Attorney Fees in Coverage Win

May 17, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ben Zigterman, “Insurer Asks Judge To Nix Cleveland Bar’s Atty Fee Request” reports that Auto-Owners Insurance Co. told an Ohio federal judge that the attorney for a Cleveland bar should not be awarded $293,000 in fees and expenses it requested after winning a $1.2 million jury verdict over coverage for fire damage.  At most, the insurer argued in the filing, Daniel Shimko should get $91,000 for representing Blues to You Inc., which does business as Wilbert's Food & Music.

In April, a jury ruled in favor of Blues to You on its claims that Auto-Owners breached its contract and acted in bad faith, awarding the bar $1.2 million, including $375,000 in punitive damages.  The bar had accused Auto-Owners of failing to properly investigate and not fully covering its claims for fire, smoke and water damage from a 2019 fire, as well as water damage from a 2020 fire in a unit above the bar.

While the bar said the insurer made a "pitifully low offer" and "dragged its feet," the insurer argued that Blues to You misrepresented the value of its claims by duplicating losses from the first fire in its losses from the second.  After the jury ruled in its favor, the bar asked for more than $271,000 in attorney fees based on 706.2 hours of work at $385 an hour, plus about $21,000 in legal expenses.

"More than a little skill and experience in this field is paramount to successfully represent an insured in such a legal proceeding," the bar wrote earlier this month. "Plaintiff's counsel went beyond proving bad faith.  Plaintiff successfully proved that Auto-Owners acted with ill will in the manner in which it adjusted plaintiff's two claims."  In response, Auto-Owners questioned whether Shimko really spent 700 hours on the suit, noting that its attorneys only spent about 504 hours on it.  "For plaintiff's counsel to allege that he spent 200 more hours is inconceivable and suggests that plaintiff's counsel's stated time is overstated," the insurer wrote.

It also argued that Shimko's proposed hourly rate is excessive for solo practitioners in Ohio and that the jury didn't provide for litigation expenses to be recovered.  The insurer also disputed that any attorney fees should be granted, arguing that the evidence did not back up an award for punitive damages.  "There is absolutely no evidence in the record of conduct on behalf of defendant that can be remotely categorized as being malicious," Auto-Owners wrote.  It also has filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the jury's verdict "should have shocked the conscience of the court."

NFL Player Must Cover Attorney Fees in Poaching Suit

May 13, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Max Jaeger, “Sanctioned NFL Player Must Cover Atty Fees in Poaching Suit” reports that New York Giants wide receiver Kenny Golladay must cover more than $15,000 in attorney fees for his former agency after flouting a subpoena in litigation over whether he was poached by a rival, a Michigan judge said.  In an order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony P. Patti overruled Golladay and approved $14,929 in attorney fees to cover Honigman LLP's representation of the wideout's former agents at Clarity Sports International LLC.  The judge refused to award fees for work by Dowd Bennett LLP, finding them "excessive and redundant" of work by Honigman's lawyers.

Clarity said it cost them a little over $20,000 to get Golladay to comply with a third-party subpoena for his deposition and document production.  The agency says in a separate suit that sports memorabilia sellers helped non-party Creative Arts Agency steal Golladay from them.  The wide receiver is not a party to that suit, but he ignored a 2020 subpoena, so Clarity sued to compel.  The court hit him with sanctions for his "cavalier and reckless attitude" and ordered him to pay Clarity's legal bills for giving them the "run-around."

Golladay opposed most of the Honigman fees, arguing that partner Jeff Lamb's four hours at $580 per hour merely duplicated 19.75 hours of work that partner Andrew Clark did at $455 per hour.  But the court disagreed.  "Although much of attorney Lamb's relevant work appears to have involved review and conference with other attorneys, the court considers such collaboration between partners and associates typical and substantive, as opposed to duplicative and redundant," Judge Patti wrote.

That was "especially true" given Clark was out on leave for two months, the judge said.  He also approved 11 hours that associate Nicholas Burandt contributed at $350 an hour.  Some work was duplicative, however, and the judge denied $5,400 to Dowd Bennett for the roughly 7.5 hours each contributed by Dowd Bennett partner John D. Comerford and associate James B. Martin, who charged $420 an hour and $300 an hour respectively.

Golladay argued he shouldn't have to pay their fees because Clarity retained them on a contingency basis in the underlying tortious interference case against CAA that's separately playing out in Pennsylvania federal court.  Because it is ongoing, Clarity had not "incurred" any fees yet, he argued.  "The court, however, struggles to find the logic in this latter argument, as it would imply that parties (or non-parties) would be shielded from sanctions for poor behavior whenever the opposing side has a contingency-fee relationship," Judge Patti said in his order.

Instead, the judge said Dowd Bennett LLP's contribution amounted to sending emails to Honigman counsel and editing filings, and awarding fees would be excessive.  "Although Respondent's behavior throughout this matter has undoubtedly been unacceptable and necessitated additional work by Petitioners, that work was frustrating more so than complicated," Judge Patti said.

Honeywell Wants Workers to Cover Attorney Fees in ERISA Suit

May 4, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Abby Wargo, “Honeywell Wants Workers To Cover Atty Fees in ERISA Suit” reports that Honeywell International Inc. told a Michigan federal judge to grant it attorney fees after it won a retirement benefits suit against its former workers, saying the workers' unnecessary prolonging of the suit caused the company to expend additional resources that should be reimbursed.  The corporation asked U.S. District Judge Denise P. Hood to approve its request for a "carefully limited" sum of $263,485 after winning a decade-long suit against the United Autoworkers of America and Honeywell retirees.

Honeywell asked the court to approve only the payment of fees incurred during a period of several months in 2018 and early 2019, rather than the full 11 years of the lawsuit, which it told the judge is a reasonable request compared to the millions of dollars spent throughout the suit.  "Having defeated all of plaintiff's claims, Honeywell should be awarded a narrow portion of its attorneys' fees.  Specifically, the court should award Honeywell's fees most related to plaintiff's second summary judgment filing, as well as the unsupportable vesting claims that plaintiff pursued on appeal," according to the motion for attorney fees.

Honeywell said that it is proposing "voluntary concessions" to its requested award, such as excluding fees paying for the time of noncore legal team members and reducing the rates of the award to less than what Honeywell was actually paying for its lawyers.  If the award is granted, it would be only a small fraction of the millions of dollars Honeywell spent fighting the lawsuit, it said.

But Honeywell said that the plaintiffs were "unpersuaded" by the rulings and moved for summary judgment again, though they still lost. Regardless, the company's attorneys had to spend hundreds more hours on the case than was necessary, it said in the fee motion.

Mass. Justices Told Attorney Fee Award Must Be Covered

April 4, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ganesh Setty, “Mass. Justices Told Atty Fee Award Must Be Covered” reports that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on whether an attorney fee award constitutes damages "because of" bodily injury, with the dispute appearing to hinge on whether a reasonable policyholder would interpret their policy that way in light of a narrow, inapplicable exclusion exception for such payments.

Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. argued the attorney fee award against its insureds falls outside its "because of" causation standard with respect to bodily injury claims.  The recipient of the yet-to-be-paid award, Phyllis Maston, meanwhile highlighted how the policy did not specifically define the term "damages."  The Massachusetts high court appeared hesitant to side with Maston, given the award originated from a state consumer protection statute, and Vermont Mutual's policy is a standard form insurance contract used nationwide.

According to court documents, Vermont Mutual insured Paul and Jane Poirier, franchisees of damage restoration chain Servpro, under a business owners policy between December 1998 and December 2001.  Phyllis Maston and her late husband, Douglas, hired Servpro to clean out their basement, and Phyllis Maston later suffered a nasal infection she attributed to the cleaning solution Servpro used.  The Mastons sued Servpro, and a trial court ultimately found in 2009 that Servpro violated Massachusetts' consumer protection law, Chapter 93A, through its breach of warranty.

As part of Chapter 93A, which empowers consumers to sue businesses for unfair or deceptive practices, a successful petitioner can recover their own attorney fees.  The law treats attorney fee awards as separate from awards for damages.  Vermont Mutual paid nearly $700,000 to Maston, but refused to cover her award of more than $215,000 in attorney fees, along with another $21,600 in attorney fees following Servpro's unsuccessful appeal of the original judgment, according to court documents.

The insurer subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Poiriers and Maston seeking a court declaration that the total attorney fee award is not covered since it does not constitute insured damages "because of" bodily injury as required by its policy.  A lower court sided with Maston in July 2016, noting there are no other cases in Massachusetts directly addressing a coverage dispute like Vermont Mutual's.  The court instead pointed to the 2010 Ohio Supreme Court decision in Neal-Pettit v. Lahman, which involved language similar to Vermont Mutual's policy, and found that attorney fees do qualify as damages because of bodily injury.

Vermont Mutual maintained in its high court briefs that since the policy used "because of," rather than a broader term like "arising out of," the attorney fee award is not covered, especially since Chapter 93A treats damages and attorney fee awards as separate remedies.  The insurer further argued that an exception to a contractual liability exclusion in the policy explicitly treats an attorney fee award as damages because of bodily injury only when there's an insurance contract between its insured and another party, and the parties can be jointly represented in a civil dispute.

While a policyholder reading the policy may initially think an attorney fee award constitutes covered damages, "you can't find ambiguity just because you stopped reading," Peter E. Heppner, counsel for the insurer, told the high court's seven justices.  Although inapplicable, the exclusion exception illustrates that the policy did not intend to broadly treat attorney fees as damages because of bodily injury, he said.  Justice Scott L. Kafker asked Heppner, with respect to Maston's attorney fee award: "I understand that it's two or three steps removed, but it all arises out of the fact that there's an injury, doesn't it?"

"'Arises out of' is an interesting choice of words," Heppner responded. "When the policy has 'arising out of' in several exclusions, and then 'because of' here — and we know that the Supreme Court has said 'because of' is 'but for' — there has to be a distinction between those words."

When asked by Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt why the exclusion exception didn't put a reasonable insured on notice that the attorney fees may not otherwise be covered, Timothy P. Wickstrom, an attorney representing Maston, said the exclusion exception was inapplicable to the case to begin with.  It only concerns defense costs for the insured and the other party it contracts with, not attorney fee awards adverse to an insured, he argued.  If Vermont Mutual wanted to broadly bar coverage for attorney fees, one sentence stating so would have sufficed, he added.  The insurance policy at issue is a standard form insurance policy, Justice Kafker further noted. "That's where it gets me nervous."

"Here [in] Massachusetts, we've got this particular 93A attorney fee provision that's idiosyncratic, and we're applying it to these nationwide forms, right?" he asked.  The coverage dispute is not about Chapter 93A's separate treatment of damages and attorney fees, but whether attorney fees are covered under the policy, Wickstrom responded. Wickstrom further highlighted that part of the total attorney fee award under Chapter 93A includes Servpro's unsuccessful appeal of the judgment in the underlying case.

"In a situation where Vermont Mutual had a duty to defend, had a duty to indemnify — the defendants, their insureds, were on the hook for the appeals court fees," he said.  "How unfair is that?"  "Just create all the complexities of 93A attorneys fees, which probably no one ever thought about when they created this sort of extra remedy for everybody," Justice Kafker quipped.

Insurer Can’t Recoup Defense Costs in Discrimination Suit, Say Firms

March 30, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Eli Flesch, “Property Cos. Says Insurer Blew Notice to Recoup Suit Costs” reports that a Markel unit can't recoup costs it spent defending a property owner and manager in a discrimination suit because the insurer failed to properly reserve their right for reimbursement, the real estate companies told a California federal court.  In a trial brief, Winstar Properties LLC and Manhattan Manor LLC said Evanston Insurance Co. sent its first explicit reservation of rights letter on the eve of a trial over coverage for the discrimination suit, which alleged the companies increased rents only for immigrant-headed households in Southern California.  That lack of timeliness should bar Evanston from being able to recoup its defense costs, Winstar and Manhattan said.

"Had Winstar and Manhattan knew that Evanston was going to deny coverage, they would have had the opportunity to seek independent counsel, or made other settlement decisions," the real estate companies wrote in their four-page brief to the court.  Evanston sued the companies in September 2018, stating it had no duty to defend them in the underlying suit because the discrimination occurred before the policy's effective date.  The discrimination suit was filed two days before the start of the policy, which ran from June 30, 2016, to June 30, 2017, according to court records.  The insurer said it received notice of the suit from the companies on July 17, 2017, and sent a letter three days later acknowledging receipt and reserving its rights to recoup defense costs.

The insurer won a summary judgment in October 2019, which the Ninth Circuit upheld in May 2021, ruling Evanston was not required to defend the companies. However, the appellate court noted there was insufficient evidence that the July 2017 letter had been sent, which would affect the insurer's ability to recoup costs it paid before Feb. 16, 2018 — the date on which the companies claim they received the first letter from Evanston.

In their brief, Winstar and Manhattan said there was an abundance of evidence showing Evanston never sent a letter on July 20, 2017.  It was months later, on February 16, 2018, that the insurer first attempted to reserve its rights for a reimbursement of costs, the real estate companies argued, noting Winstar didn't even receive that letter until two days after it was signed, on February 18, 2018.

In December, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner sanctioned the law firm representing the two property companies, the Wilshire Law Firm, when he decided that the firm's own motion for sanctions against the insurer was unfounded.  To deter the firm from future frivolous sanctions requests and to compensate Evanston for time spent combating the unwarranted motion, the judge ordered the defendants to pay the insurer's attorney fees associated with their cross-motion for sanctions.

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...

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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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