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Category: Defense Fees / Costs

Insurer Must Pay Attorney Fees in Nassar Coverage Action

August 31, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “USAG Keeps Fee Award in Nassar Coverage Suit reports that Liberty Underwriters Insurance Inc. must pony up the remainder of a roughly $2.1 million judgment for USA Gymnastics, a Seventh Circuit panel ruled, saying the insurer failed to show that any portion of the fees incurred during investigations into sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar were not reasonable and necessary.

At issue are legal costs incurred when USA Gymnastics responded to investigations by both houses of Congress, the Indiana Attorney General's Office, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee into Nassar's conduct.  During oral arguments in the case, a three-judge Seventh Circuit panel pushed the Liberty Mutual unit to address why it paid more than $1.4 million toward those defense costs if it believed it owed no reimbursement.  In the court's opinion, written by Chief Circuit Judge Diane Sykes, the court noted that in light of that payment, all that remains up for discussion is the remaining $458,472.26 of the lower court's judgment.

Liberty argued that a district court and a bankruptcy court wrongly applied a presumption established in Thomson Inc. v. Insurance Company of North America, an Indiana case, that an insured's defense costs are reasonable and necessary if the insured has secured, supervised and paid for a defense.

Liberty said the Thomson presumption does not apply because USAG failed to adequately supervise the outside counsel it engaged and did not pay the full amount of legal fees it incurred.  Liberty cited a Seventh Circuit ruling in Metavante Corp. v. Emigrant Savings Bank, in which the appellate court observed that a "prevailing party's general counsel, or similar corporate officer, has a duty, imposed by various provisions of federal and state law, to scrutinize the bills before paying them,"

The panel was unpersuaded by those arguments. It clarified Tuesday that that duty does not require a party to request write-offs from outside attorneys or ask them questions about invoices.  "We hold that a litigant may supervise its outside counsel without refusing to pay portions of legal bills or engaging in hairsplitting about those bills.  Nothing in the case law provides otherwise," the Seventh Circuit said.  Also, no Seventh Circuit case law mentions a requirement that the party seeking fees must have paid its fees in full for the presumption of reasonableness to apply, the panel said.

The insurer also argued on appeal that USA Gymnastics's damages expert had a flawed methodology and that its chief legal officer, C.J. Schneider, was effectively a "rubber stamp" for defense counsel.  It also said his review of the work of his own law firm, Miller Johnson, constituted a conflict of interest.  But an apparent conflict of interest does not negate the presumption under governing case law and "an insurer's objections to a policyholder's selection of defense counsel lose force when the insurer disclaims its duty to defend and turns out to be wrong on the law," the panel said.

Liberty could have reserved its defense that it had no duty to defend and assumed USAG's defense, choosing and supervising the lawyers defending USAG and seeking reimbursement later, the court said.  "Liberty chose not to do so, instead electing to gamble by not defending USAG. With the benefit of hindsight, Liberty now identifies a purported conflict of interest," the panel said.  "The case law does not reward such a choice, and Liberty cannot use the purported conflict to render the presumption inapplicable."

Further, Schneider was not the only one engaging in an internal review of USAG's legal bills, as its CEO and chief financial officer also checked the bills and approved them for payment, the court said.  And, while Liberty asserts that the nearly $8 million in grant funds USAG received from the National Gymnastics Foundation removed the incentive for USAG to drive down costs, the very basis for the Thomson presumption, it does not cite evidence to back that up, the panel held.

NALFA Releases 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report

July 19, 2022

Every year, NALFA conducts an hourly rate survey of civil litigation in the U.S.   Today, NALFA released the results from its 2021 hourly rate survey.  The survey results, published in The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report, shows billing rate data on the very factors that correlate directly to hourly rates in litigation:

City / Geography
Years of Litigation Experience / Seniority
Position / Title
Practice Area / Complexity of Case
Law Firm / Law Office Size

This empirical survey and report provides micro and macro data of current hourly rate ranges for both defense and plaintiffs’ litigators, at various experience levels, from large law firms to solo shops, in regular and complex litigation, and in the nation’s largest markets.  This data-intensive survey contains hundreds of data sets and thousands of data points covering all relevant billing rate categories and variables.  This is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive survey or study on hourly billing rates in litigation.

This is the second year NALFA has conducted this survey on billing rates.  The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report contains new cities, additional categories, and more accurate variables.  These updated features allow us to capture new and more precise billing rate data.  Through our propriety email database, NALFA surveyed thousands of litigators from across the U.S.  Over 8,400 qualified litigators fully participated in this hourly rate survey.  This data-rich survey was designed to aid litigators in proving their lodestar rates in court and comparing their rates to their litigation peers.

The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report is now available for purchase.  For more on this survey, email NALFA Executive Director Terry Jesse at terry@thenalfa.org or call us at (312) 907-7275.

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.

Some Defense Fees are Shifted in Flawed IP Case

February 21, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Some Defense Fees Are Shifted to Wi-LAN for Case Flaws” reports that Wi-LAN Inc. must pay a substantial share of the defense costs Vizio Inc. and Sharp Electronics Corp. incurred while fighting needlessly prolonged patent infringement claims that Wi-LAN knew were unsupportable, a Delaware federal judge has ruled. 

In a decision, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark found that the conduct of Canada-based intellectual property licensing venture Wi-LAN was "exceptional" in its unacknowledged weaknesses and unreasonable pursuit of litigation from at least April 2018 to the final judgment against Wi-LAN on Sept. 12, 2019.

"The Court's fee award reflects the unnecessary effort defendants had to expend to continue defending claims that Wi-LAN knew or should have known by no later than the date I identified, rested on unreliable, insufficient, and inadmissible evidence," Judge Stark said in an 11-page memorandum order.

At issue were U.S. Patent Nos. 6,359,654; 6,490,250; and 5,847,774, but Judge Stark found that only Wi-LAN's handling of the '654 patent pushed the company's conduct into the orbit of Title 35 of the U.S. Code, Section 285, which allows fee awards to prevailing parties in "exceptional" circumstances.

The ruling will oblige Wi-LAN to pay Sharp's and Vizo's reasonable attorney fees incurred in fighting the '654 patent infringement claims from the date of the last third party declarations, April 26, 2018, through the court's entry of final judgment on the patent, Judge Stark said.

Gianni Cutri of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, lead counsel for Sharp and the attorney who led briefing on the motion to declare the case exceptional, said the legal team was pleased with the victory.  "We are also gratified that the court agreed with our view that it was unreasonable for Wi-LAN to continue to press its infringement claims and further ordered Wi-LAN to pay a substantial portion of Sharp Electronics Corporation's attorneys' fees because of this exceptional conduct," Cutri said.

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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