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Category: Fee Cap / Fee Limits

FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award

May 31, 2022

A recent Metropolitan News story, “FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award” reports that the Federal Trade Commission’s “Holder Rule”—under which an assignee of a consumer credit contract cannot be held liable for a breach by the seller for more than what the purchaser has paid—does not preclude the award of attorney fees in excess of that amount under California’s “lemon law,” the California Supreme Court held.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu authored the opinion which affirms a Jan. 29, 2021 decision by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal. Div. Five, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin, upheld a $169,602 award of attorney fees against TD Auto Finance, LLC, declaring that “the Holder Rule does not limit the attorney fees that a plaintiff may recover from a creditor-assignee.”  Yesterday’s opinion resolves a conflict among the courts of appeal.

Under a provision of the Code of Federal Regulations, a consumer credit contract must include this notice: “Any holder of this consumer credit contract is subject to all claims and defenses which the debtor could assert against the seller of goods or services obtained pursuant hereto or with the proceeds hereof. Recovery hereunder by the debtor shall not exceed amounts paid by the debtor hereunder.”

The contract that Tania Pulliam signed when she purchased a used Nissan from HNL Automotive Inc. in Beverly Hills contained that language.  Dissatisfied with the vehicle she purchased, Pulliam sued HNL and the assignee of the contract, TD Auto Finance, under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (the “lemon law”) and was awarded $21,957.25 in damages.  TD insisted that the award against it of attorney fees, under the act’s fee-shifting provision, was improper because Pulliam was entitled to nothing in excess of what she had paid under the credit contract.

Disagreeing, Liu wrote: “We conclude that the Holder Rule does not limit the award of attorney’s fees where, as here, a buyer seeks fees from a holder under a state prevailing party statute.  The Holder Rule’s limitation extends only to ‘recovery hereunder.’  This caps fees only where a debtor asserts a claim for fees against a seller and the claim is extended to lie against a holder by virtue of the Holder Rule.  Where state law provides for recovery of fees from a holder, the Rule’s history and purpose as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s repeated commentary make clear that nothing in the Rule limits the application of that law.”

Before the FTC enacted its rule in 1975, Liu recited, a consumer was liable to the holder in due course of a note even for goods that were not delivered.  The rule places the holder in the shoes of the seller, subjecting it to all claims against, and defenses available to, the seller, limiting damages against the seller, and consequently against the assignee, he explained.  In formulating the rule, Liu said, “the FTC had damages in mind when limiting recovery under the Rule, and there is no indication that attorney’s fees were intended to be included within its scope.”

Attorney fees, in California, where awardable, are costs, not an element of damages, he noted.  The FTC, itself, has issued an advisory opinion declaring, “the Holder Rule does not limit recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs when state law authorizes awards against a holder,” Liu said.  The justice pointed out: “Were attorney’s fees part of the Holder Rule’s limit on recovery, the effective result for many, if not most, consumers would be the same as their options were under the holder in due course rule that the FTC sought to supplant.”

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.

Ninth Circuit: $260K Fee Award Proper Where Damages Were $2500

April 26, 2022

A recent Metropolitan News story, “$260,000 Fee Award Proper Though Damages Were $2,500” reports that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed an attorney fee award of nearly $260,000 in a case in which a prison inmate was awarded $2,500 based on ill-effects from a chemical grenade having accidentally been discharged, with fumes seeping into the area of the cells.  District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. of the Northern District of California made the award under California’s private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, ruling that the statutory criteria were met, including a benefit to the public that overshadows the personal benefit to the prisoner, Daniel Manriquez.

The incident underlying Manriquez’s suit occurred on June 4, 2015.  According to allegations of the operative complaint, two employees at Pelican Bay State Prison, defendants Justin Vangilder and Juan Vasquez, while inside a control booth, were “horse playing” with a “military-grade” grenade which is “designed to quickly release oleoresin capsicum (‘OC’) into the air.”  One of them dropped the grenade, it went off, and the employees “opened the windows to the control booth, allowing a fog of OC to quickly fill the surrounding space.”

The inmate prevailed at trial and his lawyers sought an award of a fee in the amount of $467,425, arguing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had “insisted on using this case as a ‘test case’ for prisoners who have been indirectly exposed to oleoresin capsicum,” had rejected reasonable settlement offers, and “forced Plaintiff to heavily litigate this case for going on three years now.”  Gilliam awarded $259,237.50.

 A three-judge panel—composed of Judge M. Margaret McKeown and Senior Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Sidney Thomas—upheld the award, saying that there was, as Gilliam found, a “significant benefit” conferred on the general public. Their memorandum opinion declares: “To be sure, the primary effect of Manriquez’s $2,500 judgment is arguably an enforcement of his personal interests against two correctional officers for an isolated incident, as there was no injunction or statewide policy changes.  But we hold that the district court did not clearly err* in its determination that Manriquez’s verdict has “larger implications” beyond his individual case. The district court explicitly took into consideration the fact that indirect exposure to chemical agents is not uncommon among inmates and that Defendants’ own witnesses testified at trial about the frequency with which chemical agents are used in prison facilities.  Moreover, the district court highlighted that there are approximately 95.000 men and women incarcerated in California, including approximately 1.900 inmates in Pelican Bay, where Manriquez was in custody.”

The Ninth Circuit judges also agreed with Gilliam that the public benefit transcends Manriquez’s personal interests, saying: “In the end, Manriquez was awarded a total of $2,500 while his counsel requested a total of $467,425 in attorneys’ fees for over 1,100 hours of work.  Had counsel not agreed to represent Manriquez on contingency, the value of the recovery for Manriquez’s pain and panic would not have justified the costs in litigating this case.  For the same reason—comparing the modest sum of the total damages to the attorneys’ fee requested—we agree with the district court that the interests of justice require the fees to not be paid out of Plaintiffs’ recovery.”

The defendants argued that even though Gilliam awarded less in fees than was sought, the amount is 84 times that allowed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).  The PLRA caps attorney fees 150 percent of any monetary which would mean a maximum award of $3,750.

The panel responded: “[T]he PLRA cannot be used as a basis to limit the attorneys’ fees granted under California Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5.  In this case. Manriquez prevailed on both his state law negligence claim as well as his Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants.  The state law claim thus served as an independent basis for awarding attorneys’ fees, the amount of which is not governed or limited by the PLRA….Moreover, the district court is not required to apportion the work between Manriquez’s Eighth Amendment claim and his negligence claim because his claims are intertwined and based on the same common core of facts.”

Article: The Holder Rule and Attorneys’ Fees

February 24, 2022

A recent article by Alan D. Wingfield, David Anthony, Timothy St. George, Ethan Ostroff, Scott Kelly, and Sarah Siu of Troutman Pepper LLP, “The Holder Rule and Attorneys’ Fees: The FTC Speaks” reports on attorney fees and the FTC’s Holder Rule.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On January 20, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an advisory opinion on the impact of the Trade Regulation Rule Concerning Preservation of Consumers’ Claims and Defenses (Holder Rule) on the recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs above the amount paid on a consumer receivable arising out of a financed sale of goods or services.  Siding with consumers and rejecting the reading put forward by loan holders, the FTC declared that the Holder Rule does not prevent a plaintiff from recovering attorneys’ fees and costs against a “loan holder” where another state, local, or federal law permits the recovery.

The Holder Rule is a regulation issued by the FTC that allows consumers to bring any legal claims against the “holder” of a retail installment sales contract or other credit contract that it could assert against the original seller of the good or service, even if the claim springs from the seller’s misconduct alone.  This situation frequently arises in auto finance litigation or litigation under state deceptive acts and practices laws — for example, where a consumer sues both the car dealer as the seller and the bank as the loan provider and “holder” of the retail installment sales contract, for the seller’s failure to disclose a defect or repair the vehicle.  The Holder Rule, however, states that a plaintiff’s recovery from the holder for those claims “shall not exceed amounts paid by the debtor” under the sales contract.

Multiple courts nationwide have ruled that the Holder Rule’s recovery cap prevented courts from requiring holders to pay a plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs over and above the plaintiff’s previous payments to the seller.  See, e.g., Reyes v. Beneficial State Bank, No. BCV-17-100082 (Cal. Sup. Ct., Kern Co., Dec. 5, 2019), appeal docketed, No. F080827 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 13, 2020); State ex rel. Stenberg v. Consumer’s Choice Foods, Inc., 276 Neb. 481, 495–96 (2008).  But other courts have disagreed.  See In re Stewart, 93 B.R. 878 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 1988); Home Sav. Ass’n v. Guerra, 733 S.W.2d 134 (Tex. 1987).  The California Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal of one recent decision that rejected a Holder Rule cap in Pulliam v. HNL Automotive, Inc., No. S267576 (Cal. 2021).

The FTC’s new opinion sides with courts that have refused to automatically cap attorneys’ fees and costs, stating that applying the Holder Rule to preempt state laws and limit recovery of fees and costs “misconstrues” the FTC’s prior statements.  The FTC previously voted 5-0 to issue a confirmation of the Holder Rule in 2019, which noted that several commenters had asked whether the Holder Rule’s limitation on recovery to “amounts paid by the debtor” allows consumers to recover attorneys’ fees above that cap.  The rule confirmation stated, “The Commission does not believe that the record supports modifying the Rule to authorize recovery of attorneys’ fees from the holder, based on the seller’s conduct, if that recovery exceeds the amount paid by the consumer.”  Three of those five commissioners are still serving on the FTC.

Now, in a 180 degree turn, the FTC has voted 4-0 (including aye votes from the three commissioners who were already serving in 2019) to adopt this opinion that if the applicable state or federal law allows an attorneys’ fee award against any defendant, whether holder or seller, then the Holder Rule places no limit on the amount of fees and costs the plaintiff may recover from a holder.  For example, if the law allows the prevailing party to recover fees from any party that opposes its claims, and the holder opposed the prevailing plaintiff’s claims, the Holder Rule would not cap a plaintiff’s recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs.  Additionally, even if the law in question allows attorneys’ fee awards against the seller exclusively and expressly, the Holder Rule allows the plaintiff to recover those fees from the holder instead, though that award would be subject to the Holder Rule cap and limited to the amounts the consumer had previously paid.

In other words, litigants will have to narrowly examine the language and framing of the various state and federal statutes allowing recovery of attorneys’ fees to determine whether the Holder Rule’s cap will apply to fees and costs under the applicable statute, and courts may interpret broader fee recovery statutes that do not expressly apply only to sellers to allow unlimited fee recovery from holders as well.  This advisory opinion thus raises holders’ risk exposure and potential costs in litigation where the dealer has not indemnified the holder or the dealer is judgment proof.  It also will likely impact the California Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision on this question in Pulliam.

No Arbitration for Attorney-Client Fee Dispute

August 11, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Caroline Simson, “No Arbitration For King & Spalding Client Fight, Court Hears”, reports that a Dutch citizen who accuses King & Spalding LLP of fraudulently colluding with Burford Capital to maximize fees ​​in a treaty claim​ against Vietnam​ is fighting the law firm's efforts to send the fee dispute to arbitration, arguing that an arbitration clause in the funding agreement is inapplicable.

Trinh Vinh Binh sued King & Spalding and two of its international arbitration partners in Houston, Reggie R. Smith and Craig S. Miles, in June, alleging they made a "mockery of the fiduciary obligations an attorney owes to their clients" by "colluding" with litigation funder Burford to take more of the arbitration proceeds than Binh had agreed to.  The law firm had represented Binh in a treaty claim against Vietnam over the confiscation of certain real estate that ended in a $45 million award against the country in 2019.

King & Spalding pressed a federal court in Houston last month to send the dispute with Binh to arbitration, citing an arbitration clause in the funding agreement and alleging that Binh excluded Burford from his suit in an attempt to skirt the clause.  The law firm claims that even though it is not a signatory to the funding agreement, the broad scope of the clause provides for arbitration of any dispute arising out of the pact.

But Binh argued that the clause governs disputes only between him and Burford, and not with any third parties. He said that the engagement agreement he signed with King & Spalding when he retained the firm for the Vietnam matter makes no mention of arbitration for disputes.  "Defendants are attorneys, and they certainly know how to draft an arbitration clause.  But the engagement agreement between Binh and defendants contains no arbitration clause," Binh's attorneys said. "Try as they might, defendants have not shown — and cannot show — that they may properly invoke the [funding agreement's] arbitration clause.  Binh therefore respectfully requests that this court deny defendants' motion."

King & Spalding had represented Binh in an arbitration matter filed against Vietnam in 2015, in which Binh accused the country of improperly taking several valuable properties he says were worth an estimated $214 million.  Under their deal, the law firm agreed to hold back 30% of billings for fees and defer the payment of those amounts until work had concluded in the arbitration.  At the same time, Binh entered into a funding agreement with Burford Capital with a $4.678 million spending cap, according to the suit.

Binh claims that King & Spalding told him the firm could complete the arbitration work within that cap.  But by May 2016, the firm had already billed and been paid some $1.9 million, leaving about $1.8 million after initial costs and expenses had been paid out.

Binh alleges that at that point the firm, "motivated by securing continued, guaranteed immediate payment of their fees, colluded with Burford" to contrive a scheme to increase the amount potentially owed by Binh by increasing the cap on King & Spalding's legal fees and, consequently, increasing Burford's potential entitlement to an increased return.  The way the agreement worked was that the more King & Spalding billed against the cap amount in legal spending, the more Binh was at risk of paying a so-called success return, to be paid if Binh prevailed in the arbitration.  The success return was to be split between King & Spalding and Burford based on the relative portion of their investments in the arbitration.

Binh alleges that King & Spalding tried to make him agree to increase the cap on expenditures for legal fees — and potentially, provide more of a return for Burford — but that he refused.  Thereafter, Burford and the law firm allegedly executed a side agreement between themselves.

In addition to accusing King & Spalding of breaching its fiduciary duty, Binh's lawsuit includes claims for negligence if the overpayment of fees was due to a mistake, as well as claims of misrepresentation and fraud.  He also accuses the firm of negligence after the tribunal in the case against Vietnam rejected an expert report the firm provided stating that Binh's property was worth some $214 million.  The tribunal instead awarded $45.4 million.

Polsinelli Sued Over Billing Issues

January 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Polsinelli Says Clients’ ‘Slacking Off’ Claims are “Meritless”,” reports that Polsinelli PC urged a Pennsylvania federal judge to toss a lawsuit...

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