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Category: Fee Collection

NJ Law Firm Keeps Attorney Fees in Fee Dispute Action

July 28, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “McCarter & English Keeps Win in $860K Fee Suit,” reports that a New Jersey state appeals court upheld an $860,000 judgment for McCarter & English in its suit seeking unpaid fees from former client Moerae Matrix, finding that the biotech company couldn't show how the fees were unreasonable.  Moerae Matrix, a Morristown-based biopharmaceutical company that develops treatments for fibrotic and inflammatory diseases, retained McCarter & English in August 2017 to provide legal services for intellectual property and patent matters, according to court documents.

By signing the engagement letter with the Newark-based firm, Moerae Matrix agreed to its terms, "including McCarter & English's hourly rates, according to court documents.  McCarter & English "regularly" emailed its invoices to Moerae Matrix for legal fees and expenses incurred throughout the course of its representation.  The invoices detailed the work performed by the firm, the attorneys involved, how much time was spent on the tasks, the date of the tasks and the cost of the services.

Although Moerae Matrix made "certain payments" to McCarter & English, it was not current on its fees.  In September 2018, Moerae Matrix proposed converting the full amount of the outstanding balance to a promissory note, "but the parties could not agree on terms," according to court documents.  Three months later, the biotech company notified McCarter & English by email that it decided to terminate the firm's representation and to transfer its legal needs to Cooley LLP.  The email sent to the firm said, "We truly valued all your support over the years and are committed to seeing that [McCarter & English] is paid in full for past services and costs," according to court documents.

In the record presented to the appellate court, Moerae Matrix did not provide the invoices from McCarter & English, according to court documents.  Instead, the biotech company provided only a detailed statement of account, which shows the amounts billed, payments made and the balance McCarter & English claimed was owed.  "As a result, we are unable to independently assess the invoices either to confirm their contents or to render an independent determination concerning the reasonableness or fairness of [McCarter & English's] fees," the appellate court wrote in its Tuesday opinion.

Beverly Lubit, a partner at McCarter & English, served as the originating, billing and handling attorney responsible for the day-to-day representation of Moerae Matrix.  In seeking a summary judgment of $860,593, McCarter & English submitted certifications to the trial court from Lubit and Daniel P. D'Alessandro, another attorney with the firm. Lubit certified that the legal services provided, and the expenses incurred as a result, "were reasonable and necessary," according to court documents.

In an effort to escape the unpaid legal fees, Moerae Matrix relied on certifications from Moerae Matrix's founder, chairman and chief executive officer, Dr. Cynthia Lander, who asserted that Cooley was handling the very same tasks that were handled by McCarter & English "for less than half of the cost."  She argued that McCarter & English "charged too much in fees for the work that it performed" and "that [McCarter & English] filed many more patent applications and filings than necessary to protect the intellectual property interests of [Moerae Matrix]."

Moerae Matrix relied on an additional certification, one from Texas patent attorney Frank Grassler, who claimed to be an expert in patent law.  "In short, Grassler opined [McCarter & English] did a great deal of work, which was simply not necessary," the three-judge appellate panel wrote in its opinion.  However, Moerae Matrix did not disclose Grassler as an expert in its responses to McCarter & English's interrogatories prior to the conclusion of discovery, as required by state court rules, nor did the biotech company move to amend its responses to identify Grassler as an expert or supply an expert report from him.

Instead, Moerae Matrix submitted Grassler's certification in opposition to McCarter & English's summary judgment motion "well after the conclusion of discovery and unaccompanied by a certification setting forth the reason [Moerae Matrix] failed to identify Grassler as an expert in its answers to [McCarter & English's] interrogatories," the appellate panel noted.

For these reasons, the appellate panel agreed with the trial court's decision to exclude Grassler's certification.  The appellate panel also found that Moerae Matrix could not point to "competent evidence it claims establishes [McCarter & English's] fees are unreasonable or unfair," according to court documents.  There is no basis to conclude that the trial court erred by awarding McCarter & English the unpaid legal fees, the appellate panel wrote in affirming the lower court's $837,524 judgment, plus interest and costs of suit.

NJ Attorney Can Pursue Fee Claim Without Written Retainer

July 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “NJ Atty Can Pursue $126K Fee Bid Without Written Retainer”, reports that a New Jersey attorney can pursue her bid for $126,000 in legal fees for a matter she never put into a retainer agreement after an appellate panel reversed an earlier court's dismissal of the case, noting that "it is well settled that an attorney-client relationship can be found without a written agreement."  On July 9, a two-judge appellate panel reversed the summary judgment granted to the clients of Theresa C. Grabowski, who retained the Marlton-based attorney to bring claims against their insurer for not fully covering lightning damage to their home.

The couple, William and Amanda Baskay, signed a written retainer agreement for Grabowski, according to court documents.  The retainer included a provision that said, "If, after completion of the matter at the trial level, either you or the opposing party appeals the result, a new retainer agreement will be drawn which will set forth our agreement with respect to the retention of this firm on appeal."

In May 2009, Grabowski filed a 16-count complaint against the insurance company that included breach of contract and violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, or CFA, among other things.  After the trial court dismissed the CFA and punitive damages claims, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the couple against the insurer in the amount of $9,025.  The accounts of what occurred next between Grabowski and her clients "are dramatically different," the appellate panel wrote in its July 9 opinion.

Grabowski claims that as she was leaving the courthouse with the couple following the jury's verdict, they asked her to pursue an appeal seeking to overturn the trial court's dismissal of their claims for damages under the CFA, punitive damages, and additional counsel fees and costs, according to court documents.  "Grabowski alleged she agreed to represent [the couple] on appeal, and further consented to continue representing them at no additional charge," according to court documents.  "Grabowski alleged she did not insist that the parties execute a new retainer agreement because she would not be charging [the couple] any additional fees."

The couple disputed Grabowski's claims and said they did not ask her to file an appeal, but that the attorney "did so on her own," according to court documents. They also said they never signed a new retainer agreement for the appeal.  Grabowski filed a notice of appeal on the couple's behalf using the money from the jury verdict to fund the action. In response, the insurer filed a cross-appeal, challenging the verdict in the couple's favor.  Grabowski sent an email to the couple inquiring about her outstanding legal fees.

William Baskay responded by email, telling Grabowski, "As it stands now there is to be no appeal," according to court documents.  In response, Grabowski told William by email that "[t]he appeal has already been filed — which you knew, approved of and agreed to throughout (since the adverse rulings). As you know, the appeal was filed back in September, as I forwarded copies of it to you."  William did not reply to this email, according to court documents, and Grabowski continued to represent the defendants in the appeal and cross-appeal.

Ultimately, in April 2014, a state appellate panel affirmed the earlier dismissal of the couple's claims under the CFA and for punitive damages.  Three years later, Grabowski filed a complaint against the couple seeking to recover attorney fees "in excess of $126,678" for representing them against their insurance company.  William and Amanda Baskay filed separate answers to the complaint, both claiming that Grabowski's claims were barred by the six-year statute of limitations.

New Jersey state law requires that a claim for breach of contract be filed within six years from the date the cause of action accrues, but the appellate panel noted that a "contract for legal services is not like other contracts."  Previous case law in New Jersey holds that because of "the unique and special relationship between an attorney and a client, ordinary contract principles governing agreements between parties must give way to the higher ethical and professional standards enunciated by our Supreme Court."

The appellate panel, in its July 9 opinion, further noted that the "facts of this case are disputed and far from settled."  "However, the law applicable to the statute of limitations in attorney fee collection actions is not," the appellate panel added.  If the six-year statute of limitations began when the couple's appeal concluded in April 2014, then Grabowski's claims against the couple were filed within the legally-permitted timeframe, the appellate panel noted.  The panel also rejected the couple's argument that Grabowski's representation ended in 2011 when William sent the attorney the email stating that, "As it stands now there is to be no appeal."

"This email is hardly an unambiguous statement that Williams intended to terminate Grabowski's services," the appellate panel wrote. "Indeed, when Grabowski informed him the next day that the appeal had already been filed, William failed to respond."  On remand, the appellate panel instructed the trial court to consider the couple's claim that Grabowski's complaint against them should have been barred because she did not give them "pre-action notice" of their right to seek fee arbitration.

Quinn Emanuel Defends Billing Practices, Expenses

May 5, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Schart, “MiMedx Slams Quinn Emanuel Fees As 2 Other Firms Settle,” reports that MiMedx has accused Quinn Emanuel of seeking unreasonable fees, including for lawyers' luxury hotel stays and fine dining, as part of the cost of defending two former company executives who were convicted of securities fraud.  The allegation, in court papers, comes after the life sciences company settled claims with two other law firms seeking payment of fees as part of the same dispute.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Kobre & Kim LLP initially filed suit in New York state court on April 15 alleging MiMedx Group Inc. shirked its obligations to indemnify the firms' clients, company President William Taylor and ex-CEO Parker "Pete" Petit.  Both men were sentenced to a year in prison in February after being convicted of one of two counts each at trial.

Freshfields and Kobre & Kim said in court filings that they had settled their claims against MiMedx.  Without disclosing the terms, the firms wrote in similar notices that their "claims in this proceeding do not make, and never were intended to make, a charge of deception against MiMedx or its general counsel, Butch Hulse, and that the filed action in this matter was a good faith fee dispute, which now has been swiftly and amicably resolved."

But Quinn Emanuel has yet to drop its claims in the lawsuit, and MiMedx took aim at the law firm in an answer filed in a related Florida state court legal fee dispute with the former executives.  In response to the men's counterclaims seeking additional fees to appeal their convictions, MiMedx accused Quinn Emanuel of overbilling Petit and Taylor and then unfairly attempting to collect from the company.

"Quinn Emanuel will have to explain its billing and expense practices," MiMedx wrote.  "These include staffing its trial team with over ten professionals, mostly from out-of-town despite having a large New York office within a few miles of the courthouse; staying in a luxury boutique hotel; having meals catered by a Michelin-starred chef (and supplementing them with separate orders of crab legs and sushi to boot); and charging MiMedx tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 'last-minute' motion to adjourn the trial that the court found 'border[ed] on the frivolous.'"

MiMedx said Quinn Emanuel has refused to provide it with invoices for its expenses in the case, and that it and the other criminal defense firms have already been paid more than $18 million for their work defending the former executives.  MiMedx's counsel told Law360 that the company has indemnified its former executives where required, but that the law firms can't force it to pay unwarranted fees.  "The company has been reasonable.  It paid pursuant to the indemnity," said Louis M. Solomon of Reed Smith LLP.  "It always reserved the right to make sure that the fees were reasonable, and even now with the convictions in place, we're not obliged to advance any more costs."

Quinn Emanuel's in-house counsel defended the firm's billing practices to Law360.  "Quinn Emanuel tried this case during the pandemic and achieved an acquittal for its client on the most serious count," Marc Greenwald, who is representing the law firm in the New York case, said.  "Quinn Emanuel expects to get paid at the rates that MiMedx agreed, and our work was outstanding.  All the charges were appropriate and reasonable."

MiMedx lodged its Florida state court claims against Petit and Taylor in January seeking permission to stop indemnifying the former executives upon sentencing, as well as reimbursement for millions of dollars in already paid fees.  Petit and Taylor fired back with counterclaims soon after they were sentenced, arguing in April that the company must continue indemnifying them in the upcoming appeal.  Quinn Emanuel, Freshfields and Kobre & Kim filed their separate New York state court suit in April, alleging that MiMedx has violated its contractual duty to pay Petit and Taylor's criminal defense costs.

Under Economic Pressure, More Firms Sue Clients for Unpaid Fees

April 13, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Justin Henry, “Under Economic Pressure, Large Firms May Increasing Sue Clients for Nonpayment,” reports that economic pressures accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many law firms into difficult conversations with clients, as they aim to balance flexibility during an economic downturn with their own budgetary constraints. In some instances, the challenge is leading to lawsuits.  Over the last 12 months since the onset of the pandemic, Am Law 200 firms including Blank Rome, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Armstrong Teasdale and Baker McKenzie, among others, have sued clients for allegedly unpaid legal fees, court filings show.

Attorneys who represent law firms in collections disputes say firms are wary to sue clients over unpaid fees because it potentially leaves them vulnerable to counterclaims of legal malpractice.  They say law firms see litigation as a last resort, especially during an economic downturn when flexibility in collections can be key to maintaining solid client relationships.  But law firms are also on alert for exploitation by clients citing the economic tribulation of the last 12 months as a pretext to avoid costs, attorneys say.  Industry leaders also said a large portion of these claims by law firms don’t show up on the public record because the services contracts include an arbitration provision for settling fee disputes.

“As firms become billion-dollar-plus big businesses, they tend to be run more like big billion-dollar-plus businesses,” said Ronald Minkoff, a litigation group partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, who represents law firms in fee collections disputes.  “If they feel that a client is taking advantage of them, they’re much more willing to call the client to account for that.”

Last summer, according to court filings, Buchanan found itself with $2.7 million in outstanding legal fees from Best Medical International, a medical device company that retained Buchanan for patent litigation against alleged infringers in which Buchanan was victorious.  The fee is now the subject of ongoing litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Our cash flow difficulties do indeed continue to make it difficult to pay the Buchanan legal bill which now approaches $2.8 million,” said James Brady, Best Medical’s in-house counsel, in a May 11, 2020, email to Buchanan CEO Joe Dougherty, that was included in court documents.  “We will do everything we can to achieve a reasonable settlement with Varian and Elekta so your firm can be fairly compensated.  We appreciate your willingness to continue the forbearance on any collection efforts and we are hopeful a successful plan will be forthcoming soon.”

Court documents also included a May 12 email reply, in which Dougherty told Brady the firm’s board is “growing impatient with my forbearance on initiating collection efforts.”  Dougherty added Buchanan “is not immune from cash flow challenges these days, and the $2.7 million owed is very significant to us.”  Buchanan has annual revenue around $300 million, according to the most recent ALM data for the firm.

Best Medical took the firm to court in July, alleging it had breached fiduciary duties by failing to provide monthly estimates as promised in their initial contract, which the firm denies.  Court records show Best Medical failed to pay monthly payments from Sept. 23, 2019, through Feb. 11, 2020, citing the opposing parties’ request to stay proceedings and postponing a potential settlement.  Buchanan declined to comment for this story.

Armstrong Teasdale on March 17 filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against former clients, who the firm had represented in multiple lawsuits and in various arbitrations before the American Arbitration Association from October 2018 to October 2020. The suit alleges that the clients owe more than $3.5 million to the firm, plus a 9% annual interest rate.  That amount is equal to 2.3% of the firm’s 2020 revenue of $149.2 million.

In its complaint, Armstrong states the former clients paid legal bills invoiced through July 2019, but alleges that legal bills remain unpaid from then until September 2020, when the clients informed Armstrong they were retaining new counsel.  Armstrong Teasdale declined to comment for this story.  Blank Rome in a Jan. 8 complaint, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claimed former clients Joseph Gurwicz and GR Ventures of New Jersey have outstanding legal fees for the firm’s services connected to preparing and filing a provisional patent application.

As of the date of filing, more than 100 invoices dated from Nov. 8, 2017, through Nov. 6, 2019, remain either partially or fully unpaid, the firm alleges.  Of the $485,563 in legal costs incurred by Blank Rome on behalf of their client, the firm claims $187,860.85 have yet to be paid in full.  In addition, Blank Rome said it’s owed an annual accrued interest rate of 6%, bumping the total amount of the firm’s claim to just over $211,000.

Last week the firm opted to withdraw from the case. Blank Rome declined to comment for this story.  In another case, related to a five-figure fee, Baker McKenzie sued former client Catherine Brentzel in June 2020 in D.C. Superior Court.  Last month, the court entered judgment in the amount of $77,325.88 in the law firm’s favor, court records show.

Minkoff said there had been a stigma attached to firms using the court to induce payments from clients, because it might signal poor client relationship management on the part of the law firm.  But that has taken a back seat in recent years due to revenue pressures and stagnant demand, which have been ramped up by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“There were businesses and law firms who were affected by the pandemic in a negative way, and that increased the pressure in these situations,” Minkoff said.  “The Big Law numbers were not usually affected, particularly at the top levels, but the pressures that existed before the pandemic existed during the pandemic and will exist after the pandemic.”  Minkoff said the industry may be in for a rise in the volume of fee collections disputes between firms and their clients, mirroring the uptick that occurred in the mid-2010s.

“Partners are under pressure to bring in as much money as they can, and that has led to more aggressive behavior in terms of fee collections and those kinds of disputes,” Minkoff said.  He added that the rise in fee collections litigation coincides with firm protectionism in partnership agreements.

Expense-related pressures fall on the side of clients, who are sometimes surprised by high litigation fees and prefer to wait for a result to pay.  “The firms are more aggressive, they have more tools at their disposal to get paid, they’re more willing to litigate to get paid, especially if it’s a sort of one-off arrangement,” Minkoff said.  “Clients are faced with this kind of sticker shock.”

Akerman litigation partner Philip Touitou said law firms are even more focused on collections during the pandemic.  He said the crisis has “changed the dynamic” between clients struggling to make payments and law firms, who work to balance accommodations for struggling clients with their own financial pressures to make budget.  Touitou added that flexible fee structures are “here to stay” as law firms work to avoid potential fee disputes from the outset of a client engagement.

“I think the pandemic has only accelerated that effort,” Touitou said. He added that as firms reevaluate their costs after working remotely and cutting travel expenses to zero, they “may be in a better position to offer more flexible [fee] structures.”  “I think the benefits of law firm cost consciousness will work to the benefits of clients,” he said.

Former Client Questions Law Firm’s Billing Rate in Fee Dispute

March 23, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “Coffee Co. Tries To Turn Up Heat on Sills Cummins in Fee Dispute,” reports that Sills Cummis & Gross PC is facing amended claims of legal malpractice in a years-long case for allegedly misleading a New Jersey-based coffee company about its fee rate.  The Newark-based law firm originally filed a complaint in New Jersey Superior Court against Two Rivers Coffee LLC in 2017 to collect on portions of an $85,181 legal bill the firm claims the coffee company owes for 262 days of work.

Two Rivers, however, responded by filing a malpractice counterclaim against Sills Cummis, alleging the firm regularly failed to follow the coffee company's instructions, failed to communicate properly with the company and inflated its fees.  On March 12, Two Rivers filed a motion seeking to amend its answer and bolster its counterclaims against Sills Cummis.  "From the outset, Sills did not honor these billing rates and, in its purported invoices, charged Two Rivers in excess of what its purported engagement letter allowed," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.

"Our bills for professional services are based on hourly billing rates.  A different billing rate is applicable to each attorney depending upon that attorney's experience and area of expertise," Sills Cummis explained in its engagement letter, according to an exhibit.  "The firm's hourly rates for members working on this matter will be $500 and $375 for associates and $125 for paralegals. These hourly rates change annually each October 1."

But Two Rivers claims it wasn't charged at the promised rates.  Sills' first purported invoice to Two Rivers, dated March 10, 2015, and covering January 2015, billed Two Rivers $595 and $525 per hour for two members and $465 per hour for an associate, according to the motion.  In March of that same year, Sills Cummis invoiced Two Rivers $525 for a member fee, according to the motion.  The alleged overbilling did not come to Two Rivers' attention until it was going through discovery, according to the motion.

The "overcharging scheme" involved Sills Cummis "invoicing Two Rivers at hourly rates in excess of the rates set forth in the purported engagement letter," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.  The alleged overbilling "is based on documents that have always been in Sills' control — its own purported engagement letter and its own purported invoices," the coffee company said.

Sills has always known, or at least should have known, what it agreed to charge and what it in fact did charge, Two Rivers contended.  Because the documents in question are in the possession of Sills Cummis, Two Rivers believes it will be difficult for the law firm to argue against the coffee company's claims.  Discovery, Two Rivers said, would have no impact on the files already in possession of the firm.

"This outcome is all the more fair when one considers that it is based on evidence that has always been in the possession of Sills, rather than in the possession of Two Rivers or a third party," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.  "There is no credible way for Sills to argue that this amendment constitutes any unfair surprise or prejudice to Sills.  To the contrary, it is more likely that Sills has known all along that it charged excessive hourly rates and chose to keep that knowledge to itself until Two Rivers brought it up."

Two Rivers is claiming Sills Cummis committed legal malpractice by willfully breaching its fiduciary duty and damaging the coffee company.  It is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the law firm in amounts to be determined at trial.