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Category: Fee Discovery / Disclosure

3 Firms Give Up $1M in Fees in Purdue Bankruptcy

May 1, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Justin Wise, “3 Firms Give Up $1M in Fees From Purdue Ch. 11,” reports that Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP, WilmerHale and Dechert LLP have agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to relinquish $1 million in fees earned in their representation of Purdue Pharma in its ongoing bankruptcy cases, after concerns were raised about the adequacy of the firms' disclosures.

The DOJ Trustee Program said that the firms failed to disclose a joint defense and common interest agreement between Purdue and the Sackler family, the company's owners, in their retention applications.  The agreement created obligations for the firms to the Sacklers in their defense of hundreds of lawsuits relating to Purdue's opioid sales, the DOJ said.  Purdue had invoked the agreement in an effort to avoid turning over documents to unsecured creditors reviewing debtors' conduct.  The settlement is subject to approval by the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

"These disclosure violations are particularly concerning because a central question in these cases has been the independence of Purdue from the Sackler families," Cliff White, director of the DOJ's Trustee Program, said in a statement.  "This agreement reflects the USTP's ongoing efforts to police law firms and other bankruptcy professionals who fail to disclose connections that may raise questions about their ability to perform their duties free of conflicts of interest."

Law firms are required under bankruptcy laws to disclose their connections to other parties who may have a stake in a case.  The three firms did not consider the common interest agreement to represent a "connection" requiring disclosure at the time of their applications, but agreed to the settlement to resolve a dispute with the U.S. Trustee, according to a court filing.  The U.S. Trustee first raised concerns about the firms' disclosures in early March.

The U.S. Trustee said it discovered no "evidence that the failure to disclose in this case was intentional or that there was an effort by any of the firms to mislead."  Under the settlement, Skadden, WilmerHale and Dechert will collectively reduce their pending or future fees by $1 million and file supplemental retention applications to reflect any agreements entered on behalf of debtors and other parties.

Ninth Circuit Bumps Up Hourly Rate in Labor Case

April 19, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “9th Circ. Bumps Ore. Atty’s Hourly Fee Rate in Labor Case,” reports that a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge wrongly reduced an Oregon attorney's hourly rate by $100 while awarding attorney fees in a Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act case, the Ninth Circuit ruled, telling the Benefits Review Board to assign the case to another judge.

In a 35-page published opinion (pdf), the three-judge panel said the review board should not have upheld the administrative law judge's decision to knock down attorney Charles Robinowitz's fee rate from $450 per hour to $349.85 per hour, finding that the attorney had presented "substantial evidence" that his requested rate was in line with similar services by lawyers of comparable skill and experience.  Robinowitz provided supportive affidavits from other attorneys, the 2012 Oregon State Bar Survey reporting that Portland attorneys with more than 30 years of experience billed between $300 per hour and $400 per hour, and court decisions awarding him $425 per hour and $420 per hour for work performed in 2012, 2013 and 2014, according to the opinion.

The fee appeal comes after Ladonna E. Seachris in 2006 filed a claim for benefits under the LHWCA following the 2005 death of her husband, who was injured while working as a longshoreman in 1979, according to court filings.  An administrative law judge denied the claim in 2010 and Seachris appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed the judge's order.  Seachris appealed again to the Ninth Circuit, which remanded the case in 2013, and the administrative law judge ruled in her favor in 2016, according to court records.

Following that decision, Seachris' attorney Robinowitz filed for attorney fees for 109 hours at a rate of $450 per hour, as well as costs of $5,413.  The administrative law judge in 2017, however, allowed the attorney 98 hours at about $341 per hour, according to court filings.  The Benefits Review Board then affirmed the decision, but increased the hourly rate to $349.85 because of an inflation error.

Seachris and her attorney then appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Seachris' husband's former employer, Brady-Hamilton Stevedore Co., said Robinowitz should only get an hourly fee rate of $358, arguing that the administrative law judge correctly calculated the market rate using the 2012 Oregon State Bar Survey, according to court filings.

In its opinion, the appellate panel said the judge erred by rejecting Robinowitz's evidence of prevailing market rates as outdated, saying reliance on historical market conditions is appropriate when it is the most current information available.  The panel said the judge needs to treat the parties equally, finding that both parties, as well as the judge, relied on dated evidence.

Brady-Hamilton also relied on the 2012 OSB Survey, the panel said, and the judge herself relied on that same survey as the linchpin of her rate decision.  By the time her fee decision came out in January 2017, the 2011 rates in that 2012 survey were already six years old, according to the opinion.  "The ALJ nevertheless relied on the survey by adjusting the 2011 data for inflation — appropriately so," the panel said. "But the ALJ declined to make similar adjustments to Robinowitz's evidence."

"We see no reason why she should not have taken the same approach to Robinowitz's evidence, and it was [an] error not to do so," the panel added.  The administrative law judge also erred by rejecting Robinowitz's evidence from the 2012 OSB Survey and not taking into account the way the survey reported rates, the panel said.  The survey reported hourly rates charged by Portland attorneys based on their years of experience, irrespective of practice area, and based on their practice area, irrespective of experience, according to the opinion.

Robinowitz relied on the survey chart based on years of experience to calculate his hourly rate, but the judge rejected the evidence as being too "one-dimensional," according to the panel.  But then the judge relied on the other survey chart based on practice area to determine her rate, the panel said.

"Although the ALJ rejected Robinowitz's survey evidence as 'one dimensional,' she proceeded to base her rate determination on the equally one dimensional chart reporting rates by practice area," the panel said.  "Even assuming arguendo that rates based on practice area are more probative than rates based on years of experience, the latter rates are at least relevant."  The panel found that the judge and the review board committed legal error in determining Robinowitz's hourly rate and that the judge's rate decision isn't supported by substantial evidence, according to the opinion.

The panel remanded the case and told the review board to assign it to a different judge, finding that "the tone of the ALJ's decision and the manner in which the ALJ evaluated the evidence suggest that the ALJ may not be able to provide Robinowitz with a fair and impartial hearing on remand."

The panel also noted that the Oregon State Bar has published an updated survey, saying the 2017 survey reports that Portland attorneys with more than 30 years of experience charged a median rate of $425 per hour in 2016 and for attorneys in the 75th percentile, the average rate was $495 per hour.  "These updated rates, which the BRB should take into account on remand, provide further support for Robinowitz's requested rate," the panel 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.

Judge Wants Skadden Affidavit on Fees and Billing Practices

March 4, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Chancery Wants Skadden Affidavit in TransPerfect Fee Fight,” reports that Delaware's chancellor ordered Skadden to submit an affidavit attesting to the accuracy and reasonableness of custodian fees recently charged to TransPerfect Global Inc., saying it was in the interest of ending billing battles stemming from a rancorous court-ordered sale of the business.  Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard gave Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and custodian Robert B. Pincus a week to submit the information after a half-day argument on three pending issues in the case.  Among them was a motion by Pincus for a discharge from his custodian's role with indemnification and nondisparagement protections, among other terms, opposed by TransPerfect and co-founder Philip R. Shawe.

Also at issue were claims by TransPerfect that Skadden had charged excessive and unsupportable fees on a range of matters, including "fees on fees" billings for Pincus' and Skadden's defense against fee claims, as well as a TransPerfect motion to block Pincus and Skadden from recovering fees for a contempt action.  While taking the overall issues, including Pincus' discharge, under advisement, the chancellor also directed Skadden to provide support in its affidavit for more than $200,000 in billings for what were alleged by TransPerfect to be "the administrative work" of sending a bill.

"Is it typical? I'm not aware of it happening," the chancellor said.  "I'm talking about [billing for] the actual generation of an invoice and, if you will, running that bill.  Give it thought.  If it's your position that it's ordinary and that it would be billed to a client ordinarily and permissibly, so attest" in the affidavit.  "If you want to carve that out. It might be prudent to do so."

Pincus was appointed custodian of TransPerfect after its two co-founders, Shawe and Elizabeth Elting, had a falling-out and could not agree on how to manage the company.  In May 2018, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the chancellor's February 2018 ruling that allowed Shawe to buy Elting's 50% stake in the company.  Chancellor Bouchard had also determined that Pincus' impartiality wasn't compromised by threats of litigation made against him by Elting or by Shawe's alleged interference in the sale process.

During the arguments, Jennifer C. Voss of Skadden, counsel to Pincus, said the expenses had been prompted by TransPerfect's and Shawe's actions, and were handled with the same diligence and efficiency as that given to all of Skadden's clients, at rates consistent with its practice.  "Mr. Shawe is an adjudicated serial litigator," Voss told the court while arguing for Pincus' discharge.  "Now, years out from closing [on the TransPerfect sale], he has filed a barrage of baseless, unprovoked attacks against Mr. Pincus and Skadden.  These attacks are meant to coerce Mr. Pincus. He has not succeeded, but they're also meant to harass him and his advisers."

Voss said TransPerfect and Shawe "weaponized access to billing statements" for a "punitive and protracted campaign of fee warfare," despite Pincus' right to recover costs as custodian and for litigation in disputes with TransPerfect and Shawe in the years after the sale.  Much of the dispute related to the custodian's authority to bill TransPerfect for the costs of responses to or defenses for challenges raised by the company and Shawe.

During the hearing, David B. Goldstein of Rabinowitz Boudin Standard Krinsky & Lieberman PC, counsel to Shawe, described the billing arrangements as a "fee merry-go-round," with filings by TransPerfect and Shawe generating billings from the custodian, objections to the bills and new bills for addressing the objections.  "The sale of TransPerfect Global closed almost three years ago," Goldstein said.  "At that point, TransPerfect had already been ordered to pay Skadden almost $13 million, and another $31 million to [Pincus'] handpicked advisers."

Fee and other disputes since then have pushed the total to $14 million for Skadden and $45 million for advisers, Goldstein said, with additional billings pending.  "Our position is these fees are really excessive," Goldstein said, arguing that the process appeared to have become a "billing frenzy" without end.  "I'm not telling the court or suggesting that Skadden should get zero," he said.  But "if they got nothing else, they would have gotten far more than a reasonable amount of fees."

Voss disputed TransPerfect's calculations of the billings and costs of the case, and said expenses had been driven by TransPerfect's and Shawe's frivolous arguments, haphazard and mistaken filings, and pressures for expedited court proceedings.  One billing alone, Voss noted, was answered with 100 pages of objections.

Nelson Mullins Discloses Hourly Rates in Patent Fee Request

March 1, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Mike Scarcella, “Denied a Seal, Nelson Mullins Reveals Rates in Fee Petition in Patent Suit,” reports that, for at least the second time in the span of a year a federal trial judge refused to let a major U.S. law firm keep hourly rates and other billing-related information secret as part of an effort in court to squeeze legal fees from an opponent.

Denied its bid for secrecy, one of the firms, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, last week resubmitted its attorney fee petition fully unredacted in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.  The other firm, King & Spalding, abandoned an effort last year in Washington’s federal trial court after a judge said he would unseal supporting records showing hourly rates if the firm wanted to press its fee request.

Nelson Mullins sought $292,340 from a private plaintiff who filed patent claims against the motorsports company Simpson Performance Products and an engineer there.  The law firm won a key ruling in early February, but the court, just one day after the fee petition was filed, denied the request.  King & Spalding had sought $665,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after successfully obtaining records in a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Specific hourly billing rates and other internal records about fees generally are not things that law firms and lawyers are eager to discuss out in the open.  Indeed, both Nelson Mullins and King & Spalding had argued hourly rates and other billing documents were sensitive business records that should be kept confidential.  Still, information about billing often becomes public as a matter of routine in any number of settings, including in bankruptcy filings, certain types of litigation and in some law firm contracts with government clients.

A bankruptcy case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently showed hourly rates for Kirkland & Ellis partners to be between $1,085 and $1,895, and associates’ hourly rates between $625 and $1,195.  In California, a federal judge last month ordered legal fees to be paid to a team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher that successfully represented Rachel Maddow as a defendant in a defamation case.  Gibson Dunn partner Theodore Boutrous Jr., prominent for his First Amendment advocacy, was shown as billing $1,525 hourly last year.

Nelson Mullins “asks the court to seal the amount of attorneys’ fees being requested—the very substance of the relief that it is seeking from the court—along with how it calculated the fees (counsel’s hourly rates and the time expended during their representation),” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Bell wrote in a Feb. 24 order.  “Thus, the effect of a request to seal this information is tantamount to a request to issue a secret order, as the court could not even grant much less fully discuss the merits of [the legal fee] request without disclosing the amount of fees requested along with counsel’s hourly fees, etc.”

In the King & Spalding matter, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said “the records that plaintiff asks to keep under seal go to the very heart of what is before the court: questions concerning the reasonableness of plaintiff’s counsel’s hourly rates and the reasonableness of the time they expended on this matter.”

Both judges declined the invitation to seal the law firms’ hourly rates and other records.  In the case involving King & Spalding, the firm dropped its move to get fees after Mehta said he would unseal rate information if the firm moved forward.  Those details remained sealed.  “Once a matter is brought before a court for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties’ case, but also the public’s case,” wrote Bell, a former McGuireWoods partner who’d spent more than 10 years in the firm’s Charlotte office before joining the bench in 2019.

Bell said that “except in very limited circumstances, the court’s business must be conducted openly, with public access guaranteed to instill confidence in the fairness of the proceedings and inform the public about the law.” He added: “[B]y choosing to seek attorneys’ fees in an open court, Simpson must necessarily disclose the amount of the award it seeks and the underlying basis for its fees.”  To “avoid any surprise,” Bell said he would allow Nelson Mullins to withdraw its motion for legal fees or refile it in an unredacted form.  That firm submitted 85 pages of arguments, declarations and billing records to back its request for fees.

“The rates charged by defendants’ counsel were well within, if not below, the range typically charged for complex litigation in North Carolina,” wrote Charlotte-based Nelson Mullins partner Craig Killen, who said he billed at $425 hourly for the case.  Another partner, Robert McWilliams, billed at $405 on the case.  Three associates billed at hourly rates between $320 and $345, according to the law firm’s motion for fees.

In arguing for fees, the Nelson Mullins team trumpeted the “unusual questions” raised during the patent litigation.  “This case was pending over two years and proceeded through the extended period of discovery,” Killen wrote in a court filing.  Nelson Mullins said its request for fees “is made with some reluctance because Simpson has no interest in ‘punishing’ an individual plaintiff.”  But, the law firm said in its court filing, “much of the expense incurred by the defense could have been avoided if plaintiff had not pressed unreasonable and objectively baseless positions.”

On the day after refusing to allow Nelson Mullins to file its billing records under seal, Bell, the trial judge, rejected the firm’s request.  “In the exercise of its discretion, the court does not find this case to be exceptional,” Bell wrote in an order last week.  “While the court determined that defendants were fully entitled to summary judgment (and to be clear does not intend by this decision to indicate that it has any uncertainty over that conclusion), defendants have not shown that plaintiff pursued her claims frivolously, for an improper purpose or in bad faith.”