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Category: Fee Doctrine / Fee Theory

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.”

UK Authorities May Feel Sting From ‘Loser Pays’ Ruling

May 27, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Christopher Crosby, “Authorities May Feel The Sting From Loser Pays Ruling” reports that the U.K. Supreme Court opened the door to public authorities being forced to pay defendants' costs from failed enforcement actions, but attorneys say it is too soon to know whether that risk will deter agencies from bringing cutting-edge cases.  Britain's highest court has ruled that the Competition and Markets Authority might have to cover the legal costs of drugmaker Pfizer and a distributor, Flynn Pharma, after the watchdog's market abuse case against the two companies fell short.

Britain's highest court ruled, in a unanimous 55-page decision handed down, that costs could follow a failed enforcement action because there is no automatic presumption that authorities do not pay for legal fees when they lose cases.  Businesses and trade organizations have applauded the development, which they say will help defendants with small budgets recover their legal fees if they can prove that an enforcement case was groundless.

But the ruling, written by Justice Vivien Rose, does not mean that regulators will always be on the hook for costs — that issue will be determined by the trial court or tribunal on a case-by-case basis.  But the justices said the Court of Appeal was wrong to assume that costs automatically have a chilling effect on regulators in every case.  "The Court of Appeal had created an unhelpful precedent, which puts a potential appellant in the unenviable position of being forced to pay the CMA's legal costs if their appeal failed yet prevented them recovering their own legal costs if their appeal succeeded," Robert Vidal, a competition partner at Pinsent Masons LLP, said.

The competition watchdog fined the drug companies £84.2 million ($106 million at today's rates) in 2016. A three-year investigation had concluded the companies had overcharged the National Health Service for the anti-epilepsy drug phenytoin sodium.  But the Competition Appeal Tribunal found errors in the regulator's analysis in 2020 and ordered it to reassess the fairness of the prices.  Those findings were upheld by the Court of Appeal.  The tribunal then ordered the CMA to pay part of Flynn and Pfizer's multimillion-pound costs after concluding that the default position in cases involving regulators was that the loser bears the burden of costs.

Although the losing side in litigation usually pays the winner's costs, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the tribunal.  The appellate court ruled in 2019 that the "starting position" is that public agencies should not be made to pay for trying to do their job — even if they are unsuccessful in court.  Overturning the lower court's findings, the justices said the Court of Appeal was wrong to overturn the Competition Markets Authority's costs ruling and instructed that there would be no order about costs.

The appellate court had looked at a line of cases beginning with Bradford Metropolitan District Council v. Booth in 2000 and found that the starting assumption for courts was that all public bodies are protected from costs when they lose a case.  Justice Rose said that, even though those cases created a strong preference against deterring regulators, it cannot be assumed that every case involving every regulator carries that risk.

In the case of the CMA, the watchdog can offset its litigation costs against the penalties it imposes, the Supreme Court said.  The competition authority incurred £2 million in legal costs during the last year, which it covered with £56.7 million in penalties handed out, justices noted.  Justice Rose said the "way that the functions of the CMA are funded dispels any plausible concern that its conduct will be influenced by the risk of adverse costs orders."

Robert Vidal said that the CMA "already has all the financial and legal resources of the state behind it, so it was difficult to understand why the Court of Appeal felt it needed to provide the CMA with an additional advantage on exposure to legal costs."  Stijn Huijts, a former CMA director and partner at Geradin Partners, said that it was a "bridge too far" for justices to accept that a public body like the CMA should be shielded from adverse cost awards.

"It's important to recognize that this doesn't mean all costs of litigants like Pfizer will fall to the CMA from now on," Huijts said.  "Nevertheless, the CMA will be in a position where it will need to challenge costs claimed in individual cases and, in most cases that it loses, it will at least need to pay part of the litigants' costs from public money."  Sophie Lawrance, a Bristows partner who acted for two pharmaceutical groups in the CMA case, said the issue was of particular concern to companies active in the pharmaceutical industry, which may have been discouraged against appealing future infringement decisions by the watchdog.

In the last year the CMA has fined several drugmakers in complex medication-pricing cases, finding in February that the cost for anti-nausea medication and thyroid medication was excessive.  In one case, Advanz Pharma Corp. and two private equity firms, Hg and Cinven, have asked the Competition Appeal Tribunal to annul a £100 million ($126 million) fine over Liothyronine tablets, which are used to treat thyroid hormone deficiency.

Drugmaker Allergan and four other pharmaceutical companies are also appealing against a record £260 million fine from the competition watchdog for allegedly abusing their market dominance over an adrenal drug.  Lawrence said that the Supreme Court's decision "ensures that meritorious appeals — which can result in crucial guidance for the sector as a whole — are not deterred."

The Supreme Court Justices highlighted the fact that costs have not prevented the CMA from investigating large companies such as Google and Apple.  The regulator is looking into whether their duopoly on the "mobile ecosystem" threatens competition for digital services, setting up potential enforcement actions.  "Whether this will have a chilling effect on the CMA will in reality probably depend on how it fares in a number of high-profile cases making their way through the courts now, and in investigations against digital giants like Apple and Google," Huijts said.  "Win most of those, and this chapter will be easily forgotten. Lose the majority, and the watchdog may grow more timid."

Article: Courts Are Right to Reject Insurer ERISA Attorney Fee Awards

May 9, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Elizabeth Hopkins, “Courts Are Right To Reject Insurer ERISA Atty Fee Award” reports on ERISA attorney fee awards.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

As the U.S. Supreme Court has often recognized, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act is remedial legislation that is primarily intended to protect plan participants and beneficiaries, promote their interests and ensure that they receive the benefits they are promised.  According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's 1984 ruling in Smith v. CMTA-IAM Pension Trust: "An important aspect of that protection is to afford [plan participants and beneficiaries] effective access to federal courts."

And one of the ways that this access is promoted is through ERISA's fee-shifting provision, which grants courts in actions brought by plan participants and beneficiaries the discretionary authority to allow a reasonable attorney fee and cost of action to either party.  Despite these protective statutory goals, individual ERISA claimants face uphill battles in attempting to reverse adverse benefit determinations.  They are not entitled to anything like a full trial in federal court, but are instead normally stuck with a trial on the record that was assembled by the decision-making fiduciary, who is in many instances entitled to great deference.

And the only recovery they can hope to achieve if they are successful is full payment of the benefits that they were always entitled to and perhaps some interest on this amount.  Given all these hurdles and limitations to recovery, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not always easy for ERISA plaintiffs to obtain counsel, especially when there is only a small amount of benefits at stake.

For this reason, as the Ninth Circuit explained in Smith, "without counsel fees the grant of federal jurisdiction is but a gesture for few [plaintiffs] could avail themselves of it."  Plan participants and beneficiaries who successfully challenge benefit denials or bring successful fiduciary breach suits against plan fiduciaries do invariably seek and almost always are awarded some attorney fees under this provision.

The Supreme Court made clear in 2010 in Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co., that participants need not even be prevailing parties in an ERISA action to qualify for fees, so long as they have had "some degree of success on the merits."  Once the success threshold has been met, to determine whether a discretionary award of fees is warranted, courts apply a five-factor test first developed in 1993 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Quesinberry v. Life Insurance Co. of North America — factors that clearly and intentionally favor successful plaintiffs.

But a potent new threat to the ability of plan participants and beneficiaries to bring suit is looming.  Increasingly, insurance companies are seeking attorney fee awards against claimants who are partially or wholly unsuccessful in overcoming deference and other substantive and procedural advantages to the plan decision makers, and are thus unable to have a denial of benefits reversed.

For the most part, courts continue to reject attorney fee applications from insurance companies that successfully defeat lawsuits seeking plan benefits.  A November 2021 decision in Martin v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky is instructive of both the heavy-handed tactics of insurance companies seeking fees from claimants and one court's reaction.  In Martin, the insurance company that insured disability benefits sought nearly $138,000 against the claimant, the father of a minor child whose only income was roughly $756 a month in veterans benefits and who had only $1,500 in his bank account.

The court seemed especially put off by Guardian's argument that Martin declined to participate in an independent medical examination and that this indicated bad faith, finding, to the contrary, that his attested reasoning for hesitation about the examination was a concern with going to an unknown medical facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the court noted that granting Guardian's motion for attorney fees "would tend to create a chilling effect on other plaintiffs seeking redress under ERISA."

Other courts have expressed similar concerns in denying fee applications asserted by insurance companies against disability plaintiffs.  For instance, in December 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Amoroso v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, declined to order the plaintiff to pay $66,000 in attorney fees to the insurance company simply because it "completely prevailed on the merits."

Noting that application of the five factors that courts apply in determining whether fees are warranted very frequently suggests that attorney fees should not be charged against ERISA plaintiffs, the court concluded that was certainly true with respect to Sun Life's application for fees in that case.  With respect to the first factor, the Amoroso court concluded that there was nothing approaching bad faith in the record.  The court found the second factor weighed strongly against a fee award because Sun Life did not show that Amoroso had sufficient assets to pay an award, and the facts that his home was valued at over $1 million and that he had a medical practice was simply irrelevant with respect to his ability to pay.

Addressing Sun Life's most revealing argument — that the third factor weighed in its favor because awarding fees would deter other participants from brining unsuccessful benefit suits — the court disagreed, reasoning that deterring disabled plan participants from suing for plan benefits was flatly inconsistent with ERISA's policy and with ERISA's fee-shifting provision.

Likewise, the court rejected out of hand Sun Life's argument that awarding fees would benefit all other participants and beneficiaries of the plan by saving the insurance company money and perhaps leading to lower premiums.  The court found instead that such an award "would deter insureds from seeking such benefits at all, and it would only embolden insurers in denying claims at the administrative level."

Considering the relative merits of the parties' positions — the final factor — the court declined to "force a losing ERISA plaintiff to pay an insurer's attorneys' fees based solely on the fact that he lost," reasoning that to do so "would not be consistent with ERISA, the better-reasoned cases decided under it, equity, or common sense."

In the court's view, such a fee award in favor of an insurer would only be justified in unusual circumstances not presented by Amoroso's case.  Numerous other recent decisions have had no trouble denying insurers' requests for attorney fee awards against unsuccessful benefit claimants.

At this point, it appears that the recent and sharp uptick in fee applications from insurance companies seeking fees against plan participants and beneficiaries who are unsuccessful in reversing a denial of benefits is meeting with little or no success in the courts.

Application of the Quesinberry test, along with a healthy reluctance to punish disabled, sick or retired plan participants for seeking to obtain plan benefits, has quite correctly led courts in all but the most unusual circumstances to reject these fee applications.  Let's hope these kinds of decisions discourage insurance companies from engaging in this unfair tactic.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a partner at Kantor & Kantor LLP in Northridge, CA.

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.”

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.