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Category: Fee Entitlement / Recoverability

Defense ‘Prevailing Party’ in DVPA Case Dropped by Plaintiff

October 9, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Defendant Was ‘Prevailing Party’ in Action Under DVPA Where Plaintiff Dropped Case,” reports that a judge erred in finding that a defendant was not the “prevailing party” in a civil action brought to impose a domestic violence restraining order on him, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, proclaiming that he did prevail even though the circumstances were that the plaintiff dismissed her petition after gaining such an order in a separate criminal proceeding.

But, Justice Anne H. Egerton of Div. Three said in an unpublished opinion, that does not mean that the order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jonathan L. Rosenbloom denying an award of attorney fees to the defendant in the civil case need be reversed.  Such an award is discretionary, she noted, and, under Art, VI, §13 of the state Constitution, reversal is called for only where an error has resulted “in a miscarriage of justice” which, she declared, did not occur.

Burbank attorney David D. Diamond—a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Los Angeles Superior Court who has announced his candidacy in the 2022 election—represented defendant Joshua Nathaniel Rivers in the trial court and on appeal. In seeking an award of $6,300 in attorney fees in favor of his client, sued by Marcia Bennett under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”), Diamond said in an April 2, 2019 notice of motion that his client was “was compelled to respond to and defend a frivolous action,” and set forth in his memorandum of points and authorities: “Petitioners case was adjudicated in favor of Respondent. On November 20, 2018 the Petitioner asked for an additional hearing date to retain an attorney.  On December 10, 2018, the new hearing date, she failed to appear.”

He added in a declaration: “It is my belief that Petitioner should pay for the Respondent’s attorney’s fees because she [sic] is the prevailing party.”  In an opposing declaration dated May 29, 2019, Northridge attorney Bernal P. Ojeda (who also represented Bennett in the appeal) protested:

“The Respondent’s claim as a prevailing party is misleading.  Respondent at the present time has a four year criminal restraining order against him, not mentioned in the current motion….[T]his was the reason Petitioner did not appear for the hearing in the instant case. The criminal case is a related case and the criminal protective order should have been mentioned to this court but was not.  Given the fact that there is an existing restraining order against Respondent and protecting Petitioner, Respondent cannot claim he is a prevailing party nor can he have that status.”  (Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Mirich granted the restraining order on Nov. 30, 2018, 10 days before the hearing at which Bennett did not appear.)

Ojeda said in his memorandum of points and authorities: “The criminal action now pending is a related case, involving the same parties, same incident and set of facts.”  The minute order of the June 4 hearing before Rosenbloom on the motion for attorney fees simply recites: “The Court finds Respondent is not the prevailing party.  “Motion Hearing re attorney fees is denied with prejudice.”

In her opinion upholding the outcome, Egerton said: “Rivers has not demonstrated the trial court’s erroneous prevailing party determination resulted in a miscarriage of justice….[B]ecause Rivers was the respondent on Bennett’s petition for a domestic violence restraining order, the trial court had discretion to deny his request for prevailing party attorney fees under [Family Code] section 6344, subdivision (a).”

She continued: “On the record before us, it is not reasonably probable that the court would have awarded Rivers the attorney fees he requested, even if the court had properly deemed him the prevailing party on the petition. And, based on this record, we cannot say the court’s denial of prevailing party attorney fees would have been an abuse of discretion.”  The judge went on to say: “And, given that Bennett dismissed her petition only after already obtaining the protection she sought under the DVPA, we cannot say the trial court’s denial of attorney fees on this ground would have been an abuse of discretion.”

Article: What is a Legal Fee Audit?

October 7, 2021

A recent article by Jacqueline Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego “What is a Legal Fee Audit?,” reports on legal fee audits.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys usually bill clients by the hour, in six minute increments (because those six minutes equal one tenth of an hour: 0.1).  Those hours are multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate to determine the attorney’s fee.  There is another aspect of attorney billing that is not as well known, but equally important — legal fee auditing.  During an audit, a legal fee auditor reviews billing records to determine if hourly billing errors or inefficiencies occurred, and deducts unreasonable or unnecessary fees and costs.

Both the law and legal ethics restrict attorneys from billing clients fees that are unreasonable or unnecessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives.  This can include analysis of the reasonableness of the billing rate charged by attorneys.  Legal fee audits are used by consumers of legal services, including businesses, large insurance companies, cities, public and governmental agencies, and individual clients.  Legal fee audits can be necessary when there is a dispute between an attorney and client; when the losing party in a lawsuit is required to pay all or part of the prevailing party’s legal fees in litigation; when an insurance company is required to pay a portion of legal fees, or when some issues in a lawsuit allow recovery of  attorneys’ fees and when other issues do not (an allocation of fees). 

In an audit, the auditor interviews the client, and reviews invoices sent to the client in conjunction with legal case materials to identify all fees and costs reasonable and necessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives, and potentially deduct those that are not.  The auditor also reviews all invoices to identify any potential accounting errors and assure that time and expenses are billed accurately.  The auditor may also be asked to determine if the rate charged by the attorney is appropriate.

The legal fee auditor can be an invaluable asset to parties in deciding whether to file or settle a lawsuit, and to the courts charged with issuing attorneys’ fee awards.  The court is unlikely to take the time to review individual invoice entries to perform a proper allocation of recoverable and non-recoverable fees leaving the parties with the court’s “best approximation” of what the allocation should be.  The fee audit provides the court and the parties with the basis for which to allocate and appropriately award reasonable and necessary fees. 

Audits are considered a litigation best practice and a risk management tool and can save clients substantial amounts of money in unnecessary fees.  It has been my experience, over the past two decades of fee auditing, that early fee auditing can identify and correct areas of concern in billing practices and avoid larger disputes in litigation later.  In many cases, I have assisted clients and counsel in reaching agreement on proper billing practices and setting litigation cost expectations. 

In other cases, I have been asked by both plaintiffs and defendants to review attorneys’ fees and costs incurred and provide the parties and the court with my expert opinion regarding the total attorneys’ fees and costs were reasonably and necessarily incurred to pursue the client's legal objectives.  While the court does not always agree with my analysis of fees and costs incurred, it is usually assisted in its decision by the presentation of the audit report and presentation of expert testimony on the issues.

Jacqueline Vinaccia is a San Diego trial attorney, litigator, and national fee auditor expert, and a partner at Vanst Law LLP.  Her practice focuses on business and real estate litigation, general tort liability, insurance litigation and coverage, construction disputes, toxic torts, and municipal litigation.  Her attorney fee analyses have been cited by the U.S. District Court for Northern California and Western Washington, several California Superior Courts, as well as various other state courts and arbitrators throughout the United States.  She has published and presented extensively on the topic of attorney fee invoicing, including presentations to the National Association of Legal Fee Association (NALFA), and is considered one of the nation’s top fee experts by NALFA.

Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Attorney Fees, PA Justices Told

September 24, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Atty Fees, Pa. Justices Told,” reports that a worker told the Pennsylvania high court that he should be allowed to seek attorney's fees from PennDOT after he won a workers' compensation case, arguing the lower court improperly shut the door on injured workers getting their employers to pay legal bills.  Arguing before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, an attorney representing injured PennDOT worker Vincent Lorino said Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson's opinion misstated that workers' compensation judges "shall" deny fees when an employer's challenge of a worker's claim for benefits is reasonable, when the law says "may."

"I was surprised at how blunt and direct Judge Brobson's opinion was, when it said 'despite the General Assembly's use of the word may, this court has always interpreted Section 440' this way," said George Badey of Badey Sloan & DiGenova.  "You can't do that, respectfully.  The courts can't do that."  Badey asked the justices to rule that Lorino could still ask for PennDOT to pay his legal fees and that the lower court had run afoul of the Statutory Construction Act in substituting its own wording for the legislature's.

According to court records, Lorino sprained his lower back and hip on the job in 2016 and started getting regular steroid injections that allowed him to return to work.  PennDOT, which was covering his medical costs but providing no missed-work benefits, sought to terminate the medical payments in 2017 and offered a doctor's opinion that Lorino's work-related injury had fully healed.  A workers' compensation judge reversed PennDOT's denial in 2018 but ruled that Lorino had to pay his own legal bills because PennDOT's challenge to his claim had been reasonable.  On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Judge Brobson said in August 2020 that the workers' compensation judge was right and that the courts had always interpreted that section of the law as denying fees unless the challenge was unreasonable.

In the argument to the high court, Badey said courts had to interpret the law as it was written and could not change the wording.  He said siding with his client would affect only a narrow group of workers like him who were still working and not getting wage benefits that could be split with an attorney as part of a contingency fee agreement.  Chief Justice Max Baer pressed Badey on whether reopening the possibility of fees would just shift the debate to whether an employer's challenge was reasonable, which would be up to the workers' compensation judge's discretion.

Florida Supreme Court: No Interest on Attorney Fees

September 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Fla. High Court Won’t Add Interest To Atty Fee Calculations,” reports that the Florida Supreme Court ruled that prejudgment interest should not be added to a judgment when determining if the judgment triggers a party's entitlement to attorney fees under the state's proposal-for-settlement statute.  In a 5-2 decision, the high court opted to stand by its precedent and found that prejudgment interest accrued after CCM Condominium Association Inc. made a settlement offer to Petri Positive Pest Control Inc. should not be included in the "net judgment" for the purposes of calculating whether CCM can be awarded attorney fees under the statute.

The court relied on its 2002 ruling in White v. Steak & Ale of Florida, which defined the plaintiff's total recovery as including only attorney fees, costs and prejudgment interest accrued up to the date of its settlement offer.  When considered against the text of the offer-of-judgment statute, the White ruling is not clearly erroneous, and the formula set out in that decision has been consistently applied by district courts around the state in the two decades since to exclude amounts that were not present on the date an offer is made, according to the opinion.

"We simply do not have a definite and firm conviction that this court's prior interpretation of the offer of judgment statute and the terms 'judgment,' 'judgment obtained,' and 'net judgment entered' is wrong," the high court said.  The ruling is a win for Petri, which was fighting CCM's attempt to recover attorney fees after prevailing in a dispute over a contract for termite extermination.  Under Florida's offer-of-judgment statute, a judgment needs to exceed a prior settlement offer by more than 25% to trigger an entitlement to attorney fees.

In this case, CCM had offered to settle its negligence and breach of contract suit against Petri for $500,000, but that offer was rejected.  After a trial in November 2016, a jury awarded CCM $551,881 in damages.  The trial court entered a judgment of $636,327, which included the jury's damages award plus $84,446 in prejudgment interest.  CCM then moved to recover attorney fees based on that figure, which exceeded its settlement offer by more than 25%.

Petri objected, pointing to the White decision, but the trial court disagreed and awarded CCM $73,579 in post-offer attorney fees and costs.  On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the prejudgment interest should not be included based on Supreme Court precedent, though the Fourth District said it would reach the opposite conclusion based on its own interpretation of the term "judgment entered" in the offer-of-judgment statute.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady said the majority's result is "detached from the text of the statute."  "A fair reading of the text of the statute cannot support the interpretation articulated in the statements from White relied on by the majority," Justice Canady said.  "As the Fourth District explains, the authorities cited in White to support its discussion that is relevant to post-offer fees, costs and interest are cases interpreting a different statute, … which provides for the award of prevailing party fees to an insured in litigation against an insurer."

Petri's attorney, Thomas Hunker, told Law360 the language of the statute left much to the court's interpretation, but ultimately the court reached the right decision with an interpretation that is fair to the party receiving the offer.  "A contrary holding would've required an impossible amount of speculation on what might occur later in litigation, which would be unfair to a party who faces the prospect of sanctions when trying to evaluate whether or not to accept or reject a statutory proposal for settlement," Hunker said.

Article: Absent Explicit Statutory Language? The American Rule Still Applies

September 6, 2021

A recent article by Jiaxiao Zhang, “Absent Explicit Statutory Language? The American Rule Still Applies,” reports on attorney fee entitlement in patent litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court’s award of attorney’s fees under the prevailing party rule but affirmed the district court’s denial of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) request for expert witness fees under 35 U.S.C. § 145. Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 20-2321;–2325 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (Hughes, J.).  The case involved prolific inventor Gilbert Hyatt and the latest chapter in his battles with the PTO.

Mr. Hyatt is known for his prolific patent and litigation filings (including hundreds of extraordinarily lengthy and complex patent applications in 1995 alone) and for often “’adopt[ing] an approach to prosecution that all but guaranteed indefinite prosecution delay’ in an effort to submarine his patent applications and receive lengthy patent terms.”  After the PTO denied some of his patent applications, Mr. Hyatt elected to pursue a district court appeal under 35 U.S.C. § 145 to challenge the PTO’s decisions.  The district court ordered the PTO to issue some of the patents and awarded Mr. Hyatt attorney’s fees as the prevailing party.  The PTO spent millions of dollars examining Mr. Hyatt’s applications and sought, under §145, reimbursement of its expert witness fees from the case.  The district court denied the PTO’s request for expert witness fees, holding that its shifting of “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings” to the applicant does not overcome the American Rule presumption against shifting expert fees. The PTO appealed.

The PTO challenged both the award of attorney’s fees and the denial of expert fees.  In an earlier appeal by the PTO, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO correctly asserted prosecution laches as a defense against Mr. Hyatt, which “render[s] a patent unenforceable when it has issued only after an unreasonable and unexplained delay in prosecution that constitutes an egregious misuse of the statutory patent system under a totality of the circumstances.”  Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s decision ordering the issuance of patents, and in this appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s holding that Mr. Hyatt is entitled to attorney’s fees—since he is no longer the prevailing party—and remanded for further proceedings.

According to the statute, in an action under § 145, “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant.”  However, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the statutory language was not sufficiently explicit to overcome the presumption against fee-shifting under the American Rule and that litigants pay their own fees “unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  In doing so, the Court looked at statutory phrasing, dictionary definitions (e.g., Black’s and Webster’s), legislative history, relevant case law and similarly phrased statutes to confirm whether expert fees were specifically and explicitly contemplated as being included by US Congress in the statute.  The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2019 NantKwest decision (that “expenses” under §145 does not invoke attorney’s fees with enough clarity to overcome the American Rule) guided the Court’s analysis as did the many statutes that explicitly list “costs and fees” separately, suggesting that the legislature could have explicitly referenced fees should they have intended.  Having found this high bar to overcome the American Rule not met, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of expert fees.

Jiaxiao Zhang is an associate at McDermott Will & Emery in Orange County, CA.