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Category: Fee Request

Law Firms Seek $10M in Fees in Kwok Chapter 11

February 23, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron Keller, “Paul Hastings, Others Seek $9.9M in Kwok Ch. 11 Case Fees”, reports that Paul Hastings LLP and six other law firms and professional services organizations have filed applications seeking more than $9.9 million in fees and expenses in the global Chapter 11 saga of Chinese exile Ho Wan Kwok, leaving the cost of the two-year-old case at well more than $30 million.

Leading a recent spate of interim expense requests is one for $6.9 million for services rendered between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023, by Paul Hastings LLP, where Chapter 11 trustee Luc A. Despins and most of his team of attorneys are partners, of counsel or associates.  Paul Hastings is also seeking $718,000 in expenses in the Kwok case over the same period.

The lead attorneys' fee request, filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Connecticut, adds to the nearly $21.8 million in combined fees and expenses Paul Hastings has already been paid to litigate the complex case.  "Given the vast network of companies affiliated with the individual debtor, and the fact that these companies or their assets are located around the world, the trustee's investigation was, and continues to be, extensive," the firm noted in its application.

Despins recently told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Julie A. Manning that Kwok's financial empire and myriad challenges filed by Kwok's associates and relatives have slowed his asset recovery operation and added significantly to the cost of the case.  Local and conflicts counsel at Connecticut law firm Neubert Pepe & Monteith PC filed a recent bid for close to $1 million in fees and nearly $35,000 in expenses, citing more than 2,470 hours of work on the case between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31.

Neubert Pepe attorneys played a key role in Despins' recent blitz of approximately 200 avoidance actions in the Kwok case, and the firm's work on those filings, which hit the docket before a Feb. 15 deadline, is not fully included in its recent application.  Previous asset recovery maneuvers, such as the sale of a luxury yacht connected to Kwok, helped pay for additional investigations that led to the clawback claims, Despins has said.

Its hourly rates in the $500 and $600 range, as indicated in the filings, are a fraction of the rates in the $1,675 to $1,975 per hour for lead attorneys at Paul Hastings, a key reason why Despins said in a recent court hearing that the firm's assistance in the case would result in significant savings for the Kwok estate.

Federal Judge: Can’t Use ChatGPT to Justify Attorney Fees

February 22, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Madison Arnold, “Law Firm Scolded For ‘Misbegotten’ ChatGPT Use in Fee Bid”, reports that a Manhattan federal judge criticized a special education-focused law firm or citing ChatGPT calculations to back up its attorney fee request of more than $100,000, calling the move "utterly and unusually unpersuasive."  U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer knocked the fees for the Cuddy Law Firm PLLC down to just $53,050.13 plus interest for work done in a case brought by a parent on behalf of a child against the New York City Department of Education involving two administrative hearings.

The firm had asked for $113,484.62 plus interest after securing judgments against the department, saying the feedback from the generative artificial intelligence program supported its request.  "As the firm should have appreciated, treating ChatGPT's conclusions as a useful gauge of the reasonable billing rate for the work of a lawyer with a particular background carrying out a bespoke assignment for a client in a niche practice area was misbegotten at the jump," Judge Engelmayer wrote.

An attorney for the department, Tom Lindeman, said in a statement to Law360 Pulse that his side is pleased with the decision.  "The firm's use of ChatGPT to support its aggressive fee request was deemed inappropriate and, as the court determined, the city's prior offer to resolve fees was fair and reasonable," Lindeman said.  The parent of an unnamed child, referred to as G.G., hired the Cuddy Law Firm.  G.G. has hyperactivity disorder, a language disorder, a developmental coordination disorder and acute stress disorder, according to the decision.

The child's parent, referred to as J.G., initiated two due process hearings, alleging in the first that the department failed to provide the child with a free appropriate public education for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.  That included failing to provide annual reviews, evaluations and appropriate education services and implementing special education teacher support services, as mandated by the child's individualized education program from January 2018.

The Cuddy Law Firm sought compensation for its work in both hearings and resulting fees litigation.  While the firm doesn't rely predominantly on ChatGPT-4 in arguing for its billing rates, it did present the findings of the AI program as a "cross-check," Judge Engelmayer said.  He added that the law firm failed to identify any information it inputted into ChatGPT for it to rely on to confirm its calculation, among other omissions.

"The court therefore rejects out of hand ChatGPT's conclusions as to the appropriate billing rates here.  Barring a paradigm shift in the reliability of this tool, the Cuddy Law Firm is well advised to excise references to ChatGPT from future fee applications," the judge said.  Because of the inefficiencies of the ChatGPT argument, as well as its other arguments, the court decided to reduce the attorney fees awarded to the Cuddy Law Firm.

"For the reasons stated, the court grants J.G.'s motion for an award of fees and costs, but in an amount below that sought.  J.G. is awarded $52,386.01 in fees and $664.12 in costs, for a total of $53,050.13, plus post-judgment interest at the applicable statutory rate," Judge Engelmayer said.  Outside the ChatGPT issue, the court reduced the fees in part because the parent and the Cuddy Law Firm had not given evidence that the case presented novel or complex legal or factual issues.

Judge Rejects $5.2M Fee Request in Poultry Farm Loan Suit

February 21, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by David Minsky, “Judge Rejects $5.2.M Atty Fee Bid In Poultry Farm Loan Suit”, reports that a New York federal judge rebuffed attorneys' attempt to collect a nearly $5.2 million fee for representing an affiliate of two billionaire brothers that accused an investment adviser of fraudulently inducing the affiliate to provide a loan for a Russian poultry operation, saying the adviser wasn't improperly defending himself.

In the order, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero denied an attorney fee motion by Reed Smith LLP lawyers representing Bloomfield Investment Resources Corp., which accused adviser Elliot Daniloff of needlessly stretching out the firm's lawsuit against him over the course of several years before he was ultimately ordered to pay millions in compensatory and punitive damages.

Bloomfield — a British Virgin Islands company and affiliate of billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben — sued Daniloff in 2017 and a judgment of more than $34 million was entered against him in 2023, a year after a bench trial was held, court records show.

"To prevail on a motion to shift fees, the moving party must provide 'clear evidence' that the losing party's claims were (1) 'entirely without color,' and (2) 'were made in bad faith,'" Judge Marrero said in his order.  "The court finds that Bloomfield has not established that Daniloff engaged in the sort of dilatory and vexatious litigation tactics that satisfy the standard for the 'bad faith' exception in this circuit."

In the 2017 case, the plaintiff accused Daniloff of misdirecting $25 million intended as a loan into a bank account opened for the Russian poultry farm and failing to return the money.

Following the judgment, in June 2023, Reed Smith attorney Steve Cooper filed a motion seeking attorney fees from Daniloff.  In the accompanying memo, Cooper said Daniloff failed to show credible evidence of his theory, which is that "Bloomfield made an investment in the Synergy Hybrid Fund as an investor and that the $25 million did not represent a loan."

"Daniloff's actions led to prolonged and expensive litigation," Cooper stated in his motion.  "He caused the collection, review and/or production of almost 150,000 pages of documents, and the taking or defending of 13 depositions.  He made numerous frivolous motions and appealed the dismissals of his first action to the Second Circuit twice."

Opposing the attorney fee motion, Daniloff said that the plaintiff couldn't show that his defense wasn't "colorable" and used for an "improper purpose."

"Efforts to delay proceedings are not sufficient to establish that the litigant is acting with an 'improper purpose' as required for the 'bad faith' exception," Daniloff said in his July opposition filing.  "Moreover, any assertion that Mr. Daniloff was defending against Bloomfield's claims to give himself leverage in resolving the dispute would be insufficient to establish that Mr. Daniloff litigated this dispute with an improper purpose."

The court found Daniloff's arguments "legally and factually baseless," according to Judge Marrero, who also noted that the "court found that Daniloff persisted in making baseless arguments without support and in conflict with the clear evidence showing that he (and Bloomfield) always understood the $25 million would be a loan and not an equity investment."

While Judge Marrero acknowledged Bloomfield's arguments that Daniloff convinced the parties to engage in lengthy negotiations that delayed the case and ultimately failed, he added the court wasn't persuaded that these tactics amounted to bad faith dealings.

Judge Marrero cited the "American rule" in which parties pay their own attorney fees, "absent statutory authority or by contract," but recognized that these costs can be shifted in limited circumstances.  One deviation from the rule is the "bad faith exception," the judge said, in which the non-prevailing party's actions are conducted "vexatiously, wantonly or for oppressive reasons."

The judge, however, found that Bloomfield hadn't established the required "high degree of specificity" in showing Daniloff litigated with the intent to harass or delay, saying that it has never been held in his circuit that a "frivolous position may be equated with an improper purpose."

"Without such evidence, the court cannot conclude that Daniloff's actions were taken with an improper motive," Judge Marrero said.  "Courts in this circuit have consistently declined to award attorneys' fees simply on the basis that the defendant improperly delayed the proceedings, even when the delay was accompanied (or even caused) by meritless legal positions."

Roundup MDL Lead Counsel Defend Fee Allocations

February 19, 2024

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Roundup MDL Lead Counsel Defend Fee Allocations: ‘Limited Funds Available’”, reports that lawyers doling out fees in Roundup litigation stood by their decisions on how to allocate the funds, despite objections raised by other firms.

The fee committee, which is comprised of the three lead plaintiffs firms in the Roundup multidistrict litigation, allocated 81% to themselves and the rest to four other firms, including those who helped win the only bellwether trial, which ended in an $80 million verdict in 2019.  Three of those firms objected to their share of the so-called common benefit fund, which totaled $20.23 million.

Lead counsel originally had sought an order that would have granted about $800 million in common benefit fees, enough for the firms to “each afford to buy their own island,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in a 2021 order significantly trimming the scope of common benefit fees in the Roundup litigation.

Several firms had objected to the original request, which they called a “money grab,” but lead counsel insisted that Bayer, which owns Monsanto, would not have entered into settlements but for their work.  In 2020, Bayer announced it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion, but thousands of cases remained unsettled.

The significant reduction in the common benefit fund appeared to influence the committee’s allocation amounts.  For instance, San Francisco’s Andrus Anderson, whose partner Lori Andrus served as co-liaison counsel in the Roundup multidistrict litigation, had wanted closer to $550,000, the amount the firm actually billed, rather than the allocated $200,000, or 1% of the common benefit fees.  The committee, in a response, acknowledged that Andrus Anderson’s request was reasonable.  “But, unfortunately, the limited funds available for distribution in this litigation do not allow this to happen,” the committee wrote.

The committee members are co-lead counsel Aimee Wagstaff, of Wagstaff Law Firm in Denver; Robin Greenwald, of New York’s Weitz & Luxenberg; and David Dickens, who took over following partner Michael Miller’s 2021 death, at the Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia.  Among the fee committee members, Wagstaff Law Firm is set to receive the most, with 30%.

‘Thousands of Hours of Common Benefit Work’

Common benefit fees are used in multidistrict litigation to compensate lead counsel for costs and fees associated with discovery, trials and settlements, while preventing “free riders,” or lawyers who collect fees on cases they generate but don’t necessarily litigate.  Lawyers with related state court cases, in past years, have challenged common benefit fees, which are funded through assessments against their settlements.

Chhabria, in the Northern District of California, called common benefit fees in multidistrict litigation “totally out of control,” sending shock waves through the mass tort bar.  In his Roundup order, he excluded a large amount of the legal work, including state court cases, from being reimbursed through common benefit fees.

Los Angeles-based Wisner Baum and its predecessor, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, focused heavily on Roundup cases in California state courts, where partner R. Brent Wisner won verdicts of $289 million, in 2018, and $2 billion, in 2019.  But the firm is set to receive 10% of the fees because “no other firm contributed more to the common benefit of the MDL,” according to the committee’s response, filed on Friday.

The allocation, the committee wrote, is based on Wisner Baum’s “good faith effort” to estimate its time.  But the firm didn’t have adequate billing records that divided up the hours tied to the multidistrict litigation versus state court cases.  The fee committee, as a result, was forced to reduce Wisner Baum’s requested amount.  “Applying such a reduction is consistent with how courts typically handle attorney fee determinations for firms that have failed to submit time records,” the committee wrote.

Jennifer Moore, of Moore Law Group, based in Louisville, Kentucky, was co-lead counsel with Wagstaff in the bellwether trial, which Monsanto appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Moore had argued that 6% was not enough given her work in that case or the $3.4 million her firm contributed to the common benefit fund, but the fee committee countered that the Miller Firm and Weitz & Luxenberg, both lead counsel firms, also anticipate receiving less than they paid.

“Moore Law contributed to the advancement of this MDL.  There is no question about that,” the committee wrote.  “But Moore Law also greatly benefitted from the thousands of hours of common benefit work that was done before it had any involvement in this MDL.”

Another objection came from David Diamond, of Diamond Law in Tucson, Arizona, who insisted he did not rely on lead counsel’s work in his Roundup cases.  He was joined by David Bricker, of Thornton Law Firm in Beverly Hills, California.  Diamond suggested returning the money to lawyers, like them, who took their own risks.

But the committee disputed his characterization.  “Diamond Law was able to resolve 300 MDL cases without having to draft and issue general discovery, brief and argue preemption and other general dispositive motions, depose a single Monsanto employee, or retain general experts in epidemiology, toxicology, pathology, and regulatory affairs,” the committee wrote.  “With this backdrop, it is difficult to comprehend how Diamond Law can boldly declare that it received no assistance from MDL leadership.”

Federal Circuit: More Fees Even With ‘Exceptional’ Ruling is ‘Nightmare’

February 16, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Karpan, “Dish’s Bid for More Fees Called ‘Nightmare’ By Fed. Circ. Judge”, reports that a Federal Circuit judge told counsel for Dish Network LLC that to secure more fees after the cable giant defeated a patent case in district court that was found to be "exceptional" to cover the costs of challenging the patent at the patent board would create "an effing nightmare."

Dish had argued to the three-judge panel that it should be able to bill a shell patent company for expenses incurred challenging the patent through an inter partes review at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board after Dish defeated the related patent suit against it.  The patent company, Dragon Intellectual Property LLC, was also appealing the $1.45 million in fees that Dish already won, along with the $1.86 million won by attorneys for Sirius XM Radio Inc. in a different case over the same patent.

But the hearing was dominated by arguments over efforts by Dish's lawyers to score more money out of Dragon IP and potentially its lawyers — taking up over an hour of debate among the panel of judges.

In that endeavor, Dish had cited the 1989 Sullivan v. Hudson ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which gives the courts discretion to award fees to lawyers in a Social Security administrative proceeding.  According to the filings, Baker Botts LLP billed Dish for $673,905 in fees from patent board proceedings and wanted that money added to the $1.45 million. Sirius XM was hoping to clock $134,272 in additional fees.

U.S. Circuit Judge Kara Farnandez Stoll told Baker Botts lawyer Lauren Dreyer that she had a "practical" question about this argument.  "The district court is in the best position to determine whether or not something is exceptional or not because they're in the day-to-day running of the case.  That's not so with an IPR," she said. "The district court knows nothing about what happened at the IPR."  U.S. Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore was more wary of the possible effect of Dish's request in a legal climate where "every single patent litigation has a companion IPR now."

This would open up an entirely new avenue for victorious patent lawyers to litigate further, Judge Moore said.  "So, what you're now asking for is every time we're thinking about attorney's fees, anytime an IPR is successful, you're going to have the district court being put in what Judge Stoll was just articulating [is] the very awkward position of trying to evaluate the exceptionality of what was argued and decided, not in his or her forum but in an administrative forum," Judge Moore said. "That sounds like I'm creating an effing nightmare."

In response, Dreyer tried to argue that these motions would not come all the time if Dish succeeded just this once.  "I think [this case] is the exception; it's not the rule, and it only occurs in the rare cases in which there is frivolousness and an unreasonable manner of litigating," she said.  That didn't go down well with Judge Moore.  "With all due respect, every time you guys win, that's what you claim," Judge Moore told her, audibly annoyed at Dreyer's repetition of legalese.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, on the panel by designation, acted to move the lawyers along in talking about "the circumstances in this case" and said there could be some general grounds for "sweeping the IPR" into a fee bid, as it "wasn't a waste of time [since] you didn't lose there."

Judge Bencivengo appeared occasionally mystified at the larger legal effort by Dish to go after Dragon in the first place.  "Basically, you have a hollow victory here if you win because plaintiff Dragon is a shell.  An empty shell. ... You can get zero.  They're judgment proof," she told Dreyer.

In addition to asking for more money, Dreyer said Dish was also hoping to get the appeals court to hold Dragon IP's lawyers liable for paying those fees.  But Dreyer made little headway again.  "All of what you discussed [with Judge Bencivengo] is not in this record.  You attempted to supplement this record with a deposition that would have brought to light all of those points.  They are not before this court, are they?" Judge Moore asked.

Dreyer acknowledged they were not.

"So we can't rely on any of that," the judge told her.

Judge Moore also took issue with how defense-side patent lawyers use "exceptionality" findings in federal courts.  "It feels like in a lot of these exceptional case findings, what really bothers me is that you all come in, and you complain that the district court should have done some sort of redo of all the things it didn't do in order to conclude that the originally asserted positions should have been deemed exceptional," she said.  "You're asking us to adopt a rule in which district court judges are now going to have to evaluate conduct, behavior and an outcome in a proceeding they had no involvement with and determine whether fees should be awarded for that in their forum, which would have evaluated the exact same issues under an entirely different burden of proof."