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Category: Fee Shifting

Article: Recovering Attorney Fees in Arbitration

November 1, 2021

A recent article by Charles H. Dick, Jr., “Recovering Attorney Fees in Arbitration,” reports on recovering attorney fees in arbitration.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

An accurate assessment of damages is crit­ical for case evaluation, and the cost of dispute resolution plays an important role in deciding to pursue claims.  Even strong liability cases can fail to make economic sense.  That is why a thorough case appraisal should thoughtfully consider the attorney fees to be incurred.  And equally important, an objective case valuation should assess the likelihood of recovering attor­ney fees.

The “American Rule,” which specifies that each party must bear its own attorney fees, is a lesson for law school’s first year, and though the rule has been slightly modified to encour­age certain litigation in the public interest, fee-shifting remains the exception rather than the rule.  Against this background, professional responsibility obliges counsel to keep clients informed about litigation economics (Cal. Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 1.4)—something critically important as a case approaches the in­evitable mediation.  Unfortunately, experience teaches that an exacting analysis of litigation cost and exposure to fee-shifting often is an afterthought, and that the development of case strategies, discovery plans, and tactical maneu­vers occurs without thoughtfully weighing the implications of the American Rule and its ex­ceptions.  This is a recurring issue in arbitration.

Perhaps litigators approach attorney fee recovery casually, thinking there will be ample time to deal with the question before a final judgment is entered.  Arbitration, however, is different.  The binding nature of arbitration makes appellate relief unlikely.  An arbitrator’s award of attorney fees is unlikely to be sec­ond-guessed by a court, even if there is no stat­utory or contractual basis for the award. (See Moncharsh v. Heily & Blasé (1992) 3 Cal.4th 1, 33; id. at p. 11 [“it is the general rule that, with narrow exceptions, an arbitrator’s decision cannot be reviewed for errors of fact or law.  In reaffirming this general rule, we recognize there is a risk that the arbitrator will make a mistake.”].)  When it comes to recovering attor­ney fees in arbitration, counsel needs to get the issue correct from the beginning.

California has codified the American Rule in Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.  Con­tractual arrangements can modify the rule and provide for fee-shifting, but a careful study of the parties’ language is critical. (See Valley Hard­ware, LLC v. Souza (Nov. 20, 2015, D067076) 2015 Cal.App.Unpub. Lexis 8347 [affirming arbitrator fee award in face of inconsistent contract provisions].)  Contractual language inevitably varies: Some agreements provide for recovery of fees “when permitted by law”; some say fees “actually incurred” are recoverable; some limit attorney fees to a percentage of the damages awarded; some say the prevailing party “shall” recover fees, while others use the uncertain “may.” Civil Code section 1717 de­fers to the contracting parties, subject to minor tweaks that limit fees to a “reasonable” amount and require that fee recovery be reciprocal.

In addition to carefully scrutinizing con­tract language, one also needs to know the procedural rules that will be applied in arbi­tration.  For example, in a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration regarding the investment brokerage industry, the arbitral panel is directed to determine the “costs and expenses,” yet absent some statutory exception to the American Rule, fee-shifting still depends on the parties’ underlying agree­ment (see FINRA rule 12902(c)).  Unless the parties’ agreement forbids fee-shifting, the rules of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (CPR) authorize the arbitration tribunal to apportion costs for “legal representation and assistance … incurred by a party to such extent as the Tribunal may deem appropriate” (see CPR 2019 Adminis­tered Arbitration Rules, rule 19.1(d) & 19.2). Rule 24(g) of the JAMS Comprehensive Arbi­tration Rules & Procedures is the mirror image: “[T]he Arbitrator may allocate attorneys’ fees and expenses … if provided by the Parties’ Agreement or allowed by applicable law” (ac­cord, Uniform Arbitration Act, § 21).

If all parties request an award of attorney fees, rule 47(d)(ii) of the American Arbitra­tion Association’s Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures authorize an award of attorney fees even if the underlying agreement is silent on the issue.  Throwing in a boilerplate prayer for attorney fees and costs without considering the consequences can result in fee-shifting.  And during arbitration, even casual discourse about attorney fees can be a basis for fee-shifting, absent an express agreement to the contrary.  (Marik v. Univ. Vill. LLC (Oct. 3, 2013, B247171) 2013 Cal.App. Unpub. Lexis 7143 [brief asserting entitlement to recover fees provided basis for arbitrator’s fee award]; see Prudential-Bache Securities, Inc. v. Tanner (1st Cir. 1995) 72 F.3d 234, 242-243 [“costs and expenses” under New York Stock Exchange Rules interpreted to permit award of attorney fees when both sides to dispute requested attorney fee award].)

Counsel should be mindful of an arbitra­tor’s predisposition to produce an award that is “fair to all concerned,” and this may include fee-shifting as an exercise in equity. (See Co­hen v. TNP 2008 Participating Notes Program, LLC (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 840, 877 [absent parties’ agreement limiting arbitrator power, award of attorney fees on basis of equity and conscience affirmed].)  Further, misconduct of counsel may be a reason to “sanction” a party by reducing an attorney fee award. (E.g., Karton v. Art Design & Const., Inc. (2021) 61 Cal.App.5th 734 [fees reduced for incivility of counsel].)  And consider JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration rule 24(g), which authorizes an arbitrator to consider noncompliance with discovery orders when awarding attorney fees.

Attorney fees incurred prosecuting or defending a complaint to compel arbitration may be recoverable, but the procedural posture of the civil court action will determine when fee-shifting may occur. (E.g., Otay River Const. v. San Diego Expressway (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 796.)  Though there is authority to the contrary (Benjamin, Weill & Mazer v. Kors (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 40 [allowing recovery of fees even though liability on claim awaited arbitration]), the better-reasoned view is expressed in Roberts v. Packard, Packard & Johnson (2013) 217 Cal. App.4th 822.  In that case, clients filed suit against their former lawyers, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty and conversion in connection with settlement of qui tam litigation.  The law firm’s motion to compel arbitration was grant­ed, and the trial court awarded the firm its fees as the prevailing party.  On appeal, the court was persuaded the phrase “an action” means an entire judicial proceeding; procedural steps in the course of a lawsuit, such as a motion to compel arbitration, are steps in the prosecution or defense of an action, but they are not the entirety of an action on a contract.  The Roberts case stands for the proposition only one side can “prevail” in a lawsuit, and fee-shifting had to await the arbitrator’s final determination of the clients’ professional liability claims. (Id. at p. 843.)

Civil Code section 1717 defines the “pre­vailing party” as the person who recovers the greater amount on a contract.  Yet, Hsu v. Ab­bara (1995) 9 Cal.4th 863, makes it clear this involves more than a mathematical calculation.  The “court is to compare the relief awarded on the contract claim or claims with the parties’ demands on those same claims and their liti­gation objectives as disclosed by the pleadings, trial briefs, opening statements, and similar sources.” (Id. at p. 876.)  Thus, it is possible for a party to prevail by achieving litigation objectives, even though an opponent may have obtained a favorable verdict on liability theories.  Generally, however, when a verdict on contract claims is good news for one party and bad news for another, a court is obligated to treat the happy litigant as the prevailing party.

The identity of a prevailing party becomes more complicated when results of an arbitra­tion are mixed. In this regard, Marina Pacific Homeowners Association v. Southern California Financial Corp. (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 191, is instructive.  This case between a homeowners’ association and a finance institution exempli­fies litigation that produces some wins and some losses for both sides.  The case involved a claim by the homeowners that they did not owe monthly fees the financial institution contended amounted to $97 million over the life of a lease.  The trial court found against the homeowners and declared there was an obligation to make monthly payments.  But the court also found the monthly payment rate was only 40% of the financial institution’s demand.  On appeal, the court declined to consider settlement communications as being a reliable expression of a party’s litigation objectives and concluded the “substance” of the result was a $58 million loss for the defendant.  Invoking the decision in the Hsu case, the court con­cluded there was no simple, unqualified result pointing to either side as a prevailing party, and the trial court had acted within its discretion in denying recovery of attorney fees.

One lesson regarding “prevailing parties” is the need for caution in over-pleading one’s case. Some counsel cannot resist converting a straight-forward breach of contract action into a fraud case with overtones of unfair business practices and assorted tort claims.  Pleading multiple claims that eventually are discarded for want of proof can be dangerous, especially unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.  In De La Questa v. Benham (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 1287, 1295, an appellate court acknowledged the practice of overstating one’s claims, which makes it more difficult to determine the victor.  In a case producing mixed results, unsupported claims may lead to an opponent’s recovery of fees.

Counsel in arbitration need to address fee-shifting with a laser focus, beginning with the preliminary hearing, which is the first op­portunity to meet the arbitrator and learn his or her preferences.  Arbitrators can be expected to employ the lodestar method recognized as acceptable by a long line of California cases (e.g., PLCM Group v. Drexler (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1094).  Several issues can be dis­cussed at the hearing: What procedures will the arbitrator use to deal with attorney fee and cost issues?  Will these matters be bifurcated until an interim or tentative award on the merits is de­livered? Does the arbitrator have requirements for form, style, and specificity of time records? Will “block billing” be accepted? If more than one law firm will be appearing for a party, the conference also is an opportunity to explain why and set the stage to defuse a later argument about duplicated efforts.

In a case with both contract and tort claims, counsel should consider keeping a separate re­cord of time spent on matters that may not be entitled to recovery of attorney fees.  Counsel should be prepared to demonstrate that time records were prepared contemporaneously with the work reported, since there often is a lack of daily time recordation, let alone contem­poraneous reporting.  The fee application also should explain how the litigation team was de­ployed and why individual tasks were assigned to team members.

Proving the reasonableness of time and rates ordinarily can be accomplished by declarations of counsel regarding the usual, customary, and regular timekeeping and billing practices of the law firm.  Resumes of the personnel involved and a summary of the work may be useful.  (See, e.g., Syers Properties III, Inc. v. Rankin (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 691, 702.)  And this informa­tion can be supplemented by the opinions of other lawyers objectively knowledgeable about actual practices within the community.  Survey data often is available for firms in metropolitan areas, and those reports also carry credibility.  But counsel should be alert to differences between posted or rack rates and hourly rates actually realized, because there often is a ma­terial difference.  As with hotels and rental cars, there may be a significant disparity between the advertised rate and what people actually pay.

Nemecek & Cole v. Horn (2012) 208 Cal. App.4th 641 makes it clear that a calculation of “reasonable fees” does not hinge on what fees actually were paid.  In that case, defense counsel had been compensated on the basis of negotiat­ed insurance panel rates.  The arbitrator refused to be controlled by such rate structures and declined to use the Laffey Matrix employed by the United States Department of Justice in de­termining rates the federal government believes are reasonable.  Instead, the award of attorney fees was based on an independent assessment of what would be reasonable, and the appellate court affirmed confirmation of that award. (See Chacon v. Litke (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 1234, 1260 [awarding reasonable rate $50 greater than counsel’s regular rate].)

There are three important things to remember about recovering attorney fees in arbitration.  First, carefully study the parties’ agreement to understand the rights it extends and the limitations it imposes.  Second, avoid pleading unnecessary claims that make it seem the end result tips in favor of one’s opponent.  Third, vacating an erroneous fee award is unlikely, so make your best case regarding fee-shifting before the entry of a final award.

Charles H. Dick, Jr. is a neutral with JAMS, and he serves as a mediator and an individual arbitrator or member of multi-arbitrator panels in complex commercial matters, securities and investment disputes, professional liability cases, products liability issues, and other business-related controversies.

Can Texas Force Lawyers to Pay Prevailing Party’s Fees in Federal Litigation?

October 31, 2021

A recent article by John Connolly, “Can Texas Force Lawyers to Pay the Prevailing Party’s Legal Fees in Federal Litigation?,” reports on the new Texas legislation, SB 8 and its attorney fees provision.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

The new Texas abortion law known as S.B. 8 has been the subject of extensive commentary for its “bounty” cause of action against abortion providers and “aiders and abettors.”  But the law creates a second cause of action that may infringe the right to counsel in federal courts and, as a result, may face its own judicial scrutiny.

The second modification to the Texas Code creates a cause of action against litigants and their lawyers who challenge the enforceability of any Texas law that regulates or restricts abortion, including but not limited to S.B. 8. See SB 8 § 4 (amending Texas Civ. Prac. & Remedies Code § 30.022).  The provision applies to cases filed in state or federal court.  If the party defending the Texas law prevails, that party can seek fees and costs in a new action filed in Texas state court within three years of final judgment in the underlying action. Id. § 30.022(c).  The lawyer is jointly and severally liable with the client for the fees and costs.  The fee-shifting provision, although somewhat ambiguous, appears to be entirely one-way; i.e., if the party challenging the law prevails, that party is not entitled (through § 30.022) to recover fees and costs from the opposing party or counsel.

Many other statutes and rules expose lawyers to attorney’s fees for misconduct during litigation, but as a few commentators have explained, S.B. 8 appears to be the first law that makes lawyers liable based solely on the issue they are litigating.  In view of other provisions in S.B. 8 that intentionally frustrate judicial challenges of the statute, it seems beyond doubt that one purpose of § 30.022(c) is to impede a litigant’s attempt to obtain counsel to challenge a Texas abortion law.

For cases litigated in federal court, § 30.022 violates at least the spirit of 28 U.S.C. § 1654, which provides that “In all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel as, by the rules of such courts, respectively, are permitted to manage and conduct causes therein.” Section 1654 traces back to the Judiciary Act of 1789. See 1 Stat. 73, § 35 (Sep. 24, 1789). Thus, the right to private (or retained) counsel in federal judicial proceedings is older than the Sixth Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights, and the right to retained counsel is so accepted that case law defining its limits in federal civil cases is sparse. Most case law under § 1654 relates to the right to proceed pro se, but the statute also codifies a right to proceed with private counsel of one’s choice. See Texas Catastrophe Property Ins. Ass’n v. Morales, 975 F.2d 1178, 1181 (5th Cir. 1992); McCuin v. Texas Power & Light Co., 714 F.2d 1255, 1262 & n.24 (5th Cir. 1983); Bottaro v. Hatton Assocs., 680 F.2d 895, 897 (2d Cir. 1982). As the text of the statute provides, the right is subject to reasonable rules “of such [i.e., United States] courts.” A body of precedent makes clear that the right to counsel does not override, for instance, the requirement that an attorney hold a valid license, which typically is conferred and regulated in the first instance by state law. E.g., Eagle Assocs. v. Bank of Montreal, 926 F.2d 1305, 1308 (2d Cir. 1991). But ethics and licensing requirements are laws of general applicability, and federal courts usually adopt them through their own local rules. As far as I can tell, no state law seeks to impede access to counsel in federal courts more clearly and directly than S.B. 8.

Nevertheless, it is hard to predict whether a federal (or state) court would strike down § 30.022 under § 1654 or some other doctrine protecting the right to counsel in federal courts. In the criminal context, where the Sixth Amendment protects a right to appointed counsel for indigent defendant and to retained counsel of one’s choice for others, see Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 (1932), the Supreme Court has upheld a federal statute prohibiting the use of forfeitable funds to retain defense counsel. Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989). The four dissenting justices observed that “the reluctance of any attorney to represent the defendant in the face of the forfeiture threat effectively strips the defendant of the right to retain counsel.” Id. at 654 (Blackmun, J., dissenting). The majority nevertheless concluded that the government had a substantial property interest in the forfeitable funds. Id. at 627-28. That rationale would not apply to § 30.022, of course, as the federal government has no competing interest in the Texas fee-shifting scheme.

Because the right to counsel at issue here is primarily statutory rather than constitutional, the argument would be pre-emption rather than unconstitutionality under the Sixth Amendment. The most pertinent pre-emption doctrine is “obstacle pre-emption,” which applies when a state law imposes obstacles to the purposes and objectives of Congress. E.g., Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941). In Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988), for instance, the Court held that state-law requirements that prospective plaintiffs notify government officials before filing suit were pre-empted when applied to federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See also El-Tabech v. Clarke, 616 F.3d 834, 840 (8th Cir. 2010) (although state law establishing procedure for payment of federally awarded attorney’s fees was not completely pre-empted, if state claims board rejected an attorney’s fee award “that specific executive or legislative action would almost surely be conflict preempted”). Although these cases are not directly on point, it seems intuitive that a state law requiring lawyers to pay attorney’s fees for unsuccessful federal claims filed in federal courts is a serious obstacle to the federal right to counsel. By all appearances, that is exactly what the Texas legislature intended it to be.

Whether the “obstacle” to retained counsel imposed by S.B. 8 would lead a federal (or state) court to strike it down is a novel question that may itself evade judicial resolution3.  But the question deserves its day in court. Like the bounty cause of action that S.B. 8 creates against abortion providers or aiders and abettors, the fee-shifting cause of action against federal litigants and their lawyers is transportable to other states and other rights. The right to counsel in civil proceedings is not as prominent as the right to abortion, but it is an important right nonetheless, and federal courts should have the last word on whether states can impede the right through legislation like S.B. 8.

1A second basis for pre-emption might be the Texas law’s incompatibility with 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which allows reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in actions to enforce provisions of the federal civil rights statutes, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But § 1988 does not allow recovery of fees from opposing counsel. Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 761 (1980). 

2Some courts hold that the right to retained counsel in civil cases is implicit in the due process clause. See, e.g., Morales, 975 F.2d at 1180; contra Kentucky W. Va. Gas Co. v. Pennsylvania Public Util. Comm’n, 837 F.2d 600, 618 (3d Cir. 1988). Like most rights, it is not absolute, and may be overridden for compelling reasons. See 975 F.2d at 1181.

The bounty statute may fall before the fee-shifting provision is tested; the United States’ complaint against Texas, for instance, does not clearly challenge the fee-shifting provision. In addition, because the prevailing party can file the attorney’s fee claim in a new case in state court, that claim might evade judicial review by federal courts. See Bill Johnson’s Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731 (1983) (party had First Amendment right to file nonfrivolous claim in state court and NLRB could not order party do dismiss the claim before determination of its merits in state court); 28 U.S.C. § 2283 (anti-injunction act). Nevertheless, state courts would have authority to consider the pre-emption argument, and the Supreme Court ultimately could decide the issue on discretionary review.

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: 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.

More Doubt if ’Exceptional’ Patent Fees Include PTAB Work

September 2, 2021

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Matthew Bultman, “Doubts Deepen if ‘Exceptional’ Patent Fees Include PTAB Work,” reports that companies that win an “exceptional” patent lawsuit can be reimbursed for their attorneys’ fees—but they can’t count on recouping money spent fighting at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.  Patent law allows the winning side to collect fees from the losing side when a district court judge finds that the lawsuit is “exceptional,” as outlined in Section 285 of the Patent Act.  Courts are split on how the law applies to PTAB expenses.

Some courts have found the fees can include money companies spent challenging a patent at the PTAB after being sued.  Recently, however, other judges, including a magistrate judge in Delaware, have indicated those are likely sunk costs.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has yet to provide a definitive answer, but “it is pointing in the direction, perhaps, that awards are not going to be given for proceedings that are outside of the district court case,” Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP attorney Rubén Muñoz said.

While PTAB reviews are a less expensive way to challenge a patent’s validity, the proceedings can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the Delaware case, a judge said PTAB fees may account for a significant portion of the $1.1 million and $1.5 million Dish Network LLC and Sirius XM Radio Inc. spent in the litigation, respectively.  For smaller businesses, in particular, that’s not an insignificant expense.  A bar on recovering those fees could be a consideration in their litigation strategies.

‘Optional’ Proceedings

Questions about whether Section 285 allows companies to recover costs at the patent office predate the 2011 America Invents Act, the law that created the popular inter partes reviews at the PTAB.  In 1988, the Federal Circuit ruled Celanese Polymer Specialties Co. could recoup fees spent opposing PPG Industries Inc.’s reissue patent applications at the agency.  Celanese had been sued for infringement, and the court said its participation in the agency proceeding wasn’t optional.  The court also said the patent office proceeding “substituted for the district court litigation” on certain issues.

How the Federal Circuit views “the relevance of that case may drive its ultimate decision on whether or not fees can be awarded for PTAB work,” said Sandip Patel, an attorney at Marshall Gerstein & Borun LLP.  Without deciding the question, the Federal Circuit said last year in the Dish and Sirius cases it saw “no basis in the Patent Act for awarding fees under § 285 for work incurred in inter partes review proceedings that the Appellants voluntarily undertook.”

While the statement wasn’t binding, Magistrate Judge Jennifer Hall in the District of Delaware agreed. In a recent report, the judge emphasized Dish and Sirius weren’t required to challenge Dragon Intellectual Property LLC’s patent at the PTAB, but rather that they chose to do so.

Some attorneys say the realities of patent litigation mean PTAB reviews aren’t that optional.  Most of the patents challenged at the PTAB are brought by a defendant that has been sued in district court on the patent, a 2016 study found.  “Because most IPRs are filed because there’s a parallel district court action and because it’s common sense to have an inexpensive determination of validity, rather than a ridiculously expensive evaluation of it, it’s not so voluntary,” Patel said.  “It’s practical,” Patel said, “and that’s the way people proceed.  That’s the way business is conducted in patent litigation after the AIA passed.”

Substituting Work

Some district courts have been more willing to allow defendants to recover fees spent at the patent office.  A judge in the Eastern District of Texas, for example, said in 2017 that My Health Inc. owed companies almost $60,000 for work on an IPR petition because the “defendants never would have sought IPR if they had not been sued for allegedly infringing.”  In another case involving Southwest Airlines Co., a judge in the Southern District of California said the airline could recover fees for reexamination proceedings at the patent office because the proceeding “essentially substituted for work that would otherwise have been done before this court.”

Hall acknowledged the My Health and Southwest cases, but said their reasoning wasn’t persuasive.  While Dish and Sirius argued they were effectively being punished for choosing the more “efficient route,” Hall said to take it up with Congress.  “Federal courts don’t make policy,” Hall wrote, recommending the companies’ fee award be limited to what they spent in the district court.

Dish and Sirius XM have objected to Hall’s report, which will be reviewed by a district court judge.  The companies argue, among other things, that inter partes reviews aren’t optional because defendants sued for infringement have one year to file for inter partes review - “a non-extendable deadline to act.”

Revisiting PPG

Questions about PTAB fees have put a spotlight on the Federal Circuit’s decision in PPG. Some legal scholars say the court took a wrong turn in its decision, and skipped an important step by looking at whether the proceedings were optional.  Megan La Belle, a law professor at Catholic University of America who studied the subject, said the U.S. Supreme Court has established a clear framework for recovering fees for work in administrative tribunals.

The first step is to look at the language of the relevant statute.  Section 285 states that courts “in exceptional cases may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party.”  Administrative proceedings, like PTAB reviews, generally aren’t viewed as “cases,” La Belle said.  “You only get to that second step if there’s an argument that administrative proceedings are captured by the language of the statute,” La Belle said.  “I think clearly they’re not under 285.”

Another avenue for companies could be to pursue fees directly at the patent office.  The PTAB has the power to sanction a party for misconduct at the board, which can include frivolous arguments.  But La Belle suggested in a 2016 article that Congress pass legislation allowing for recovery of PTAB fees in exceptional cases in district court.  “From a policy perspective, to me it seems obvious that the Congress that passed the AIA, if they thought about this and if they were asked the question, ‘Can you recover fees for AIA proceedings?,’ I don’t see why they would ever say ‘No,’” La Belle said.