Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Fee Shifting

First Circuit Deepens Circuit Split on SSA Fee Award Timing

November 3, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hayley Fowler, “Abortion Protesters Keep Atty Fees in 4th Circ. Picketing Row” reports that the First Circuit deepened a circuit divide on how long attorneys have to seek fees in district court after winning a Social Security Administration benefits dispute, adopting a "reasonable time" standard also used in the Tenth Circuit rather than a more rigid limit used in four other circuits.  The court affirmed a finding that the attorney in question waited too long under either approach to seek fees for successfully representing a client in a benefits dispute with the agency.

But in a matter of first impression for the circuit, the court said fee petitions brought under 42 USC § 406(b), for representation in court on disability benefits challenges must be brought within a reasonable time.  That puts the First and Tenth Circuits on one side of a divide opposite the Second, Third, Fifth and Eleventh circuits, which say such fee petitions must be brought within 14 days of judgment.

The problem with that 14-day time limit is that after a district court decides a benefits dispute, often the case is remanded to the agency for a benefits determination, making it impossible to know how much the client will recover and thus impossible to calculate a contingency fee, the court noted in an opinion written by Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson.  "In scanning the out-of-circuit precedent, we have observed that in practice, accomplishing justice in most § 406(b) cases seems to inevitably require some exercise of the district court's discretion and powers in equity," the court said.

Some of the circuits that follow the 14-day rule toll that deadline until the SSA makes a final benefits determination.  Others recognize the district court's power to grant discretionary relief from that strict deadline.  The First Circuit said it makes more sense to use the "reasonableness" standard applied to fee motions made under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) – the rule for relief from a final judgment – rather than the 14-day time limit that comes from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2), the rule for judgments that include attorney fees.

Attorney fees in disability benefits cases are not comparable to "loser pays" types of attorney fee awards typically addressed in motions for judgment under Rule 54(d)(2), the court said. Instead, the disability benefits statute allows for attorney fees of up to 25% of the awarded benefits, in what the First Circuit said "implies that the fees are awarded as a part of a district court's judgment for the claimant, rather than as a separate judgment allowing the party to recuperate costs underlying the action."  "Here it is clear to all parties that, in the event of success before the agency on remand, a subsequent amendment to the district court's judgment to award attorneys' fees is highly likely," the court said.

The dispute arose from Green & Greenberg's successful representation of a client in court and before the SSA who eventually was recognized to have a disability and awarded benefits.  The firm represented client Jose Pais on a contingency basis for 25% of his award.  After he won, the SSA set aside just over $29,000 for potential legal fees.  When the firm sought to collect its fees through the SSA, it claimed only about $7,000 for its work at the administrative level. During oral argument, the firm's David Spunzo told the court a paralegal mistakenly claimed 25% of the money available for fees, rather than 25% of the total award.

The SSA then several times notified the firm that it was continuing to retain about $22,000 from Pais's total award as the contingency fee.  By the time the firm sought the remaining amount of the available attorney fees for its work in court, 26 months after the SSA notified Pais of the benefits award, the district court determined it was too late.  The SSA did not take a position in the litigation on which approach to the timing of fee motions is correct, in-house counsel Timothy Bolen told the court during oral argument.  Bolen said the agency's role is to act as quasi-trustee for the claimant and reserve 25% of the award for potential payment of attorney fees, while the question of how much in fees to award is left to the district court.

Fourth Circuit Affirms Fee Award for Abortion Protestors

November 2, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hayley Fowler, “Abortion Protesters Keep Atty Fees in 4th Circ. Picketing Row,reports that the Fourth Circuit affirmed an attorney fee award for abortion protesters in a suit challenging the constitutionality of a North Carolina city's picketing ordinance, finding the sidewalk ministry had notched some semblance of a win in the parties' consent agreement.  In a published opinion, a three-judge panel said the consent decree allows Cities4Life Inc. to hand out pamphlets at an abortion clinic where they were previously banned from doing so, meaning the legal relationship between them and the city of Charlotte altered in such a way that Cities4Life was a "prevailing party" under the agreement.

The Fourth Circuit's decision allows the ministry to keep its $39,811 in attorney fees awarded by the district court.  "Contrary to the city's assertion at oral argument, this was no 'technical victory' — plaintiffs' previous inability to distribute literature to vehicles at the center was central to their claim," U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz wrote.  "Thus, we hold that the consent judgment here granted plaintiffs 'some relief on the merits' sufficient to establish this prerequisite for fee shifting."

Cities4Life had accused Charlotte police in 2019 of enforcing the city's picketing ordinance too liberally outside an abortion clinic that the Fourth Circuit said "performs the most abortions in the southeastern United States," where anti-abortion volunteers were allegedly inundated with citations.

One of the activities under scrutiny involved protesters stepping into the road to give literature to patients visiting the clinic. Police said it was a safety hazard that violated a city ordinance barring disrupting, blocking, obstructing or otherwise interfering with traffic.  But Cities4Life had argued police were infringing on their volunteers' First Amendment rights.  The parties reached a consent decree 17 days before the case was set to go to trial in 2020, the Fourth Circuit said.

Under the agreement, Cities4Life could approach cars with some caveats and would be issued an initial warning instead of an immediate citation if any of those conditions were violated.  The parties did not, however, settle the issue of attorney fees, which was decided at a later date by the district court.  Cities4Life had sought more than $150,000 in fees, which the judge ultimately slashed by 75% to land at the $39,000 figure.

On appeal, Charlotte argued the agreement had been a "practical resolution." Counsel for the city specifically said during oral arguments that the consent decree went "out of its way" to dismiss all the ministry's claims with prejudice, which he argued was a win for Charlotte — not the other way around.  But the Fourth Circuit said dismissing the claims with prejudice is typical of parties wanting to "ward off future litigation" and is a "poor indicator" of which one prevailed.

The panel found the decree "easily passes" its four-part test for determining fee awards, saying the parties had reached a consent decree that grants Cities4Life some relief, materially alters their legal relationship and is enforceable by the court.  In doing so, the Fourth Circuit dismantled the city's claim that an admission of liability is necessary to award attorney fees, which wasn't present in the consent decree, saying such an admission is not always necessary because judges have a "special degree" of oversight.

Chancery Approves $75M Fee Award in Williams Merger Dispute

August 29, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Jeff Montgomery, “Chancery Oks $75M Cravath Fee in Williams Merger Dispute” reports that Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP nailed a nearly $75 million fee after a Delaware vice chancellor upheld its 15% contingent pay agreement with The Williams Cos. during much of a long battle with Energy Transfer LP and its affiliates over a $410 million deal-termination damage claim.

Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III also upheld a provision of the agreement that shifted Cravath's fees to Energy Transfer — the losing side of a $410 million battle with Williams over a termination fee triggered when Williams abandoned an earlier deal with one of its affiliates to pursue an eventually doomed, $38 billion Energy Transfer merger.

Energy Transfer, already required to pay Williams' $410 million break fee, fought the reasonableness of Cravath's fee, the 15% contingent arrangement as well as the court's decision to allow quarterly compounding interest for the fee, including a multiyear span while the case was stayed.  According to the decision and a transcript of earlier arguments on the dispute, Cravath's average or "lodestar" rate was $47.1 million for the same hours, compared with $74.8 million under the contingent fee arrangement.

"It is worth pointing out that these sophisticated parties surely were aware that post-merger-agreement litigation, seeking a break fee, could likely include representation on a contingent basis." the vice chancellor wrote in a decision that upheld the Williams side on all points.  Energy Transfer "had every opportunity, therefore, to contract against use of a contingent fee to determine the amount of fees shifted, if they so desired. This they failed to do," the vice chancellor wrote.

"The merger agreement contains no limitation on what kinds of attorneys' fees and expenses may be shifted to the losing party, other than a requirement, which is already implied under Delaware law, that the shifted fees and expenses must be 'reasonable,'" the vice chancellor wrote.  Williams had argued that a new general counsel secured the contingent agreement with Cravath in mid-2017, after Delaware's Supreme Court let stand the vice chancellor's finding that failure of a required tax-treatment for the $1.38 billion merger allowed Energy Transfer to walk away.

Energy Transfer argued that interest should have been suspended during a two-year period between 2019 and 2021 when a Williams' discovery vendor's error brought litigation to a halt. They also argued that litigation time over the interest rate and fees should likewise not count.

The decision also provided for interest at 3.5%, compounded quarterly, with the court observing other decisions that found compound interest "the standard form of interest in the financial market."  In all, according to a court brief filed, Cravath earned $4,358,372.70 prior to the start of the contingent fee terms, $4 million under a contractual fixed fee and $74,846,161 under the contingent fee.

Article: A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients

August 12, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Joshua Wurtzel, “A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients,” reports on collecting unpaid fees.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

You've done the work and sent the bill, but haven't been paid. What do you do?  This is unfortunately a question that lawyers, from solo practitioners to BigLaw partners, confront all too often.  But most lawyers struggle with the answer.  And even worse, many end up doing nothing — leaving significant receivables on the table from clients who have the ability to pay.  Struggle no longer.  Here, I offer some recommendations on how to deal with a nonpaying client. The article focuses on the law on account stated in New York.  These principles and advice are generally applicable in most U.S. jurisdictions, though you should of course consult the specific law in your jurisdiction.

Make Sure Your Retainer Agreement Gives You Adequate Protection

Good collection starts with a good retainer agreement.  There are several important clauses any retainer agreement should have.

Thirty Days to Object

Your retainer agreement should include a clause stating that if a client has an objection to an invoice, the client must make a specific objection in writing within 30 days.  Courts have upheld these types of clauses, and have further held that a client that fails to make a specific, timely objection in accordance with this clause waives objections to the invoice.

Fee Shifting

Many lawyers avoid suing clients for unpaid fees because the time spent doing so can be better spent on other, billable tasks.  But if you include a fee-shifting clause in your retainer agreement, a nonpaying client could end up being responsible for fees you incur in bringing the suit.  Make sure, however, that the fee-shifting clauses run in favor of the client as well if he or she is the prevailing party, or else it will be unenforceable.

Choice of Forum and Acceptance of Service of Process

Your retainer agreement should also include a forum selection clause in the state in which you practice so you don't have to go out of state to sue a nonpaying client.  And it should also include a clause stating that the client agrees to accept service of process by mail or email, in case you have trouble serving the client personally.

Rely on the Retaining Lien and Charging Lien

New York law strongly favors attorneys who are stiffed by their clients.  So there are some tools you can use to try to collect without having to bring a lawsuit.

Retaining Lien

When a client has an outstanding balance with his or her former lawyer, the lawyer can assert a retaining lien over the client's file. This allows the lawyer to refuse to turn over the file to the client or his or her new counsel until the outstanding balance is paid or otherwise secured.  To lift the retaining lien, the former client must either pay the amount owed to the lawyer or post a bond for that amount.

Charging Lien

Under Section 475 of the New York Judiciary Law, "from the commencement of an action," the lawyer who "appears for a party has a lien upon his or her client's cause of action," which attaches to a verdict, settlement, judgment or final order in his or her client's favor.

This section gives the lawyer a lien on the proceeds of the former client's case to the extent of the amount owed to the lawyer, with the result that no proceeds can be distributed to the former client or his or her new counsel until the former lawyer is paid.

In 1995, the New York Court of Appeals in LMWT Realty Corp. v. Davis Agency Inc. held that this lien "does not merely give an attorney an enforceable right against the property of another," but instead "gives the attorney an equitable ownership interest in the client's cause of action."

Sue for Account Stated

If all else fails and you need to sue a nonpaying client, the account stated cause of action will be your best friend.  Indeed, in New York, this cause of action allows a professional services provider to sue a client for nonpayment of an invoice if the client has retained the invoice for at least a few months and has failed to make timely, specific, written objections.  This cause of action thus provides lawyers with a substantial tool to pursue a nonpaying client.

Invoice Requirement

To state a claim for account stated, you must show only that you sent the invoices to the client and the client retained them — usually for at least a few months — without making specific, written objections.  It is thus important to maintain a record of when invoices are sent and to whom — ideally by email to an email address the client gave to receive invoices.

Oral Objections

Generally, a client must make specific, written objections to an invoice; general or oral objections will not be enough to defeat a claim for account stated. Nor will general claims by a client that he or she is dissatisfied with a particular outcome suffice.

Reasonableness of Fees

Many nonpaying clients will defend against a nonpayment suit by claiming that they were overbilled or that the quality of the work was not to their liking.  But if these objections are not made in a timely way, with specificity and in writing, courts generally hold that they are waived.

This is significant for a lawyer pursuing a nonpaying client, as most clients will defend by claiming that there was something wrong with the work done by the lawyer.  And so if an account is stated by virtue of the client's retention of the invoices, the reasonableness of the fees and the quality of the work has no bearing on the merit of the account stated claim.

Underlying Agreement to Pay

While account stated is a powerful cause of action, it works only if there is an underlying agreement to pay for the services rendered.  So a person who randomly sends out invoices without having an underlying agreement with the recipients of the invoices can obviously not rely on account stated.

But if you have a retainer agreement that properly covers the scope of the work you will be doing, you shouldn't have a problem.  Nor is there a requirement that the client has agreed to pay for the specific invoices at issue, as long as the client has agreed to pay for your services generally.

The Dreaded Malpractice Claim

Most nonpaying clients faced with a lawsuit by their former lawyer will assert counterclaims for malpractice — even if the malpractice claim has no merit.  While the lawyer must, of course, still deal with the malpractice claim, courts generally go out of their way to sever a lawyer's account stated claim from a nonpaying client's malpractice counterclaim.  This is especially so if the alleged malpractice relates to different work from what is at issue on the unpaid invoices.

Further, as a strategic matter, unless the malpractice counterclaim has merit, most nonpaying clients will drop it after the lawyer obtains a quick judgment on summary judgment at the outset of the case.

Conclusion

Suing a former client is never pleasant, and is a last resort after the attorney-client relationship has broken down. But using efficient, streamlined ways to collect from nonpaying clients can allow a law firm to provide greater value to the rest of its clients.

Joshua Wurtzel is a partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP in New York.

Judge Awards $90M in Attorney Fees in RICO Win

July 28, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Judge Says Google Should Get Atty Fees In $90M RICO Win” reports that a Florida magistrate judge agreed with Google that it should be awarded attorney fees for prevailing in a $90 million Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act lawsuit over an allegedly blacklisted website owned by conservative individuals, but recommended slashing Google's fee request because the case was resolved quickly and was uncomplicated.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said Google LLC's request for $202,205 was excessive given the fact that the case was resolved at the motion to dismiss stage in 14 months and involved no discovery, and said an award of $145,455 is more appropriate.  The magistrate judge also took issue with the hourly fees being requested by Google's attorneys, which he said are "excessive by current Palm Beach County standards" and suggested reducing them.

Google asked for fees after the dismissal of plaintiff DJ Lincoln Enterprises Inc.'s suit was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit on appeal in January.  In its suit, St. Lucie, Florida-based DJ Lincoln, which described itself as a closely held, family-owned business, accused Google of blacklisting its website SeniorCare.com and intentionally demoting its ranking in search results because it is owned by conservatives.

Google moved for attorney fees under the fee-shifting provisions of Florida's RICO and FDUTPA statutes, but Judge Reinhart recommended that fees be awarded only under the state RICO law after finding that there was no evidence DJ Lincoln brought the FDUTPA claim in bad faith.