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Category: Fee Splitting / Sharing

Novel Ruling: Law Firm Awarded $10M in Fees After Withdrawing in NJ

April 17, 2021

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Charles Toutant, “Novel Holding in New Jersey: Law Firm Awarded $10M After Withdrawing From Case,” reports that a New Jersey judge has awarded $10 million to the law firm of Kirsch, Gelband & Stone in a fee dispute stemming from a $125 million personal injury settlement of a suit by a lawyer who was left paralyzed by a falling utility pole.  Although Kirsch Gelband was ultimately replaced by another firm, it had a key role in developing evidence that yielded such a large settlement, Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas Vena said.

The ruling, giving a law firm that withdrew from representation a share of successor counsel’s legal fees, based on its contribution toward the recovery, is a novel holding in New Jersey, Vena said.  The ruling gives Kirsch Gelband a 40% cut of the $25 million awarded to its successor in the case, Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman.

Justifiable withdrawal

The case stems from a 2017 accident in which Maria Moser Meister was left paralyzed and brain damaged after a deteriorating utility pole fell on her on a street in Union City.  At the time of the accident, Meister was general counsel for finance firm Milberg Factors in New York, and previously had been an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.  David Mazie of Mazie Slater obtained the $125 million settlement in May 2020, calling it the largest settlement in New Jersey history.

Vena found that Kirsch Gelband’s Gregg Alan Stone had a stormy relationship with Meister’s husband, Peter, who would contact him at all hours. Finding that Stone had a justifiable cause to withdraw, the judge found that Kirsch Gelband was entitled to a calculation of how much of the fee the firm deserves.

Vena concluded that “the nature of and deterioration of the attorney/client relationship, exhibited throughout the hearing, justified Mr. Stone’s good-faith belief that the representation could not ethically be continued.” Vena said a “balancing of predecessor and successor contribution” was needed to decide Stone’s cut of the fees.  Bruce Nagel of Nagel Rice, who represents Kirsch Gelband, says that “in view of Mr. Mazie’s position that Kirsch Gelband was entitled to zero, we are extremely pleased with the $10 million award.”

But additional proceedings are underway between Mazie Slater and Kirsch Gelband.  Nagel and Mazie have a long history of acrimony.  The two are former law partners who frequently face each other as litigation adversaries.  Their rancor dates back to when Mazie split with Nagel to start his own firm in 2006. Mazie took cases with him that led to disputes over counsel fees.

Nagel said evidence in the case supported his claim, raised in a separate suit pending against Mazie Slater by Kirsch Gelband, that Mazie provided false information to Meister in order to get the case.  Mazie called that claim “nonsensical.”

Nagel also said he was filing an additional motion in the Verizon case to vacate a deal between Mazie and Philip Rosenbach, a lawyer who handled the case before Stone, in which Mazie purchased the other lawyer’s right to receive a referral fee from Kirsch Gelband.  Such a deal is “highly unethical and highly improper,” Nagel said.  But Mazie said Rosenbach “chose to resolve his claim for that one-third referral fee by settling with us rather than being embroiled in this frivolous litigation,” and added that there’s “nothing unethical about it.”

Law Firm Accused of Not Sharing $30M in Fees in Syngenta MDL

March 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “Law Firm Accused of Not Sharing $30M Fee in Syngenta MDL,” reports that Heninger Garrison Davis LLC is refusing to honor an oral agreement to share two-thirds of the $30 million it received in fees from multidistrict litigation involving Syngenta's genetically modified corn, two other law firms are alleging.  Crumley Roberts LLP and Burke Harvey LLC allege that they struck a deal with Heninger Garrison to split three ways any fees the firms received from the litigation, but that the defendant is not meeting its end of the agreement, according to a complaint filed last month in Illinois state court that Heninger Garrison removed to the Southern District of Illinois.

Crumley Roberts and Burke Harvey allege that as part of the arrangement that originated in early 2015, they brought clients to the litigation and personally handled them, while Heninger Garrison dealt directly with the courts and defendants in the underlying dispute, according to the complaint.  After deducting any referral fees to other firms, the three firms were to then split the remaining money three ways, Crumley Roberts and Burke Harvey contend.

"Plaintiffs are entitled to distribution of their one-third each of the partnership's assets, which consist of the amount of the total fee award," the complaint reads.  "Notwithstanding repeated requests, [Heninger  Garrison] has failed and refused to pay this amount to plaintiffs."

The dispute arises from years of litigation over allegations that Syngenta should have delayed launching the corn seeds that were genetically modified to be pest-resistant until Chinese authorities — controlling a major corn market for U.S. growers — approved importing the GMO corn.  When China discovered a strain of corn with a mix of varieties in November 2013, it rejected American corn cargo and shut down the Chinese market for U.S. corn, costing the domestic U.S. industry more than $1 billion, some of the farmers in the litigation contended.

Syngenta agreed in March 2018 to a $1.51 billion settlement in the nationwide class action, with a plethora of law firms in the litigation receiving approximately a third of the amount, according to court documents.  Heninger Garrison on Friday urged the Southern District of Illinois to pause the proceedings in the attorney fees case to give the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation time to weigh the firm's request for a shift to the multidistrict litigation in the District of Kansas handling fee disputes.

"The plaintiffs' claims directly implicate the fee award to [Heninger Garrison] and seek the large majority of that award, which subjects the claims to the jurisdiction of the MDL in accordance with certain provisions in the class settlement agreement," reads Heninger Garrison's motion to stay.

Litigation Funder Seeks Share of Attorney Fees

February 16, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Litigation Funder Wants Cut of $350M Shire Deal,” reports that law firm lender Counsel Financial Services asked a Florida federal judge for permission to intervene in a dispute over divvying up attorney fees from a $350 million whistleblower settlement with biotech company Shire, alleging the law firm Barry A. Cohen PA should be forced to direct any fees it receives to pay back a $43.8 million line of credit.

Counsel Financial says it loaned money to the Cohen firm in February 2009 in exchange for a secured interest in the firm's assets, which includes legal fee proceeds.  In January 2019, the company obtained a $43,778,684 judgment against the Cohen firm, which previously represented whistleblower Brian Vinca in his suit against Shire.

"Counsel Financial thus has an interest in the legal fees that will be awarded to [the Cohen firm] in this action," the company said in the motion.  "Consequently, Counsel Financial seeks to intervene to ensure that its interest in the legal fees obtained by [the Cohen firm] in connection with this matter are rightfully directed by this Court to Counsel Financial directly from the court registry."

The motion is the latest development in a fight over fees from the $350 million settlement, which was announced in August 2016 and resolved claims stemming from Shire's sales and marketing practices around Dermagraft, a skin substitute the company picked up when it acquired Advanced BioHealing Inc. — now known as Shire Regenerative Medicine Inc. — as part of a $750 million deal in 2011.  Vinca and co-plaintiff Jennifer Sweeney filed the first of the six False Claims Act suits against Shire that led to the settlement.

Kevin J. Darken, who represents Vinca's former counsel, says Vinca's current attorneys, Noel McDonell of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen and Bryen Hill of Mahany Law, have tried to cut him and the Cohen firm out of a fee award.  Darken has asked the court to disqualify McDonell and Hill for allegedly using stolen confidential emails to challenge the charging lien filed by Darken, Cohen and Saady & Saxe PA for a cut of the attorney fees.

McDonell and Hill have accused Darken and Kevin M. Cohen, the representative for Barry Cohen's estate, of conspiring to a fee-splitting scheme of the proceeds.  Vinca, who fired his attorneys in March 2018, is suing Darken, the Cohen firm and Saady & Saxe for malpractice, claiming they cost him the full whistleblower's cut of the Shire settlement.  Vinca claims his former counsel's failures forced him to share the whistleblower award of the Shire settlement with the five other relators who filed FCA suits after he did.

Generally, the first whistleblower to file gets about 20% of the government's recovery, and any subsequent whistleblowers do not receive a cut. But in this case, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. decided to divvy up the proceeds, in part because of deficiencies in the initial eight-page complaint from Vinca and Sweeney, according to McDonell.  Vinca and Sweeney shared more than $50 million from the settlement, while the other whistleblowers shared approximately $30 million.

The six whistleblower lawsuits that led to the settlement all alleged misconduct by Shire from 2007 through the beginning of 2014, including that it paid illegal kickbacks to get health care providers to use or overuse Dermagraft, marketed Dermagraft for uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, inflated the price of the drug and spurred the coding of Dermagraft-related reimbursement claims for payouts higher than what was appropriate.

McDonell told Law360 that Counsel Financial's claim has no bearing on this lawsuit because Vinca was not a party to the financing contract between Counsel Financial and the Cohen firm.  "As Magistrate Judge Porcelli noted in June of 2019, the matter at issue is the merits of a charging lien filed against relator Brian Vinca by former counsel, and to what extent compensation is appropriate," McDonell said.  "Accordingly, on behalf of Brian Vinca, we are confident that CFS has, as Judge Porcelli so aptly put it, 'no dog in this fight.'"

Second Circuit: No Second Shot for Milberg in $12M Fee Dispute

February 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Justin Wise, “2nd Circ. Says No 2nd Shot For Milberg in $12M Fee Dispute”, reports that the Second Circuit upheld a lower court's dismissal of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC predecessor Milberg LLP's pursuit of nearly $12 million in contingency fees from former clients, saying its petition failed to comply with a timing provision of federal arbitration law.  The decision came down in a long-running dispute between Milberg LLP, which has since merged with multiple firms, and clients it represented in Germany and Luxembourg in their suit for recovery on defaulted Argentine bonds.

The firm in 2019 sued in the Southern District of New York seeking to vacate an arbitration award that said it was entitled to only a fraction of a $11.9 million fee it claimed it earned for its work on the case.  However, the court dismissed the firm's effort over failing to adequately plead diversity of parties and for not serving proper notice of the petition within the three-month statute of limitations.  While a three-judge panel differed with the lower court on the subject of diversity, "nevertheless, we hold that Milberg failed to comply with the timing provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act."

An attorney for Milberg had previously argued in court that Hague Convention protocol made it impossible to serve notice to overseas adversaries within 90 days.  But the appeals court was not convinced, saying the firm did not "demonstrate diligence" when it came to the three-month deadline to warrant a "possible equitable extension."

"Milberg did not even notify opposing counsel of its petition to vacate the arbitral award until [the] three-month window closed, and only after opposing counsel stated it was not authorized to accept service did Milberg set the wheels in motion for service overseas," the panel wrote, citing the firm's after-hours attempt to serve notice on the day the statute of limitations expired.

Milberg had represented 10 Luxembourg and German retirement funds and two German individuals as they sought to enforce payment on defaulted Argentine bonds.  The clients stopped working with Milberg in 2016 and hired another firm before settling the dispute with Argentina for $162.3 million.  Court documents show that the settlement was similar to the terms Milberg had obtained before being discharged.

Milberg initiated arbitration seeking contingency fees in 2017, but a panel on Feb. 5, 2019, declined to award the firm what it sought. Milberg filed suit in court on May 6, 2019, and late that evening — the last day it could serve a notice for its motion — emailed counsel for their former clients asking whether it could accept service on their behalf.  The clients' counsel said it was not authorized to accept service, court documents show.

Attorneys Seek $2.5M in Fees in Legal Malpractice Case

February 1, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nathan Hale, “Attys Seek $2.5M Fees For Jay Peak-Linked Malpractice Case”, reports that attorneys who helped investors land an $8 million settlement in a malpractice suit against their former counsel in litigation over the failed Jay Peak EB-5 immigrant investor project have asked a Florida federal court to approve distribution of $2.45 million in attorney fees.

In their motion, the law firms Cheffy Passidomo PA, Hanley Law and the Barr Law Group specified how they would divide the attorneys' fund established in the deal between the 25 investors and lawyers Edward J. Carroll and Mark H. Scribner and their firms, seeking to demonstrate the value of their work and convince U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles to approve the payments.

Judge Gayles last month granted a request for preliminary approval of the settlement filed by Michael I. Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver for about two dozen entities related to the Jay Peak ski resort in Vermont.  In his motion, Goldberg noted that the immigrant investors' action had gone into "meaningful" discovery, and early last year the parties to the private malpractice litigation asked him to get involved to help settle it.  The resulting settlement agreement was reached after a few months of negotiations, he said.

In the motion, the three firms elaborated on their work for the investors.  They said they participated in depositions of all 25 plaintiffs as well as Carroll and Scribner.  They also retained three experts who were deposed by the defendants' counsel.  Additionally, they engaged in written discovery, substantial motion practice and two mediations, they said.

"Attorneys' fees for plaintiffs' counsels' hourly fees to date and the rate of the contingency fee arrangements between plaintiffs and plaintiffs' counsel in this case both exceed the total attorneys' fees fund provided for by the settlement agreement," the firms said.

Following Judge Gayles' preliminary approval of the settlement, the three firms submitted a letter to the receiver's counsel saying they had agreed that the Barr Law Group should be paid $1.47 million, and Cheffy Passidomo and Hanley Law should each be paid $490,000.

The group of investors filed their suit, Cason et al. v. Carroll et al., in Vermont federal court in February 2018, and a slightly different group filed an amended complaint in August 2019, according to the settlement approval motion.  The investors brought claims for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and breach of good faith and fair dealing, alleging that Carroll and Scribner mislead them and withheld information and were conflicted because they had represented some of the investors and Jay Peak receivership entities at the same time.

"Defendants were aware, or should have been aware, of information suggesting that Jay Peak was being severely mismanaged, including that investor funds were being misappropriated to backfill shortfalls in the projects," the investors claimed, accusing the Jay Peak-linked attorneys of "designing and executing" the very fraud that injured the investors.

Among the damages the investors sought was disgorgement of the attorney fees they paid to Carroll and Scribner's firm, according to the motion.  After the parties failed to resolve the case in mediation in April 2019, they called upon the receiver to help negotiate a settlement.

In the motion for settlement approval, the receiver told Judge Gayles that the agreement "provides outstanding recoveries for the Cason plaintiffs," noting that after payments to the plaintiffs and attorney fees, the receivership entities would still recover $5.2 million to be distributed to other investors and would obtain a "bar order" barring all nongovernmental claims that could be filed between the receiver and Carroll and Scribner's former firms.