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Category: Fees in Arbitration

No Arbitration for Attorney-Client Fee Dispute

August 11, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Caroline Simson, “No Arbitration For King & Spalding Client Fight, Court Hears”, reports that a Dutch citizen who accuses King & Spalding LLP of fraudulently colluding with Burford Capital to maximize fees ​​in a treaty claim​ against Vietnam​ is fighting the law firm's efforts to send the fee dispute to arbitration, arguing that an arbitration clause in the funding agreement is inapplicable.

Trinh Vinh Binh sued King & Spalding and two of its international arbitration partners in Houston, Reggie R. Smith and Craig S. Miles, in June, alleging they made a "mockery of the fiduciary obligations an attorney owes to their clients" by "colluding" with litigation funder Burford to take more of the arbitration proceeds than Binh had agreed to.  The law firm had represented Binh in a treaty claim against Vietnam over the confiscation of certain real estate that ended in a $45 million award against the country in 2019.

King & Spalding pressed a federal court in Houston last month to send the dispute with Binh to arbitration, citing an arbitration clause in the funding agreement and alleging that Binh excluded Burford from his suit in an attempt to skirt the clause.  The law firm claims that even though it is not a signatory to the funding agreement, the broad scope of the clause provides for arbitration of any dispute arising out of the pact.

But Binh argued that the clause governs disputes only between him and Burford, and not with any third parties. He said that the engagement agreement he signed with King & Spalding when he retained the firm for the Vietnam matter makes no mention of arbitration for disputes.  "Defendants are attorneys, and they certainly know how to draft an arbitration clause.  But the engagement agreement between Binh and defendants contains no arbitration clause," Binh's attorneys said. "Try as they might, defendants have not shown — and cannot show — that they may properly invoke the [funding agreement's] arbitration clause.  Binh therefore respectfully requests that this court deny defendants' motion."

King & Spalding had represented Binh in an arbitration matter filed against Vietnam in 2015, in which Binh accused the country of improperly taking several valuable properties he says were worth an estimated $214 million.  Under their deal, the law firm agreed to hold back 30% of billings for fees and defer the payment of those amounts until work had concluded in the arbitration.  At the same time, Binh entered into a funding agreement with Burford Capital with a $4.678 million spending cap, according to the suit.

Binh claims that King & Spalding told him the firm could complete the arbitration work within that cap.  But by May 2016, the firm had already billed and been paid some $1.9 million, leaving about $1.8 million after initial costs and expenses had been paid out.

Binh alleges that at that point the firm, "motivated by securing continued, guaranteed immediate payment of their fees, colluded with Burford" to contrive a scheme to increase the amount potentially owed by Binh by increasing the cap on King & Spalding's legal fees and, consequently, increasing Burford's potential entitlement to an increased return.  The way the agreement worked was that the more King & Spalding billed against the cap amount in legal spending, the more Binh was at risk of paying a so-called success return, to be paid if Binh prevailed in the arbitration.  The success return was to be split between King & Spalding and Burford based on the relative portion of their investments in the arbitration.

Binh alleges that King & Spalding tried to make him agree to increase the cap on expenditures for legal fees — and potentially, provide more of a return for Burford — but that he refused.  Thereafter, Burford and the law firm allegedly executed a side agreement between themselves.

In addition to accusing King & Spalding of breaching its fiduciary duty, Binh's lawsuit includes claims for negligence if the overpayment of fees was due to a mistake, as well as claims of misrepresentation and fraud.  He also accuses the firm of negligence after the tribunal in the case against Vietnam rejected an expert report the firm provided stating that Binh's property was worth some $214 million.  The tribunal instead awarded $45.4 million.

Sixth Circuit: No Authority to Award Attorney Fees Post-Arbitration

April 15, 2021

A recent article by Brendan Gooley, “Sixth Circuit Concludes District Court Lacked Authority to Award Attorney Fees’ Following Arbitration,” reports that the Sixth Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to award attorneys’ fees after the Circuit concluded that the claim on which the fees were awarded was subject to mandatory arbitration, and noted that the arbitrator had not awarded any fees for that claim.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Members of the UAW union sued TRW Automotive U.S. LLC for breach of contract and violations of ERISA claiming that TRW violated a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) when it changed their health care coverage.  The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to a clause in the CBA that provided in relevant part that arbitration “shall be the exclusive remedy for the enforcement by [the union] of any claim against the Company.”  The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union workers.

The district court then granted in part a motion the union filed seeking statutory attorneys’ fees for their ERISA vesting claim, a claim that the district court found was not before the arbitrator and was instead before the court.  Specifically, the court “declined to award any ERISA attorney’s fees and costs incurred through the date of the arbitration award because ‘the ERISA claim was not addressed prior to or at arbitration’” but “granted [the union workers’] request for attorney’s fees and costs related to their ERISA claim incurred after the arbitration award.”

The Sixth Circuit reversed.  In short, the Court concluded that the district court “lacked the authority” to award fees or otherwise make rulings on the union workers’ ERISA vesting claim “because the ERISA vesting claim and ERISA attorney’s fee claim . . . were both subject to mandatory arbitration under the CBA, allowing only limited court review for issues of legality or enforcement.”  The Court explained:  “Once the arbitrator finds a merits violation, the parties are responsible for raising any remedy issues in their remedy demands during arbitration. . . .  The parties do not have to return to the district court once a merits violation is found just to seek permission to present ‘ripe’ remedy issues to the arbitrator.  Plaintiffs’ position, presented without any supporting legal authority, would lead to an untenable result where the arbitrator performs fact-finding but the district court issues the remedy.  Not only would this contradict the CBA’s declaration that arbitration is the exclusive remedy for any dispute, but it would also defeat the purpose of arbitration if the parties still have to litigate remedy issues in federal court.”

Fee Dispute Sent to Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause

March 31, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Atty-Client Spat Sent To Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause, reports that a Florida state appeals court ruled that a woman's suit against her former attorney for erroneously wiring funds to a hacker's account number is subject to an arbitration clause in their retention agreement, even though a fee-shifting provision in the agreement was deemed invalid.  Florida's Third District Court of Appeal said that the arbitration clause in the agreement between Valeria Sessa and Natalie Lemos of Leinoff & Lemos PA is valid, and that it unambiguously covers Sessa's tort claims against her former attorney for sending half of her divorce settlement to a hacker's bank account.

Sessa had argued that the disputes subject to the arbitration clause in the agreement are limited to claims of fee disputes and legal malpractice, not generalized tort claims like hers, but the appeals court disagreed.  "The duty Lemos owed to Sessa, and allegedly breached by Lemos, is simply not the type of duty generally owed to others besides the contracting parties," the appeals court said. "It is, rather, a duty 'created by the parties' unique contractual relationship.'"

The agreement also included a severability provision, which the appeals court said allowed it to divorce the enforceable arbitration clause from the invalid provisions that require the client to advance any arbitration costs in the event of a dispute and to pay for the firm's attorney fees and costs.  The appeals court said Florida lawyers are barred from agreements with clients that prospectively limit their liability for malpractice.

"While the subject provisions in the arbitration clause are certainly not the type of exculpatory clauses expressly prohibited by the rule, in practice the two provisions erect a significant barrier to a client seeking recourse against her lawyer," the Third District said.  Sessa hired Lemos in June 2018 to represent her in her divorce.  In 2019, Sessa and her ex-husband negotiated a settlement that required him to make two lump-sum payments to her, according to the opinion.

The first payment was made directly to Sessa's brokerage account, but the second was made to Lemos' trust account so that she could deduct any outstanding fees and costs before wiring the balance to Sessa, according to the opinion.  But someone hacked into either Sessa's or Lemos' email accounts, and Lemos received fraudulent wiring instructions. She wired the balance of the second payment to a phony bank account and the money was never recovered.  Sessa then filed a lawsuit and Lemos asked for the court to compel arbitration. The trial court denied that request after finding that the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable because of the invalid fee-shifting provisions in the agreement.

NJ Case Has Lessons on Arbitration Clauses in Attorney Retainers

February 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Hilary Gerzhoy, Deepika Ravi, and Amy Richardson, “NJ Case Has Lessons On Arbitration Clauses in Atty Retainers”, reports on arbitration clauses in attorney retainers in New Jersey.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Dec. 21, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Delaney v. Dickey, an opinion that severely limits the enforceability of arbitration provisions in law firm retainer agreements.  The court held that an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is only enforceable if an attorney provides "an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration" to a client before the client signs the retainer agreement.

The decision, which applies prospectively, tracks and builds on other jurisdictions' limitations on the enforceability of arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  Attorneys wishing to resolve client disputes via arbitration should take close note of these heightened disclosure obligations.

Delaney v. Dickey

Delaney v. Dickey addressed whether an arbitration provision contained within Sills Cummis & Gross PC's four-page retainer agreement was enforceable.  A Sills attorney provided the retainer agreement to client Brian Delaney during an in-person meeting.  The retainer agreement contained a provision stating that any disputes about the law firm's fees or legal services would be resolved by arbitration.

The arbitration provision stated that the result of any arbitration would not be subject to appeal, and that Delaney's agreement to arbitration waived his right to a trial by jury:

The decision of the Arbitrator will be final and binding and neither the Firm nor you will have the right to appeal such decision, whether in a court or in another arbitration proceeding.  You understand that, by agreeing to arbitrate disputes as provided in this retainer letter, you are waiving any and all statutory and other rights that you may have to a trial by jury in connection with any such dispute, claim, or controversy.

The retainer agreement included a one-page attachment that contained a hyperlink to the JAMS rules.  However, the Sills attorney did not provide Delaney with a hard copy of the JAMS rules at the meeting.  The attachment also stated that the arbitration would be conducted by one impartial arbitrator; that the parties waived any claim for punitive damages; that the arbitration would be binding, nonappealable and confidential; and that the parties would share the arbitrator's fees and expenses, except that the arbitrator could award costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable "[b]ecause Delaney was not given an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration."

The court recognized that the Sills attorney had disclosed, in the retainer agreement and attachment, several of the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum — but it found that disclosure insufficient.  Instead, the court required that the attorney provide an "explanation" of these differences — but it did not provide clear guidance on what is required for a sufficient explanation.  Importantly, the court held that an attorney must explain the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, even when the client is "a sophisticated businessman."

The mere recitation of these differences in the retainer agreement, and the Sills attorney's "[offer] to answer any questions" Delaney had about the retainer agreement was insufficient to meet the attorney's fiduciary obligations.  Instead, the court imposed an obligation to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an arbitration provision either orally or in writing.

Although the court did not explicitly so state, its opinion suggests that an attorney cannot merely list the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, but rather must explain how those differences might affect the client's interests in the event of a future dispute.

What Happens Outside of New Jersey?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pointed to a string of ethics opinions and case law from other states that support heightened disclosure obligations on an attorney where an arbitration provision is included in a retainer agreement.  The court also pointed to jurisdictions that require a lawyer to go even further and advise a client to seek independent counsel before agreeing to arbitrate future disputes.  Delaney closely tracks the American Bar Association's Formal Opinion 02-425, Retainer Agreement Requiring the Arbitration of Fee Disputes and Malpractice Claims, issued in 2002.

The opinion concluded that a binding arbitration provision requiring all "disputes concerning fees and malpractice claims" to be resolved via arbitration does not violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), "provided that the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has given her informed consent to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement" and the arbitration provision does not "insulate ... or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law."

Because a lawyer has a fiduciary "duty to explain matters to a client," she must "advise clients of the possible adverse consequences as well as the benefits that may arise from the execution of an agreement" that includes an arbitration provision.  Accordingly, compliance with Rule 1.4(b) requires that the lawyer "'explain' the implications of the proposed binding arbitration provision 'to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make [an] informed decision' about whether to agree to the [provision's] inclusion" in the retainer agreement.

Unlike the New Jersey opinion, the ABA concluded that just how extensie that disclosure must be will depend on "the sophistication of the client."  However, consistent with Delaney, the lawyer "should make clear that arbitration typically results in the client's waiver of significant rights, such as the waiver of the right to a jury trial, the possible waiver of broad discovery, and the loss of the right to appeal."

For these reasons, the Sills attorney's failure to explain these differences to Delaney would similarly fail under the ABA standard.  While ABA opinions are persuasive, not binding, authority on the states, they are an important road map for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical and practical obligations.

The District of Columbia takes a similar approach.  D.C. Ethics Opinion 376, published in November 2018, concludes that an agreement to arbitrate fee disputes and legal malpractice claims is otherwise permitted by the rules, provided that the lawyer has adequately informed the client about "material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to" the proposed arbitration clause such that the client is "fully informed."

That requires, at minimum, that the attorney inform the client about differences between a judicial and arbitral forum as to (1) the fees to be charged; (2) the scope of discovery; (3) a right to a jury; and (4) a right to an appeal.  Like ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the D.C. opinion also advises that the scope of the discussion depends on the level of sophistication of the client.

What Should an Attorney Explain to a Client, and How?

While the Delaney case is only controlling in New Jersey, it provides useful guidance for attorneys hoping to create binding arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  As the Delaney court noted, the differences between resolving an attorney-client dispute in arbitration or before a judicial forum can be communicated orally, in writing, or both.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division stated in Delaney that it did not hold that the "reasonable explanation" required of an attorney cannot be contained in the written retainer agreement.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion did not directly address that question, suggesting that an attorney can sufficiently explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral forum within the retainer agreement.

Rather, the court held that the disclosure in the case before it — which merely recited several of the differences between a judicial and arbitral forum, with no additional explanation provided orally or in writing about these or other differences — was insufficient.  Recognizing that not all arbitration provisions are alike, the court enumerated several differences between an arbitral and judicial forum about which a client might need to be advised including the following:

1.  An arbitration resolves a dispute before a single arbitrator and not a jury of one's peers.

2.  The arbitrator's decision is final and binding with no right of appeal.

3.  Unlike court proceedings, arbitration proceedings are conducted privately and the outcome will remain confidential.

4.  Unlike court proceedings, the arbitration process offers a more limited right to discovery.

5.  The client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator.

6.  A plaintiff prevailing in a judicial forum may be entitled to punitive damages, but that right may be waived in an arbitral forum.

7.  A judicial forum generally does not permit reasonable attorney fees to be imposed against a nonprevailing client in a nonfrivolous malpractice action, whereas an arbitral forum may permit an award that imposes costs, expenses and reasonable attorney fees against the nonprevailing party.

However, the court was silent as to how an attorney is to translate that list into a compliant explanation to a client.  Practically then, attorneys should, at a minimum, explain — not merely recite — these differences to a client prior to the client agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision.

The attorney's explanation should include, for example, that applicable arbitration procedures offer limited discovery — for instance, the JAMS procedures "limit each party to 'one deposition of an opposing [p]arty or of one individual under the control of the opposing [p]arty'" whereas judicial rules do not have a set limitation on the number of depositions available.

The attorney should also explain that, unlike a court proceeding where neither party pays for a judge's time, parties in arbitration often split the cost of the arbitrator's hourly rate, which can be costly.  And, at least in New Jersey, an attorney must provide a hard copy of the rules governing the arbitration — but note that neither D.C. Ethics Opinion 376 nor ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 imposes that requirement.  And, perhaps most importantly, an attorney must understand the relative benefits and disadvantages of arbitration so as to answer any client questions.

Conclusion

While agreements to arbitrate attorney-client disputes are routinely permitted, attorneys' ability to enforce such agreements will turn on the client's ultimate understanding of the implications of agreeing to arbitration.  Attorneys should, as always, consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and related guidance in their jurisdiction — and when in doubt, should err on the side of explaining, both orally and in writing, the benefits and disadvantages of an arbitral forum.

Hilary Gerzhoy is an associate, and Deepika Ravi and Amy Richardson are partners, at Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.

Article: Granting Arbitrators the Power to Award Attorney Fees

January 4, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer article by Abraham J. Gafni, “Unintentionally Granting Arbitrators the Power to Award Attorney Fees” reports on granting the power to award attorney fees in arbitration.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In this pandemic period, as courts are limited in their ability to conduct civil trials, parties increasingly consider whether and how to settle their disputes through arbitration.  In his article last month in the Legal Intelligencer, “How Pre-Lawsuit Demand Letters Can Undermine Arbitration” (Nov. 16, 2020), Charles Forer, through his erstwhile attorney foil Bob, explained how a party who had entered into an agreement providing for mandatory arbitration almost suffered the unintended consequence of forfeiting that right by threatening litigation in court.

Yet another area in which this “law of unintended consequences” appears to be regularly occurring these days is when a party unintentionally extends authority to the arbitrator to award attorney fees.  The general “American Rule,” of course, is that, in the absence of a contractual agreement or statutory provision, each party is responsible for its own attorney fees.  Similarly, arbitrators generally lack the authority to award attorney fees.  Nonetheless, parties often determine that it is within their interests to include a provision in the arbitration agreement allowing the arbitrators to award them.

Even when the parties have not included such authority in the arbitration agreement, however, they may unexpectedly find that through their arbitration pleadings or other actions during the arbitration proceeding, they have granted such authority and become responsible for the payment of their successful adversaries’ attorney fees.

A recent opinion of the Massachusetts Superior Court, business litigation session, reflected how a party’s own actions authorized an arbitration panel to award attorney’s fees even though the contract did not provide that authority. See Credit Suisse Securities (USA), (Credit Suisse) v. Galli, No. 2020-0709-BLS 2 (Aug. 31, 2020).  The case involved employees who were formerly employed by Credit Suisse.  They filed an arbitration demand against Credit Suisse alleging a violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act (Wage Act) and related contract claims, asserting that Credit Suisse had failed to pay them earned deferred compensation.

Credit Suisse denied these allegations and filed a counterclaim claiming that the employees had breached their contracts with Credit Suisse.  Consequently, in addition to asserting a claim of millions of dollars in compensatory damages it sought “transaction costs, interest and fees.”  In closing arguments, the employees’ counsel specifically sought attorney fees, asserting that the arbitrators could award them pursuant to the Wage Act, and “because we believe that Credit Suisse, in filing their counterclaims … are requesting” not only millions of dollars in compensatory damages but also “related transaction costs and fees.”  Employees’ position was that since both parties were requesting attorney fees and costs, the arbitrators had the authority to award such fees to the successful party.

In response, in its closing arguments, Credit Suisse’s counsel stated that “we do not think there is any legal basis for an award of fees and expense in this case,” but added that if the arbitration panel were to award fees to the employees, the fee application was insufficiently itemized.  However, they did not directly contest the assertion that Credit Suisse had itself requested attorneys’ fees or that by so doing it had given the arbitrators the authority to award such fees even without a finding of a Wage Act violation.  Moreover, at no time in the proceedings, did they make clear to the arbitrators that they were withdrawing any claim for attorneys’ fees should they prevail.

The arbitration panel awarded the employees compensatory damages as well as over $100,000 in attorney fees.  Credit Suisse appealed, arguing that the panel had exceeded its powers in awarding such fees.  In considering this contention, the court noted that judicial review of an arbitral decision “is extremely narrow and exceedingly deferential.”  Among the limited bases for vacating an award under both the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. Section 10(a)(4) and the Wage Act, however, is where the arbitrators have exceeded the scope of their arbitral authority.

Had the arbitration panel found violations of the Wage Act, the employees would have been entitled to attorney fees pursuant to that statute. The court noted, however, that it was unclear whether the findings of the panel had been based upon violations of the Wage Act.

Critically, however, the arbitration panel did not cite the Wage Act as the basis for its award of attorney fees.  Rather, according to the Massachusetts Superior Court, “the panel stated that it had the authority to award fees because each side had requested its fees.  Where the parties mutually request attorney’s fees in an arbitration, courts have concluded that this mutual request can provide the requisite legal basis for an award of fees, even though the general rule is that each party pays its own attorney fees.  This is precisely what happened here.”

In citing other cases containing a similar holding, the court noted that Rule 43(d) of the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association at Rule 43(d) also authorizes the award of attorney fees where all parties have requested it.  In short, “by expressly demanding attorney’s fees and then submitting that demand (through its counterclaim) to arbitration, Credit Suisse effectively gave the arbitrators the authority they would not have otherwise had to award such fees to the prevailing party.”

The court distinguished this situation from Matter of Stewart Abori & Chang, 282 A.D. 2d 385, 723 N.Y.S. 2d 492 (App. Div. 2001), in which the court vacated the arbitrator’s award of attorney fees to the prevailing party because prior to the rendering of the award, the opposing party withdrew its claim to recover its own attorney fees and objected to the opponent’s claim for such relief. It was not deemed, therefore, to have acquiesced in the arbitrator’s consideration of that claim.

Finally, Credit Suisse sought to escape this conclusion by arguing that its counterclaim only asked for “fees,” not “attorney fees.”  This contention was also rejected by the court.  It noted that it was clear from the employees’ closing argument that the employees understood the Credit Suisse counterclaim to be seeking attorney fees and the employees’ own counsel were also seeking attorney fees, regardless of whether an award in its favor was based on a Wage Act violation.  In the face of these contentions by the employees, however, Credit Suisse was silent, neither correcting the supposed mischaracterization of its counterclaim nor making clear that Credit Suisse was not seeking attorney fees.  In addition, its only expressed opposition to the award of attorney fees was based solely on the sufficiency of the fee application submitted by the employees.

Otherwise stated, while Credit Suisse did not actively litigate the issue of its own fees, it never expressly withdrew that claim.  In addition, Credit Suisse did not dispute the employees’ assertion in closing arguments that the parties had agreed to submit the question of attorney fees for resolution by the panel.

In summary, whether arbitrators should be granted the authority to award attorney fees is an issue that must always be considered when drafting an arbitration agreement; and, of course, as the nature of any future dispute is not yet known and the incorporation of such a provision will be adopted without any knowledge of the potential financial burden that may result , counsel must always evaluate the likelihood of success in the arbitration, the relative financial situations of the parties, and the ability to bear such further expense in the event of an adverse result.

What has been further demonstrated here is that parties must remain wary of the possibility of becoming responsible for attorney fees, even when the arbitration agreement does not provide for such by making or joining in such a demand or, perhaps, by simply remaining silent and not objecting in the face of the other side’s request for attorney fees.  Unfortunately, this often occurs merely because parties wish to demonstrate that their aggressiveness and confidence match that of their adversaries.  Ignoring the potential risk of this unintended consequence, however, may result in a significant award well beyond what was contemplated by the parties when they agreed to arbitration.

Abraham J. Gafni is a retired judge and mediator/arbitrator with ADR Options.  He is also a professor of law emeritus at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.