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Category: Fees & Misconduct

Article: Who Pays For Attorney Fees in Litigation?

August 23, 2021

A recent article by Julie Pendleton, “Who Pays For Attorney Fees in Litigation?,” reports on who covers attorney fees in litigation in Washington.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

One of the first questions asked of me by clients when considering litigation is, “Can I make the other side pay for my attorney’s fees?”  In Washington State, the answer to that question is generally no.  This is referred to as the “American Rule.”

Courts have reiterated their support for the American Rule because (1) litigation is inherently a risky proposition, and a party should not be penalized for merely participating in a lawsuit; (2) those without means would be unduly discouraged from pursuing their legal rights if they feared that losing the case would also cost them their opponents’ legal fees; and (3) the cost of proving the amount of legal fees would pose an undue burden on judicial administration.  Blue Sky Advocates v. State, 107 Wn.2d 112, 123, 727 P.2d 644 (1986).

However, there are three exceptions to this rule and Courts can award attorney’s fees where: (1) there is a contractual provision for attorney’s fees, (2) a statute allows for the award of attorney’s fees, and (3) equity allows for attorney’s fees.

Contractual Attorney’s Fees

A litigant can recover attorney fees if the dispute involves a contract that includes a provision that the prevailing party is entitled to recover attorney fees.  It is quite common to see an attorney’s fee provision in adhesion contracts.  The good news is that in Washington, attorney’s fee provisions have to be applied bilaterally, or in other words, even if the contract only provides attorney’s fees provision if Party A wins, the Courts will apply it equally, so whichever party prevails will be entitled to have their attorney’s fees reimbursed by the other side.

While contractual attorney’s fees are enforced as a matter of course in Washington, they do require a “win” to apply.  In some cases where the case ends in a draw or a tie, where both sides lose a little and win a little, the Court may refuse to award fees.  In addition,  most courts will only award “reasonable” attorney’s fees, so an attorney’s fee provision in the Contract should not be treated as a blank check to direct your attorneys to overwork the case.  .

Statutory Attorney’s Fees

In Washington, a party can recover its attorney fees against another party if a law or statute that governs the case provides for the recovery of attorney fees.  There are many types of statutes that include these types of provisions. Examples include parties prevailing on: a Consumer Protection Act claim, an unpaid salary or wages claim, or a discrimination claim. However, each statute is different and should be read carefully.  Some statutes are mandatory while others allow the court to exercise discretion in deciding whether or not to award fees.  Further, some other statutes may only allow a winning plaintiff to recover fees, but not a winning defendant.  For example, if an employer is sued for minimum wage act violations and successfully prevails against the employee, while the employee probably requested the court to pay their fees under the minimum wage act, the employer would not be entitled to a reimbursement of fees at this stage.

Many clients are particularly interested in the frivolous lawsuit statute, which provides for fees and costs if a lawsuit is brought and continued for an improper purpose and is not grounded in fact.  RCW 4.84.0185.  This statute provides attorney’s fees if a litigant is subjected to a lawsuit that is either brought solely to harass or burden the defendant or otherwise is completely fanciful.  However, the standard is high to recover these sort of attorney’s fees as the litigant is required to prove  that the other side was either solely motivated by malice or another improper purpose or that the lawsuit had no chance of winning under any circumstances.  Receiving  attorney’s fees under the frivolous lawsuit statute is difficult, and should never be considered a guaranteed method of recovery.

Equitable Attorney’s Fees

In rare cases, a party can recover attorney’s fees from a party who engages in bad faith litigation conduct.  There are three types of bad faith litigation conduct: (1) pre-litigation misconduct, where a party engages in bad faith conduct that wastes private and judicial resources and forces a legal action to enforce a clearly valid claim or right; (2) procedural misconduct, where a party engages in bad faith conduct during the course of the lawsuit; (3) substantive bad faith, where a party intentionally brings a frivolous clam, counterclaim or defense for an improper motive such as harassment.  While most litigants believe that the other side has engaged in bad faith conduct in some form or another, recovering under this provision is extremely rare.

How does this Impact my Case?

If there is a method to recover attorney’s fees in a case (either by contract or statute), this is vital to discuss early on in the case with an attorney.  Not only can attorney’s fees provisions be used to drive early settlement, but they should also be considered when determining whether or not to bring a lawsuit or counterclaims.

Julie Pendleton is an attorney at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson PLLC in Seattle and a member of the firm’s Business Litigation and Trusts and Estates Litigation practice groups representing individuals and small companies throughout various stages of litigation and dispute resolution.

Judge Slams Attorney For Waste in Deepwater MDL

August 2, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Judge Slams Atty For ‘Shameful’ Waste in Deepwater MDL”, reports that a Louisiana federal judge has sanctioned a plaintiff attorney involved in a sprawling multidistrict litigation over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, calling his multiple lawsuits, duplicative motions and other actions "a colossal waste of time" intended to harass others and get around the court's previous orders.  U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier also required Brian J. Donovan of The Donovan Law Group PLLC to post the sanction on his website.

In a scathing written opinion, Judge Barbier barred Donovan from filing any further suits against other plaintiff attorneys Stephen J. Herman of Herman Herman & Katz LLC and James P. Roy of Domengeaux Wright Roy & Edwards LLC, as well as Patrick A. Juneau of Juneau David APLC, claims administrator for the MDL's economic settlement.

"No party should have had to respond to any of these suits, and no court should have had to entertain them," Judge Barbier wrote. "Donovan has weaponized civil litigation to harass those with whom he disagrees.  His behavior has been a constant drain on judicial resources.  The waste Donovan creates is shameful and appalling."

Donovan had initially represented plaintiffs in a suit over the spill that was rolled into the MDL, but after some of his clients were denied claims, he sued other attorneys and Judge Barbier, saying Barbier should recuse himself over his past ownership of Halliburton Co. and Transocean Ltd. assets and that the other attorneys had colluded on the settlement to the detriment of class members and the benefit of BP PLC, which had operated the oil platform where an explosion started the spill.  Judge Barbier refused to recuse himself in November 2019 and scolded Donovan over his recusal motions but didn't levy sanctions at the time, instead referring his briefs, as well as Herman's opposition to the motion, to the clerk of the court to start a disciplinary proceeding against Donovan.

That suit, which named Herman as a defendant, was dismissed in March 2020, and Donovan filed two more, making the same allegations but adding the judge, Roy and Juneau as defendants, and both were voluntarily dismissed before Herman, Roy and Juneau moved for sanctions earlier this year, and at a hearing July 23, Judge Barbier granted the motions.

In the written order, Judge Barbier held little back, slamming Donovan's suits, as well as response briefs that came with more than 1,000 pages of exhibits, as repetitive and baseless, and attempts to harass those in the suit he disagreed with.  "Throughout the life of this MDL Donovan has inundated the court with wave after wave of motions that often do no more than repeat previous arguments," the judge wrote. "These practices have wasted the court's time and that of his opponents."

The judge further added that neither Donovan nor his clients have standing to assert many of the arguments he makes, as he's never argued that he or his clients are class members and his objections to the settlement are far too late.  "The fact that Donovan lacks standing to press his arguments makes every moment spent addressing them — whether by the parties, this court, or any other judicial body — a colossal waste of time," Judge Barbier wrote.

He added that it's "telling" that Donovan never sued BP, even though his filings point out that BP is liable for damages from the oil spill, and if he had he might have had a chance of recovering money for his clients, but instead he's only shown that his purpose in bringing the suits was to harass others.  Thus, Judge Barbier found it proper to block Donovan from filing yet another suit against Herman and the others over the same allegations, and further ordered Donovan to pay Herman's, Roy's and Juneau's attorney fees.

While Judge Barbier stopped short of fining Donovan for his behavior, he ordered Donovan to post a copy of the order on his website, as well as any other websites or blogs he owns, operates or maintains, and to provide the court with proof that he has given a copy of the order to his clients from his initial suit in the MDL.

Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M Fee Reduction During Appeal

March 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Brian Dowling, “Lieff Cabraser Can’t Freeze $1M State St. Fee Cut Amid Appeal,” reports that Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP failed to persuade a Massachusetts federal judge to freeze $1.1 million of its fee slated for repayment in the wake of an overbilling scandal connected to a $300 million settlement with State Street Corp.  The firm, one of three ordered to repay seven-figure sums to the settlement fund, had sought to keep the money in escrow as it asks the First Circuit to review Senior U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf's reallocations of the fee award.

Denying Lieff Cabraser's motion in a 57-page order, Judge Wolf said the firm isn't likely to succeed on appeal and also faces no threat of irreparable harm if the money isn't frozen.  Instead of facing the tough odds of potentially having to recoup distributed settlement funds from the class, Lieff Cabraser would get any increase ordered by the First Circuit from its co-counsel, Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law Firm LLP.

Labaton Sucharow and Thornton received the bulk of the blame for improprieties and overbilling practices and repaid much higher sums to the settlement fund when Judge Wolf slashed the fee award from $75 million to $60 million in February 2020.  The two firms did not appeal the reallocation but supported Lieff Cabraser's request for a stay, Judge Wolf noted.

"The repeated, egregious misconduct of Labaton and Thornton alone caused the court to decide that it was most appropriate to award $60,000,000," Judge Wolf said. "If the court had allocated an additional $1,140,000 to Lieff, it would have reduced the awards to Labaton and Thornton by that amount."

Judge Wolf disputed Lieff Cabraser's arguments that the court violated noticing requirements in sanctioning it with the lower fee award.  There was no sanction, Judge Wolf said, just the court taking into account "proven misconduct of Labaton and Thornton in deciding to make a new fee award."  The court explained that its review of the attorney overbilling referred to Lieff Cabraser's conduct as "deficient" rather than as "misconduct" delineating that the firm's shortcomings were not critical to the new lower fee award.

The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that Boston-based State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade. State Street settled the claims in 2016 for $300 million.  Judge Wolf approved the initial $75 million fee in 2016 but vacated that order after allegations of double-billing surfaced in a 2016 Boston Globe report.  He appointed retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen as a special master to investigate the fee.  The firms admitted to overstating their billing but contended the $75 million fee was still proper.

Judge Rosen in 2018 recommended the firms disgorge just over $10 million, but Judge Wolf's 160-page order in late February ruled that the cuts should be even deeper and took the firms to task in the process.  Also before Judge Wolf is a legal fight between Thornton and its liability insurer over whether the company, Continental Casualty, can avoid covering the firm's attorney fees stemming from the court-ordered overbilling probe.

Judge Orders Attorney Fee Dispute to Arbitration

March 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Emma Whitford, “Atty Must Arbitrate Fee Dispute With Racehorse Trader,” reports that a California judge ordered an attorney to arbitrate her dispute with a U.K. racehorse auctioneer company, her former client, over fees allegedly due when she represented the company accusing a financier of failing to pay for a racehorse.  Attorney Diana Courteau of California claimed in her April complaint that Tattersalls Ltd., the racehorse company, failed to pay her $73,255.34 for the months of February and March 2020, after firing her that March.  The six-claim complaint also accused Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins LLP, the company's English counsel, of fraud and intentional misrepresentation.

But Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins pushed back with a motion to dismiss, pointing to an arbitration provision in their contract with Courteau and claiming that she failed to give them proper notice under the California Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act, which lays out rules for the handling of attorney-client fee disputes.  "Here, it is undisputed that [the] plaintiff did not provide the mandatory notice form to defendants," U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled, adding that the case will be stayed while arbitration goes forward.

"Moreover," Judge Gee added, "the agreement between plaintiff and Tattersalls contains a broad arbitration provision governing the very dispute at issue."  Specifically, a "dispute over legal bills that alleges breach of contract and related claims."  Courteau had argued that Bracher Rawlins could not compel her to arbitrate because the firm is not a signatory to her agreement with Tattersalls.  But Judge Gee disagreed, saying that Bracher Rawlins will be part of the arbitration as an "agent" of Tattersalls.

It is "well settled that a nonsignatory may compel a signatory to arbitrate based on agency principles," Judge Gee wrote, adding that Bracher Rawlins "was only in a position to direct or authorize plaintiff to perform legal work for Tattersalls in its capacity as Tattersalls' agent."  The order is just the latest development in the litigious fallout of Tattersalls' working relationship with Courteau, who represented the company in various matters from 2011 until March of last year.

Last June, in the case Courteau worked for Tattersalls until they fired her, U.S. District Judge Karen S. Crawford ordered Courteau to pay $31,772.62 in sanctions to defendants Gerald Wiener and his entity Finance California Inc., court records show.  The sanctions covered attorney fees for a two-day deposition last January in which the court found that Courteau coached the witness, as well as the cost of preparing the sanctions motion, court records show.

Wiener and Finance California had also sought termination sanctions, a serious sanction that would have ended the case, for Courteau's alleged "abusive" and "hardball" tactics.  But Judge Crawford denied that motion, saying the "worst of this conduct has been addressed" and "monetary sanctions have been imposed which should be enough to deter future misconduct."  Courteau has yet to pay the sanctions, court records show.  Attorneys for Wiener filed a notice of lien in the instant suit on Jan. 15.

In a Feb. 4 declaration to the court, Courteau urged Judge Gee to proceed with a trial for her fee dispute or, in the alternative, send the case to "global mediation" along with the Wiener case, which is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.  "Plaintiff is willing to stipulate (notwithstanding meritorious grounds for appeal) that ... the $31,772,62 (sanctions) can be paid from fees owed by defendants," Courteau wrote.

Article: When is ‘No Fee’ a Reasonable Fee?

March 6, 2021

A recent article by Karen M. Morinelli and Samantha E. Dunton-Gallagher, “When Is ‘No Fee’ a Reasonable Fee? 11th Circuit’s Guidance on Reasonableness in FLSA Attorneys’ Fees Cases,” reports on a recent FLSA fee ruling in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On February 1, 2021, in an unpublished opinion resolving a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) attorney’s fees dispute, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Batista v. South Florida Womans Health Associates, Inc., struck another blow against unreasonable plaintiffs’ counsel seeking “reasonable” fees.  Mitzy Batista appealed the district court’s finding that it would be unreasonable to award her counsel, Elliot Kozolchyk, any attorney’s fees given his conduct during litigation filed under the FLSA.  Ultimately, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court to make necessary findings of fact and to issue its ruling regarding whether the employer had mailed a replacement check.  However, in doing so, the Eleventh Circuit provided additional analysis as to when reasonable attorneys’ fees in an FLSA case may be no fee at all.

Background

Mitzy Batista was employed for slightly over two weeks in January 2018 by South Florida Woman’s Health Associates, Inc., when she was discharged for missing work.  Batista claimed that she never received her last paycheck and was owed $275.50 for the 38 hours she worked.  South Florida Woman’s Health Associates claimed that Batista’s last paycheck was mailed to her last known address and that because the check was not returned, and because Batista did not contact the company, South Florida Woman’s Health Associates assumed that all was well.  Batista, however, claimed that she called her former employer’s office the day after she was fired and asked for her final paycheck.  She alleged that at first she was told she would be paid by direct deposit, only to be told a few days later by the receptionist that the owner of the clinic, Edward D. Eckert, was not going to pay her at all.

Batista met with her counsel, Kozolchyk, three weeks after her employment was terminated.  But in the three months that followed, neither Batista nor Kozolchyk contacted her former employer to ask about the missing check.  In May 2018, Batista sued her former employer, raising claims under the FLSA including violations of the minimum-wage provision, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.  After receiving notice of the lawsuit, Eckert offered to send Batista a check for her unpaid wages but not her attorney’s fees.  Kozolchyk ignored Eckert’s initial offer.  When the counsel for South Florida Woman’s Health Associates and Eckert himself reached out again, they offered to clear up the matter and offered to pay the unpaid wages and court costs.

Kozolchyk initially ignored their communications and about a month later rejected the settlement offer.  Kozolchyk insisted on receiving attorney’s fees in an amount greater than what Eckert believed to be reasonable, stating, “my client cannot agree to shoulder the fees in this case … [for] those are recoverable against the defendants above and beyond the value of the claim.”  Kozolchyk then demanded his fees in the amount of $3,200, and Eckert counteroffered $1,100 in attorney’s fees.  Ultimately, the parties settled and agreed that Batista was to be paid $551 in unpaid wages, liquidated damages, and costs in the amount of $523, and that “the task of deciding the question of reasonable attorney’s fees” would be left to the district court.  The settlement was approved and Batista filed her motion for attorneys’ fees, seeking $10,675 in fees for the 30.5 hours Kozolchyk claimed to have expended litigating the case.  The district court referred the motion to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation.

The magistrate judge, although “acknowledging the general requirement that prevailing plaintiffs in FLSA actions receive some award of attorney’s fees,” recommended that the court deny Batista’s motion and not award her attorney’s fees.  “Specifically, the magistrate judge found that (i) Defendants timely issued and mailed Plaintiff her final paycheck to the address she provided, (ii) Kozolchyk made no effort to contact Defendants to inform them that Plaintiff had not received her check before suing, and (iii) had he done so, he would have discovered that Defendants had sent Plaintiff’s paycheck to her address and were willing to issue another.”  Accordingly, the magistrate judge deemed Batista’s fee demands to be “excessive relative to the minimal work [i.e., a brief phone call] necessary to resolve the matter and make his client whole.”  The district court adopted the factual determinations and legal conclusions contained in the report and recommendation and rejected Batista’s objections, which included an affidavit in which she averred that she had telephoned someone in South Florida Woman’s Health Associates’ payroll department to request her last paycheck.  South Florida Woman’s Health Associates did not provide an affidavit to support its own allegations.

The Court’s Analysis

In determining whether the district court abused its discretion when it determined that a reasonable attorney’s fee in the case was no fee, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed guidance provided by analogous case law in the Southern District of Florida—including cases where plaintiffs were also represented by Kozolchyk.

Initially, the court discussed the “seminal district court case” of Goss v. Killian Oaks House of Learning, which was decided in 2003.  There, the plaintiff was a former employee who alleged she was owed two days of pay.  The former employer had issued a check and told her to pick it up, but instead of doing so, she hired a lawyer who sued the former employer for failure to pay wages.  The plaintiff’s lawyer asked for over $16,000 in attorneys’ fees where the matter settled for slightly over $300 for unpaid wages.  The Goss court stated that regardless of “the FLSA’s provision for a mandatory award of attorney’s fees for a prevailing plaintiff, ‘an entitlement to attorney’s fees cannot be a carte blanche license for Plaintiffs to outrageously and in bad faith run up attorney fees without any threat of sanction.’”  The Goss court “concluded that there are ‘special circumstances’ that can render the award of attorney’s fees unjust and that ‘so-called nuisance settlements represent such a circumstance.’”

The Eleventh Circuit also discussed Nelson v. Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design, Inc., a 2018 case in which “the [district] court denied in its entirety a fee request by counsel in [the] case, Mr. Kozolchyk.”  The plaintiff in Nelson had sued for two days of unpaid wages equaling $116, and after settlement, Kozolchyk had sought more than $9,000 in attorney’s fees.  In Nelson, the employer had immediately tried to resolve the matter after suit was filed by paying the unpaid wages at issue, plus $1,500 in attorney’s fees and costs, which Kozolchyk declined.  The employer, through counsel, then physically tendered the money in question and offered $2,000 in fees and costs, but Kozolchyk still declined.  The Nelson court ultimately determined that ‘Kozolchyk’s “sole intent [at that point] was to run up his bill.’”  Therefore, the Nelson court concluded, awarding any attorney’s fees would be “unreasonable, unjust, and inequitable.”

Similarly, in the 2019 case of Olguin v. Florida’s Ultimate Heavy Hauling, after Kozolchyk had filed suit, “the employer unconditionally tendered to Kozolchyk all the wages requested by the plaintiff, but Kozolchyk refused to accept the tendered paycheck” and lengthy litigation ensued on a separate claim, which he ultimately abandoned.  Kozolchyk ultimately sought attorney’s fees of over $36,000.  The Olguin court denied the request for attorney’s fees, finding that Kozolchyk’s “conduct was part of a strategy to churn the file and create unnecessary attorney’s fees.”

The Eleventh Circuit, analyzing the prior case law, clarified that the absence of any inquiry by counsel notifying an employer prior to filing an FLSA action was not in and of itself sufficient to deny attorney’s fees.  Specifically, the court noted that although it had denied fees in Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., a 2009 case in which the plaintiff’s counsel had filed a lawsuit without contacting the prospective defendants to resolve the matter extrajudicially, the holding was limited to the facts of that case—“an FLSA suit filed against fellow attorneys as defendants.”  Indeed, the court emphasized that an attorney is required under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “to make reasonable inquiry into the facts underlying a claim.”  That is, “litigation in which the defendant-employer has done what it should reasonably do to get payment to a former employee, but in which the employee or her attorney has made no pre-suit effort to inform the employer that the payment was never received creates a scenario fitting into the … ‘nuisance litigation’ category.”

Ultimately, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case because the primary reason for the district court’s holding that attorney’s fees should not be awarded rested on “the finding that Defendants had actually mailed a final check to Plaintiff prior to her lawsuit.”  However, the record lacked evidence to support this finding because “Defendants had never supported their factual position with an affidavit, [so] their assertions were likewise insufficient to create an adequate evidentiary basis for findings that Plaintiff ultimately contested.”

Key Takeaways

The decision provides helpful guidance to employers.  In instances in which an employee is seeking unpaid wages where the amount of wages sought is partly or fully contested, the employer may want to consider tendering payment in full pre-suit where such sum is nominal.  Providing full tender of the payment may assist in preventing an overinflated award of attorneys’ fees and costs where the employee’s counsel’s primary intent is to “churn the file” and gain fees in bad faith.  When considering their options, employers may want to take heed that FLSA cases are fact-specific.

Karen Morinelli is the Office Managing Shareholder of Ogletree Deakins’ Tampa office.  As a former General Counsel and Vice President of Human Resources, she brings a strong business perspective to both client relations and in her approach to manage client issues.  She counsels employers in all aspects of labor and employment law including employer/employee relations, litigation, and alternative dispute resolution.

Samantha Dunton-Gallagher is Of Counsel in Ogletree Deakins’ Miami office and represents employers in cases that involve, among other things, alleged wrongful termination, harassment, discrimination, wage and hour violations and unfair business practices.  She regularly interacts with state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

This article was drafted by the attorneys of Ogletree Deakins, a labor and employment law firm representing management, and is reprinted with permission.  This information should not be relied upon as legal advice.