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Category: Fee Issues on Appeal

Defense ‘Prevailing Party’ in DVPA Case Dropped by Plaintiff

October 9, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Defendant Was ‘Prevailing Party’ in Action Under DVPA Where Plaintiff Dropped Case,” reports that a judge erred in finding that a defendant was not the “prevailing party” in a civil action brought to impose a domestic violence restraining order on him, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, proclaiming that he did prevail even though the circumstances were that the plaintiff dismissed her petition after gaining such an order in a separate criminal proceeding.

But, Justice Anne H. Egerton of Div. Three said in an unpublished opinion, that does not mean that the order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jonathan L. Rosenbloom denying an award of attorney fees to the defendant in the civil case need be reversed.  Such an award is discretionary, she noted, and, under Art, VI, §13 of the state Constitution, reversal is called for only where an error has resulted “in a miscarriage of justice” which, she declared, did not occur.

Burbank attorney David D. Diamond—a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Los Angeles Superior Court who has announced his candidacy in the 2022 election—represented defendant Joshua Nathaniel Rivers in the trial court and on appeal. In seeking an award of $6,300 in attorney fees in favor of his client, sued by Marcia Bennett under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”), Diamond said in an April 2, 2019 notice of motion that his client was “was compelled to respond to and defend a frivolous action,” and set forth in his memorandum of points and authorities: “Petitioners case was adjudicated in favor of Respondent. On November 20, 2018 the Petitioner asked for an additional hearing date to retain an attorney.  On December 10, 2018, the new hearing date, she failed to appear.”

He added in a declaration: “It is my belief that Petitioner should pay for the Respondent’s attorney’s fees because she [sic] is the prevailing party.”  In an opposing declaration dated May 29, 2019, Northridge attorney Bernal P. Ojeda (who also represented Bennett in the appeal) protested:

“The Respondent’s claim as a prevailing party is misleading.  Respondent at the present time has a four year criminal restraining order against him, not mentioned in the current motion….[T]his was the reason Petitioner did not appear for the hearing in the instant case. The criminal case is a related case and the criminal protective order should have been mentioned to this court but was not.  Given the fact that there is an existing restraining order against Respondent and protecting Petitioner, Respondent cannot claim he is a prevailing party nor can he have that status.”  (Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Mirich granted the restraining order on Nov. 30, 2018, 10 days before the hearing at which Bennett did not appear.)

Ojeda said in his memorandum of points and authorities: “The criminal action now pending is a related case, involving the same parties, same incident and set of facts.”  The minute order of the June 4 hearing before Rosenbloom on the motion for attorney fees simply recites: “The Court finds Respondent is not the prevailing party.  “Motion Hearing re attorney fees is denied with prejudice.”

In her opinion upholding the outcome, Egerton said: “Rivers has not demonstrated the trial court’s erroneous prevailing party determination resulted in a miscarriage of justice….[B]ecause Rivers was the respondent on Bennett’s petition for a domestic violence restraining order, the trial court had discretion to deny his request for prevailing party attorney fees under [Family Code] section 6344, subdivision (a).”

She continued: “On the record before us, it is not reasonably probable that the court would have awarded Rivers the attorney fees he requested, even if the court had properly deemed him the prevailing party on the petition. And, based on this record, we cannot say the court’s denial of prevailing party attorney fees would have been an abuse of discretion.”  The judge went on to say: “And, given that Bennett dismissed her petition only after already obtaining the protection she sought under the DVPA, we cannot say the trial court’s denial of attorney fees on this ground would have been an abuse of discretion.”

Judge Acted Arbitrarily in Setting ADA Attorney Fee Award

October 8, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Judge Acted Arbitrarily in Setting ADA Attorney Fee Award,” reports that a District Court judge, in setting an attorney fee award, acted arbitrarily in disregarding the services of three of five lawyers who represented the plaintff in securing a settlement of his action under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and the state Unruh Act and by making a 10 percent deduction as a penalty for the law firm inflating its fees, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

Its memorandum opinion comes in a case bought by the Center for Disability Access, a division of the San Diego law firm of Potter Handy LLP, on behalf of Antonio Fernandez, who is wheelchair-bound.  The center brings hundreds of ADA and Unruh actions each year, using a stable of plaintiffs, including Fernandez.  The appeal came in a case instituted in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Roberta A. Torres, who owned real property in Whittier and against CBC Restaurant Corp., which operated the Corner Bakery Café on Torres’s property. The suit was brought over the height of the counter.

In making his award of attorney fees, Judge Fernando M. Olguin said in a July 14, 2020 order: “Despite many years of experience litigating the two claims in this case in virtually hundreds of cases, and a docket that reflects little, if any, litigation in this case, plaintiff seeks $15,762.50 for the work performed by five attorneys….Further, the cases filed by plaintiff include nearly identical complaints and subsequent filings.”  Olguin made note of three of the several ADA-based actions the center has recently brought in the Central District with Fernandez serving as the plaintiff.

The judge opined that the “assignment of so many experienced attorneys to such a simple case replete with boilerplate documents resulted in substantial task padding, duplication, over-conferencing, attorney stacking, and overall excessiveness,” declaring: “Given the simplicity of the case and ADA accessibility cases in general, the quick settlement and apparent lack of any contested litigation matters in this case, and the lack of any dispositive motions, no more than one partner and one associate was necessary to prosecute this case.  Thus, the court will reduce the fee award by cutting the fees for three of the five attorneys.”

He opted to take cognizance only the services of the lead attorrney, Christina “Chris” Carson, who was admitted to practice on Dec. 2, 2011, and Mark D. Potter, whose State Bar membership goes back to Dec. 1, 1993.

Potter sought recompense at an hourly rate of $595 and Carson wanted to be paid $450 an hour. Olguin said that taking into account the various factors customarily assessed in setting attorney fees, “$425 is reasonable for attorney Potter, and an hourly rate of $275 is reasonable for attorney Carson.”  Noting that there was a “quick settlement of this routine, non-complex case, where plaintiff did not file or oppose any dispositive motions,” Olguin declared that “the court will apply a ten percent reduction.”  After subtracting “10% of the time billed for general excessiveness,” he awarded $3,897 in attorney fees—slightly less than 25 percent of what was sought.  Olguin allowed the $642.50 in costs that were claimed.

Reversal came in an opinion signed by Circuit Judges Susan P. Graber and John B. Owens and by District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California, sitting by designation. The judges said: “While we agree with the district court that Fernandez’s lawyers overbilled, it was ‘arbitrary’ to ignore entirely the time billed by three of the five lawyers….These three appear to have performed at least some necessary work….To the extent that overstaffing resulted in inefficiencies, the district court should reduce the fee award in proportion to those inefficiencies, rather than Through a ‘shortcut.’ ”

The opinion continues: “The district court also abused its discretion in calculating the hours of the two attorneys whose work it considered.  The court provided cogent reasons for its specific cuts as to various tasks, but its final additional 10% reduction for ‘general excessiveness’ lacked any justification.”  Olguin did not abuse his discretion in setting the rates for Carson and Potter, the Ninth Circuit said, because they had nor provided evidence substantiating the higher value they ascribed to their services.

Article: Ninth Circuit Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Attorney Fees in Class Actions

September 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Jason Russell, Hilary Hamilton and Adam Lloyd of Skadden Arps, “9th Circ. Ruling Signals Scrutiny of Class Settlement Fees,” reports on a recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Despite the playful tone of the Briseño v. Henderson decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June, class action litigators should take the case seriously when structuring class action settlements.  Amid a thicket of pop-culture references, the Briseño panel held that under the revised Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2), federal courts must heavily scrutinize any settlement made on behalf of a class — whether pre- or post-class certification — to ensure that counsel for the defendant and the class have not colluded on an unfair distribution of settlement funds between recovery for the class and the fees for its attorneys.

Over a decade ago, in June 2011, the Briseño plaintiffs alleged that defendant ConAgra Foods Inc. misled consumers who wished to avoid consuming genetically modified organisms by placing a "100% Natural" label on its Wesson cooking oil brand, which allegedly contained GMO ingredients.  Notwithstanding the fact that the parties had been litigating the plaintiffs' false advertising claims for nearly 10 years, the Ninth Circuit rejected the parties' settlement that was negotiated after class certification, on grounds raised by a single objector.  The panel took significant issue with the class counsel's fee award, and found that the settlement "reek[ed]" of collusion.

The panel determined that the parties' settlement agreement and fee arrangement "raise[d] a squadron of red flags billowing in the wind and begg[ed] for further review," because (1) class counsel would receive disproportionately more money than the class; (2) the defendant agreed not to challenge class counsel's requested fee award (and any reduction in fees would revert to the defendant); and (3) the labeling-change injunctive relief that class counsel secured was "worthless," so it could not be used to justify class counsel's fee here.

The panel grounded its analysis in the history and text of Rule 23(e)(2), which was revised in December 2018, and requires a court to ensure that a class settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate.  Prior to the 2018 revision, however, Rule 23(e) did not provide guidance as to what was fair, reasonable or adequate.  So the Ninth Circuit filled in the gaps by providing several factors for district courts to consider, including the strength of the plaintiffs' claims and the risk and expense of further litigation at the stage of the proceedings.

The Ninth Circuit also was particularly wary of settlements reached on behalf of a class precertification — where it found that counsel may be most incentivized to maximize their own financial gain at the expense of the class members — and in 2011, provided an additional instruction for courts to watch out for what it called "subtle signs" that class counsel was putting their own self-interest before the class.

These signs included: (1) counsel receiving a disproportionate distribution of the settlement; (2) parties negotiating a "clear sailing arrangement," under which the defendant agrees not to challenge a request for an agreed-upon attorney fee; and (3) an agreement containing a "kicker" or "reverter" clause, that returns unawarded fees to the defendant, rather than the class.  In the Ninth Circuit, these are commonly known as the Bluetooth factors.

Then, in 2018, Rule 23 was amended to set forth specific factors for courts to consider when determining whether a class settlement was adequate, including "the costs, risks, and delay of trial and appeal"; "the effectiveness of any proposed method of distributing relief to the class, including the method of processing class-member claims"; and "the terms of any proposed award of attorney's fees, including timing of payment."

The Briseño panel focused on this last factor, and held that the new Rule 23(e) "indicates that a court must examine whether the attorneys' fees arrangement shortchanges the class" for all class settlements.  As a result, the panel found, district courts should apply the Bluetooth heightened scrutiny factors for both pre- and post-class certification settlements to "smoke out" potential collusion on attorney fee arrangements.

Applying the Bluetooth factors to the Briseño class counsel's fee arrangement here, the panel concluded that the fee arrangement "features all three red flags of potential collusion."  First, the panel noted the "gross disparity in distribution of funds between class members and their class counsel raises an urgent red flag," as counsel was set to receive nearly $7 million in fees, while the class received less than $1 million.

The panel found this disparity particularly problematic here because the parties knowingly structured a relatively common claims-made settlement, requiring class members to submit a claim to obtain a recovery, for a low-ticket item, which typically results in what the panel called "notoriously low" redemption rates. In this case, class members would recover 15 cents per unit of Wesson oil purchased during the class period.

Second, ConAgra agreed not to challenge the fees for class counsel, and the panel held that "the very existence of a clear sailing provision increases the likelihood that class counsel will have bargained away something of value to the class."  Third, the agreement provided that ConAgra was to receive any remaining funds if the district court reduced the agreed-upon attorney fees for class counsel, and the panel concluded that if a court determined the "full amount unreasonable, there is no plausible reason why the class should not benefit from the spillover of excessive fees."

Significantly, the panel also held that the settlement's injunctive relief component — ConAgra's agreement to no longer market Wesson oil as "100% Natural" — could not be used to justify the class counsel's excessive fee.  The panel panned the injunctive relief as "virtually worthless," "illusory" and "meaningless," because ConAgra had already decided to stop using the "100% Natural" label two years before the settlement agreement was reached — for reasons it stated were unrelated to the litigation — and no longer even owned the Wesson oil brand.

Although ConAgra's sale of the Wesson oil brand in Briseño clearly presents an uncommon circumstance, the panel made clear that going forward, courts must eliminate inflated valuations of injunctive relief "untethered to reality" that are used to justify excessive fee awards for class counsel.  Briseño's discussion of worthless injunctive relief will have significant repercussions for future settlement of many California federal class actions, as many companies often make labeling changes for business reasons before any complaints are even filed.

While the panel expressly stated that its decision did not mean that "courts have a duty to maximize the settlement fund for class members," and a "class does not need to receive much for a settlement to be fair when the class gives up very little," the practical effect of, and takeaway from, Briseño is that class counsel should expect significantly more resistance from defense counsel and courts to high attorney fee awards in class action settlements.

This will especially impact low-value and/or labeling claims arising from a plaintiff's subjective beliefs of purported harm — particularly when a defendant has already decided to make a labeling change for business reasons.  In such cases, the relief that counsel can secure for the class is likely to be limited, and Briseño plainly requires a commensurate fee award for class counsel.

Jason D. Russell is a partner, and Hillary A. Hamilton and Adam K. Lloyd are associates, at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Attorney Fees, PA Justices Told

September 24, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Court Can’t Bar Injured Workers’ Atty Fees, Pa. Justices Told,” reports that a worker told the Pennsylvania high court that he should be allowed to seek attorney's fees from PennDOT after he won a workers' compensation case, arguing the lower court improperly shut the door on injured workers getting their employers to pay legal bills.  Arguing before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, an attorney representing injured PennDOT worker Vincent Lorino said Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson's opinion misstated that workers' compensation judges "shall" deny fees when an employer's challenge of a worker's claim for benefits is reasonable, when the law says "may."

"I was surprised at how blunt and direct Judge Brobson's opinion was, when it said 'despite the General Assembly's use of the word may, this court has always interpreted Section 440' this way," said George Badey of Badey Sloan & DiGenova.  "You can't do that, respectfully.  The courts can't do that."  Badey asked the justices to rule that Lorino could still ask for PennDOT to pay his legal fees and that the lower court had run afoul of the Statutory Construction Act in substituting its own wording for the legislature's.

According to court records, Lorino sprained his lower back and hip on the job in 2016 and started getting regular steroid injections that allowed him to return to work.  PennDOT, which was covering his medical costs but providing no missed-work benefits, sought to terminate the medical payments in 2017 and offered a doctor's opinion that Lorino's work-related injury had fully healed.  A workers' compensation judge reversed PennDOT's denial in 2018 but ruled that Lorino had to pay his own legal bills because PennDOT's challenge to his claim had been reasonable.  On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Judge Brobson said in August 2020 that the workers' compensation judge was right and that the courts had always interpreted that section of the law as denying fees unless the challenge was unreasonable.

In the argument to the high court, Badey said courts had to interpret the law as it was written and could not change the wording.  He said siding with his client would affect only a narrow group of workers like him who were still working and not getting wage benefits that could be split with an attorney as part of a contingency fee agreement.  Chief Justice Max Baer pressed Badey on whether reopening the possibility of fees would just shift the debate to whether an employer's challenge was reasonable, which would be up to the workers' compensation judge's discretion.

Eleventh Circuit Trims Fee Award for South Beach Liquor Store

September 21, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “11th Circ. Shaves Fee Award in Miami Beach Liquor Store Row,” reports that the Eleventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that an attorney fee award for the city of Miami Beach in a dispute with a South Beach liquor store owner should be reduced, because while the business' due process claims against the city were frivolous, its First Amendment retaliation claim was not.

The appeals court said the closure of Ocean 9 Liquor came one day after its owner, Doron Doar, met with the deputy city attorney to discuss concerns about local regulations restricting alcohol sales in the city's mixed use entertainment, or MXE, district that encompasses the famed Ocean Drive.

That close temporal relation between Doar's protected First Amendment conduct and the challenged closure of his store is enough to make the claim "not wholly without foundation," according to the Eleventh Circuit. This is especially true when the deputy city attorney told counsel for Doar a few days later that the closure of the liquor store was not a coincidence and was a long time coming, according to the opinion.

"It was not unreasonable for Beach Blitz to believe that the city shut down its store as a response to Beach Blitz's protected First Amendment conduct," the appeals court said. "The claim, while properly rejected by the district court, was not frivolous."

The First Amendment retaliation claim was the only one that U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro allowed Doar to amend, but when he opted not to amend the claim, the judge dismissed the case. On appeal, Doar argued that voluntary dismissal does not warrant an award of fees to a defendant.

But the Eleventh Circuit said the dismissal was involuntary, as it was done in response to the city's motion to dismiss, which Doar opposed. The appeals court said it had "little difficulty concluding" that this involuntary dismissal made the city a prevailing party.

The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to Judge Ungaro to determine which part of the $132,785 fee award was attributable to the First Amendment retaliation claim and excise it.

Doar, who operates Ocean 9 Liquor and Ocean 11 Market through his company Beach Blitz Co., sued the city in October 2017, alleging that city commissioners engaged in a campaign to put him out of business by passing ordinances restricting alcohol sales in the MXE district.

An October 2016 ordinance blocked packaged sales of alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises in the MXE district. The four existing liquor stores, including Ocean 9 and Ocean 11, were grandfathered in, according to court documents.

In subsequent ordinances, Miami Beach limited the hours in which alcohol could be sold in the MXE district.

The move was ostensibly an effort to combat crime and rowdiness in the area, but Doar says his business and others like it were unfairly blamed for the area's problems. He pointed to an October 2016 interview with the Miami Herald in which then-Mayor Philip Levine called certain South Beach businesses that sold liquor "malignant tumors."

As the city commissioners were passing these local regulations, Doar had failed to pay his required business tax receipt for Ocean 9 for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, according to court documents. He did not discover the oversight until eight months after it was due.

The city says Doar — who was also embroiled in a fight over several citations for selling alcohol after the approved hours — did not pay the business tax until more than a year after the business' license had expired. Because the license had not been renewed within the fiscal year, it was deemed closed and a new license application was required. But new licenses for liquor stores in the MXE district were not allowed under the new ordinance.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jill Pryor, Kevin Newsom and Stanley Marcus sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.