Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Fee Issues on Appeal

First Circuit Deepens Circuit Split on SSA Fee Award Timing

November 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Circuit Affirms Fee Award for Abortion Protestors

November 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninth Circuit: Minimal Fee Award Upheld in ‘Abusive’ ADA Suits

October 25, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hanna Albarazi, “9th Circ. Slams ‘Abusive’ ADA Suits in Upholding Atty Fee Cut” reports that a Ninth Circuit panel on upheld a decision to slash attorney fees in an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit over a lack of accessible parking, suggesting in a scathing published opinion that the suit amounted to "abusive ADA litigation" by a serial litigant.  The circuit panel held that a California federal judge had not abused his discretion in reducing the attorney fees in an open-and-shut case over a lack of accessible parking spaces at a Los Angeles County shopping center, but the panel also used its opinion as an opportunity to rail against a perceived blight caused by serial ADA plaintiffs.

"The ADA satisfied the need for meaningful legislation for the protection of individuals with disabilities; however, one of the unforeseen consequences of this statute was the widespread abuse taking form due to the actions of serial ADA plaintiffs," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., who penned the unanimous opinion.  Smith wrote that the ability to recover attorney fees in ADA cases "has given rise to a wave of 'get-money quick' lawsuits brought by a small number of professional, serial plaintiffs."

However, enforcement of the ADA falls on persons with disabilities.  As a result, disabilities rights advocates frequently contend that bringing suit against violators increases accessibility.  Plaintiff James Shayler, who has physical disabilities that make walking and standing difficult, sued property owner 1310 PCH LLC in California federal court in November 2020, claiming its property in Hermosa Beach was in violation of the ADA and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act.

Shayler's suit went largely uncontested, resulting in summary judgment in his favor on the ADA claim and an award of injunctive relief. The court, however, declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the Unruh Act.  Shayler then moved for over $34,000 in attorney fees and costs.

But U.S. District Judge George H. Wu concluded that the hourly rates and the time spent by his attorneys on the case were unreasonable given that the nature of the legal work was routine and because there had been a lack of meaningful opposition by the defendant.  Judge Wu adopted a $300 per hour blended billing rate for the work performed by Shayler's four attorneys and reduced the overall fee total by 65%.  In September 2021, Judge Wu ultimately awarded just under $10,000 in attorney fees and costs to Shayler.

Shayler quickly appealed the award, arguing that the downward reduction was unjustified.  The appellate panel affirmed the lower court's ruling.  "Given the repetitive nature of high-frequency ADA litigation, there was nothing irrational about the district court's conclusions that, in effect, much of the work here could have been performed by junior associates or even paralegals, or that much of the motion practice in the case was superfluous," Judge Smith wrote.

Judge Smith said the district court's choice of a $300 per hour blended billing rate was largely based on its finding that this was "a run-of-the-mill repeat-player ADA case lacking in legal, factual, or procedural complexity."  The district court cited decisions determining that serial ADA litigation, such as Shayler's, does not involve particularly complex work justifying partner-level billing rates, the panel said.  "A hallmark of abusive ADA litigation is the use of form complaints containing a multitude of boilerplate allegations of varying merit," the panel wrote.

Federal Circuit Urged to Toss IP Fee Award in ‘Exceptional Case’

October 20, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Kelly Leinhard, “Reverse Dish, Sirius XM Fee Award in IP Row, Fed. Circ. Urged” reports that patent-holding company Dragon Intellectual Property LLC urged a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling that found a decade-long infringement fight exceptional, allowing counsel for Dish Network and Sirius XM to collect more than $3 million in attorney fees.  Dragon alleged that the Delaware district court abused its discretion when finding the case exceptional, which led to higher attorney fees, by misreading claim language and not fully considering Dragon's expert testimony.

"When it accepted the unreviewed determination as resolving the issues presented by the exceptional case motions, the district court disregarded Dragon's presentation, ignored the requirements of Supreme Court authority, and abused its discretion," Dragon said.  "The exceptional case finding should be reversed."

The district court had found that the case was exceptional and that the defense team was entitled to higher fees because the infringement allegations had no merit when faced with "one of the clearest cases of prosecution history disclaimer the court had ever seen."  Disclaimers are made by applicants during patent application reviews and can limit the scope of protection provided by a patent.

Even without the disclaimer, Dragon continued to pursue the "meritless" case for nearly a decade.  However, even though Dish's counsel, Baker Botts, and Sirius' counsel, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, netted a combined $3.3 million, the attorneys still were not awarded their full fee request and petitioned the court in August for the rest of the money.  Dragon said in a response brief that the case should never have been found to be exceptional because it was based on a flawed disclaimer ruling resulting from the district court's misreading of the claim language.

According to Dragon, the district court erred by misreading the claim language as a verb — "to begin a recording" — instead of a noun — "a recording."  By conflating the noun form of the claim language with the verb form, the court caused a series of events leading to a claim construction order finding that Sirius and Dish had included clear disclaimers of continuous recording devices in their products.

The patent-holding company hinted that Sirius and Dish pushed the court toward this thinking, saying the two companies wanted to pass off the idea of beginning a recording by initiating the storage of specific broadcast program information, which Dragon said is agnostic as to whether the overall recording process was underway.  "In this exchange, the district court equated the noun form of the claim language with a verb form requiring that the entire recording process, rather than the storage of specific broadcast program information of the invention, begin upon actuation of the key," Dragon said.

The court's disclaimer ruling based on this conflation resulted in "stipulated judgments of noninfringement," Dragon said, because the court found that Dish and Sirius had clearly included a disclaimer that their product contained continuous recording devices.  The disclaimer finding has remained the foundation for "many years of subsequent litigation" without review, despite the absence of evidence proving that Dish and Sirius included a clear disclaimer on their products, Dragon said.

According to Dragon, the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1990's Lewis v. Continental Bank Corp. that an interest in attorney fees is insufficient to claim an extraordinary case, and in Dragon's case, no other justiciable case or controversy has come forward since the cases became moot.  Dragon filed the suits against the companies nearly 10 years ago in December 2013, claiming both Dish and Sirius XM were infringing a patent on a keyboard equipped with audiovisual recording and playback technology.

Seventh Circuit Rules Reduced Attorney Fees in FLSA Case

October 19, 2022

A recent Indiana Lawyer story by Marilyn Odendahl, “7th Circuit Rules Victory Merits Reduced Attorney Fees” reports that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a reduction in attorney fees of more than 50% for an Indiana attorney who had been previously admonished by the appellate court for trying to up his compensation.  Ronald Weldy represented a group of drivers against Jerry W. Bailey Trucking Inc.  The plaintiffs claimed the company and its owners violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and Indiana wage laws by not paying drivers for time spent working before and after hauling jobs.

After the litigation began, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana asked Weldy for additional information as to whether he could adequately perform as class counsel.  The court noted he had only recently gotten his law license reinstated following a disciplinary suspension.  Weldy was able to convince the court once he provided examples of his work as class counsel following his reinstatement.

However, although the district court conditionally certified an FLSA collective and certified a Rule 23 class, the drivers were only able to identify less than 20 individuals who met the class definition.  Subsequently, the court granted the defendants’ motion to decertify the class and collective.

The two drivers who initiated the lawsuit were able to win a partial summary judgment, successfully arguing the company had violated federal and state wage laws.  Later, the employees were able to negotiate settlements for each of the remaining plaintiffs.  Once the court approved the settlements, the drivers petitioned for an award of attorney fees of more than $200,000.  Their request reflected a billing rate of $450 per hour for about 416 hours of work performed by Weldy, plus additional hours billed by Weldy’s associate at $200 per hour and his paralegal at $150 per hour.

The district court disagreed with the calculations and made three modifications.  First, the court found a $350 per hour rate was more reasonable.  Second, the court struck some of the time Weldy billed, finding the attorney should not be able to recover fees for the time he had to spend showing he was capable of handling the case.

Finally, the court reduced the fee because Weldy achieved only partial success in litigating the case.  The court noted he failed on the suit’s primary objective of obtaining a judgment on behalf of a class and collective.  The district court thus cut the fee to $70,000.

In response to the fees order, the defendants mailed a check to Weldy and filed a satisfaction of judgment with Weldy’s approval.  The drivers responded by filing a motion for reconsideration, but the court concluded the employees had waived any objection to the fee award.  The drivers then appealed to the 7th Circuit, which affirmed the ruling in Daniel Koch, et al. v. Jerry W. Bailey Trucking, Inc., and Estate of Jerry W. Bailey, 21-2952.

The 7th Circuit’s opinion concluded the district court had reasonably cut the counsel’s billable hours and had reasonably determined the employees obtained only a partial victory.  In reviewing the drivers’ damages, the appellate panel noted not only did they receive significantly less than they originally sought, but also, their attorney wanted sought a healthy fee.

“Altogether, the employees recovered about $60,600 of the $103,500 they claimed in damages, with each individual plaintiff receiving between 17% and 73% of that plaintiff’s claim.  This limited recovery was particularly striking when compared against Weldy’s request for more than $200,000 in fees, about triple what his clients received.  A district court assessing a plaintiff’s degree of success may consider how the size of the final recovery stacks up against the amount plaintiff originally sought,” Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi wrote for the court, citing Spegon v. Cath. Bishop of Chi., 175 F.3d 544, 558 (7th Cir. 1999).

In 2015, the 7th Circuit ruled in a different case that involved Weldy’s fees for representing a class.  That panel blocked the attorney’s attempt to increase his fee of $302,780 by claiming a share of the compensation that clients received.