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Category: Fees & Timeliness

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.

Eleventh Circuit Tosses Insurer’s Request for Attorney Fees

June 2, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Josh Liberatore, “11th Circ. Tosses Insurer’s Bid For Atty Fees After Reversal” reports that an insurer can't seek attorney fees on a $1.6 million judgment it previously won against a Liberty Mutual unit, the Eleventh Circuit confirmed, which comes after the court recently vacated the insurer's win on claims that the Liberty unit breached its contract while defending a fatal accident suit.  In an unpublished opinion, the appellate panel denied Endurance American Specialty Insurance Co.'s bid for attorney fees as moot. 

In May, the Eleventh Circuit reversed Endurance's $1.6 million win, finding that it couldn't show how Safeco Insurance Co. breached an indemnity agreement it had with Comegys Insurance Agency Inc., which was insured by Endurance.  "Safeco did win its appeal," the panel noted, "so, Endurance may not seek attorneys' fees."  Endurance had asked the Eleventh Circuit to overturn a lower court judge's ruling that its claims for attorney fees stemming from the judgment against Safeco were time-barred because Endurance failed to seek the fees within 14 days of the judgment.

The coverage dispute stems from an accident between driver Robert Smith and a motorcyclist, who died.  Safeco insured Smith, who bought his policies through Comegys.  Smith faced a wrongful death suit for which Safeco assigned an attorney who defended the case, and eventually a $7.3 million consent judgment was entered against Smith, according to court documents.  The consent judgment included Safeco paying the motorcyclist's estate the limits of Smith's auto policy, $1.25 million, and assigning the estate Safeco's claim against Comegys for negligent procurement, based on the theory that Comegys failed to find Smith a more robust policy after he had inquired about raising his policy limits.

Endurance insures Comegys under an errors and omissions policy, according to its suit.  The motorcyclist's estate pursued Endurance and Comegys "for the limit of Comegys's policy with Endurance," according to court documents.  The companies eventually paid just over $1.5 million to end the claims, court records show.

Endurance then sought to recoup the money from Safeco, arguing Safeco had breached its contract with Comegys by refusing to indemnify it for the alleged negligence.  Endurance's argument hinged on Safeco assigning an attorney to defend Smith, who allegedly mentioned to the motorcyclist's estate the possibility of a negligent procurement claim against Comegys and recommended an insurance lawyer to the estate.  In July 2019, a jury found in Endurance's favor, and the lower court entered a $1.6 million judgment against Safeco.

While Safeco appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit, Endurance launched an appeal of its own, arguing it should be awarded attorney fees for the judgment.  However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the judgment last month, finding that Endurance couldn't show how Safeco had breached its contract with Comegys.  Safeco had acted entirely within the terms of that agreement by providing an insurance policy to Comegys's customers, tendering the policy on time after the accident and providing an attorney to Smith to defend the suit, the Eleventh Circuit panel presiding over that case found.  Safeco can't be held liable for what Smith's attorney decided to do after that, the panel said.

Federal Circuit Says Party Time-Barred From Challenging Fee Award

April 20, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Jasmin Jackson, “Fed. Circuit Says Appeal of Domino’s $2.7M Fee Win Too Late” reports that the Federal Circuit has held a patentee waited too long to challenge an order forcing it to pay Domino's $2.7 million worth of attorney fees in a patent suit over online menus, yet it won't decide whether to ax the appeal until a lower court rules on a filing extension request.  The three-judge panel said they would postpone ruling on a motion to dismiss filed by Domino's Pizza LLC in an appeal launched by patent-holding company Ameranth Inc. over the seven-figure fee award, which was issued after the pizza chain beat claims that its online menu infringed a patent held by Ameranth.

The panel said they would wait for a California federal judge to decide whether the missed 30-day filing deadline for the appeal could be extended.  "Granting an extension of time to appeal could result in the notice of appeal being deemed timely, and because the district court did not act on that request, the court deems it proper here to remand for the district court to now act on that request," the panel said.

Ameranth filed its suit against Domino's in March 2012 and claimed the chain's online ordering system infringed a patent that covered menu generation, which was issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that same month.  But U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw invalidated the patent in September 2018 and found the ordering technology was unpatentable under the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Alice v. CLS Bank — a decision that prevented abstract computer-based ideas from being patented without an added inventive element.  According to the ruling, Ameranth's patent was based on an abstract idea of configuring and transmitting menu information.

The pizza chain then requested nearly $3 million in attorney fees in February 2020.  A year later, Judge Sabraw agreed that Domino's was entitled to the award due to Ameranth's "especially weak" suit and said further briefing was needed to determine the exact amount.  Ameranth asked that the ruling be reconsidered the following month and asserted it was wrongfully being labeled as a "patent troll."  But the pizza chain was ultimately awarded $2.7 million in June 2021.

Judge Sabraw amended the judgment the following November but maintained the fee amount, prompting the patent-holding company to initiate an appeal at the Federal Circuit the same month.  But the panel said in their order that Ameranth had to initiate the appeal within about a month of the lower court's initial June order, ruling the filing clock didn't restart after the amended judgment.  "The June 21, 2021, order here fully adjudicated the fee matter and evidenced a clear intent to be the court's final act on that matter," the panel held.