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Category: Fees & Judicial Discretion

Florida Panel Finds Attorney Fee Error in Irma Coverage Suit

May 19, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ben Zigterman, “Fla. Panel Finds Atty Fees Error in Irma Coverage Suit” reports that a Florida state appellate panel reversed a lower court's award of attorney fees to counsel for homeowners suing underwriters at Lloyd's of London for coverage of damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.  Instead of being paid for more than 550 hours of work to get a $52,000 jury verdict for Roniel Candelaria and Amelia Padura, the three-judge panel agreed with the underwriters that the homeowners' attorney fees should be recalculated based on 480.5 billed hours.

The panel said Judge Martin Zilber should have gone through the time records of the homeowners' counsel line by line, but instead applied an arbitrary 15% cut.  The judge awarded the homeowners' counsel a lodestar amount of $312,000, applying a 1.8 multiplier to that amount and adding other legal costs, for a total award of more than $600,000.

"The lodestar amount is not supported by competent substantial evidence because the trial court did not make 'specific findings' as to its determination," Judge Kevin Emas wrote for the panel.  While the homeowners' expert suggested a 7.5% billing hours cut, the judge instead applied a 15% cut, according to the opinion.

"The insureds' expert did not conduct a line-by-line analysis of the billing," Judge Emas wrote.  "The trial court adopted plaintiff's expert's arbitrary methodology.  Indeed, in the instant case the trial court did not merely adopt the expert's methodology but added its own across-the-board reduction of 15%."  The panel said its previous decisions require "specific findings as to disputed time entries" and "particularized reductions."

"The trial court's comments at the conclusion of the hearing reveal that it had only examined 'several' of the timesheets," instead of making a line-item review, Judge Emas wrote.  The panel also said the trial judge improperly applied the 1.8-contingency multiplier.  The trial judge lacked "competent substantial evidence to address whether the attorney was able to mitigate the risk of nonpayment in any way — specifically, whether the client could afford to pay a retainer or hourly fees," Judge Emas wrote.

Second Circuit: Bankruptcy Court Can Award Attorney Fees

May 18, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Clarice Silber, “2nd Circ, Rules Bankruptcy Court Can Award Attorney Fees” reports that a Second Circuit panel has overturned a district court's decision and sent a suit filing for Chapter 7 back to bankruptcy court, finding that a bankruptcy judge has the authority to award damages and attorney fees.  The three-judge panel said that because bankruptcy judges have the power to impose contempt sanctions, they also have the jurisdiction to award those other fees.

"Bankruptcy court has the power to impose contempt sanctions, which traditionally includes the authority to award damages and attorneys' fees," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan wrote for the panel in the ruling.  "This authority carries with it the ability to award appellate attorneys' fees."

The judges vacated the district court's judgment and remanded the case to the bankruptcy court to consider whether appellate fees should be awarded.  The decision stems from a case in which the appellant, the Law Offices of Francis J. O'Reilly Esq., had challenged the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York's order affirming a bankruptcy court's denial of the law firm's request for appellate attorney fees from the appellee, Selene Finance LP.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District had originally denied O'Reilly's request for appellate fees because it decided that it lacked the authority to award them.  Carlos Cuevas, an attorney representing O'Reilly, told Law360, "It's a very important decision for the bankruptcy bar because it has ensured that if a party is in contempt, that an attorney who successfully dissents that contempt order on appeal has the opportunity to be compensated for his or her services."

"And that's especially important if you're representing a debtor, because debtors most of the time lack the resources to fund an appeal, to pay for the printing of an appellate brief, an appendix and the attorney's services that are involved," Cuevas added.  The debtor, Bret DiBattista, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in July 2009, and won an order from the bankruptcy court preventing creditors from trying to collect on debts.  Despite this, Selene, the servicer of DiBattista's mortgage, made dozens of phone calls trying to collect on his delinquent mortgage payments, behavior the court called "absolutely egregious."  In 2019, DiBattista filed a motion for contempt sanctions against Selene, which the court granted.

Judge Sullivan wrote that DiBattista, who was represented by O'Reilly in 2019, had racked up appellate fees because of Selene's contempt.  "Indeed the record reflects that the appellate fees were more than $28,000, dwarfing the $17,000 in compensatory damages the bankruptcy court awarded to DiBattista," Judge Sullivan wrote.

Judge Calls Out Hourly Rate Gender Disparity in Fee Award

April 25, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Judge Calls Out Atty Gender Pay Gap in $760K Fee Award reports that Console Mattiacci Law LLC will collect almost $765,000 in fees for winning a $2.3 million age-bias suit against AT&T Mobility Services, after a Pennsylvania federal judge slightly trimmed the firm's requested hours and rates but noted that a less-experienced female shareholder deserved the same hourly rate as her older male co-counsel.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice noted the legal industry's gender pay gap in his opinion awarding Laura Mattiacci and Susan Saint-Antoine the same $700-per-hour rate as firm founder Stephen Console for their work in securing a jury verdict for Alison Ray, saying they hadn't shown why the court should have awarded Console the requested $900 per hour and the others $730 per hour.

"Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci are entitled to the same rate as fellow shareholder, Console, who served solely as a consultant on the case.  Historically, women in law earn less than their male counterparts, a discrepancy that may reflect hidden bias.  Saint-Antoine's experience and expertise on several of the pre-trial motions was critical in allowing the case to move to trial and Mattiacci's courtroom skills were pivotal to Ray's successful verdict," Judge Rice wrote.  "Attorneys of comparable skill and ability merit equal compensation without regard to gender or age."

The court's order trimmed Ray's request for $847,945 in fees to $764,825 by cutting the lead attorneys' hourly rates to the top level recommended by Community Legal Services, and also by cutting out hours spent on unsuccessful motions and work representing Ray in another plaintiff's age-discrimination case against AT&T.  The court awarded nearly $39,000 for costs, which AT&T did not contest.  Ray, a former sales director at AT&T Mobility Services, won $2.3 million in December 2021 after a jury found the company's "Workplace 2020" restructuring plan targeted older employees as "surplus," cut their positions and forced them to apply for different jobs if they wanted to keep working. Ray was 49 when she was laid off.

AT&T challenged many of the hours that Console Mattiacci said it had put into the case, but the judge generally supported charging for most of the work the attorneys had put in.  Factual distinctions between Ray's case and those of other AT&T employees that the firm represented in other cases meant that attorneys didn't get to reuse parts of the other employees' complaints, or recycle arguments and hours spent on their motion for summary judgment, Judge Rice said.  The attorneys' work on "mock trial" versions of the opening and closing arguments were also justified, Judge Rice said, even if the practice versions were done by another attorney on the case and had come before motions for summary judgment that could have precluded the need for trial.

"Mock trial preparation is an indispensable part of litigation.  Sharpening advocacy skills in advance of trial is as important as effective legal research and writing.  One cannot exist without the other in a courtroom. ... This is often overlooked or underestimated in fee litigation," Judge Rice wrote.  Although Ray's team took a risk in conducting the mock trial that early, he wrote, it worked in their favor because they ultimately prevailed over AT&T's motion for summary judgment, making the trial preparation necessary.

He did cut out an hour spent by a fifth attorney at the mock arguments, and cut down Console's time charged for the arguments down to an hour and a half to be consistent with the other attorneys on the case. He made other cuts for time spent on motions for protective orders or class treatment that were unsuccessful.  The attorneys' requested hourly rates were higher than what was recommended by CLS for typical Philadelphia-area lawyers with their experience, and the affidavits they submitted to support their higher request didn't convince Judge Rice, he said.

"Although Ray contends that the rates requested by Console, Mattiacci, and Saint-Antoine are the same or less than the regular rates charged for their services in non-contingent matters, she fails to present any evidence showing that any client has willingly agreed to pay such rates," the judge wrote.  And although both Console and Saint-Antoine would be worth up to $700 per hour on the CLS' recommended scale, Judge Rice praised Mattiacci's work on the case and said she'd earned more than what her experience alone would indicate.

"Although Mattiacci has been practicing law for fewer years than Console and Saint-Antoine and would warrant a rate of $530.00 based on her experience according to the CLS fee schedule, she is entitled to the same $700.00 rate as her fellow shareholder and partner given her expertise and skill as a trial lawyer," he wrote.  "Her exceptional advocacy skills helped to persuade the jury to award a significant verdict for Ray in a complex case. ... Even though the CLS fee schedule serves as a useful guide on setting hourly rates, its reference to experience should not serve as a cap that precludes exceptionally talented trial lawyers from receiving fair compensation simply because of age or gender."

Hagens Berman $31M Fee Objection Heads to Ninth Circuit

April 19, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Hagens Berman Must Forfeit $31M Fee Win, 9th Circuit Told” reports that an objector's counsel urged the Ninth Circuit to force Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP to forfeit or reduce a revised $31 million fee award for securing deals worth $205 million in multidistrict litigation over optical disk drive price-fixing, arguing that the law firm violated multiple professional rules of ethics.  During a hearing before a three-judge panel, objector Connor Erwin's counsel, Robert Clore of Bandas Law Firm PC, argued that Hagens Berman violated multiple California Rules of Professional Conduct in securing its eight-figure fee award before a trial court, including by never placing the disputed funds into a client trust account, despite class members' objections and appeals pending.

But U.S. Circuit Court Judges Morgan Christen and Carlos T. Bea asked how class members have been harmed by the firm's failure to hold the funds in a client trust account.  "What harm, what foul?" Judge Bea asked.  Clore replied that as a result, the class has been denied up to $600,000 in interest that would have been collected on the disputed money.  At least a portion of that interest should have gone back to the class when a Ninth Circuit panel vacated Hagens Berman's previous $52.8 million fee and expense award, the attorney said.

"Why should they be entitled to interest on fees that don't belong to them?" Clore asked the panel.  The trip to the Ninth Circuit is the latest chapter in a decade-old multidistrict litigation claiming that Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Toshiba Corp. and other disk drive makers participated in an industry-wide conspiracy to fix optical disk drive prices.

Hagens Berman beat out other firms for lead class counsel in 2010, and the firm later struck multimillion-dollar deals to resolve the disputes.  After U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg took over the case from U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, Judge Seeborg awarded the law firm $47.8 million in attorney fees for securing the settlements.  But in May 2020, a pair of Ninth Circuit panels vacated the fee awards after Clore argued before the appellate court that Judge Seeborg erred by keeping Hagens Berman's initial proposal for lead class counsel under seal and not properly taking it into account in awarding fees, among other objections.

On remand, in July, Judge Seeborg awarded Hagens Berman a revised $31 million fee, finding that the firm was entitled to a 20% premium on top of the $25.9 million it would be allotted under the firm's interpretation of the fee grid in its initial class counsel proposal.  Judge Seeborg also awarded Erwin's counsel $1.5 million in fees in September for their work helping to convince the Ninth Circuit to throw out the initial fee award.

But Erwin again challenged the fee award, with Clore arguing before the appellate court that Hagens Berman took too long to return the fees after the previous panel vacated the award, and did not place the funds in a client trust account, as required by professional rules of conduct.  Clore added that the trial court also erred in miscalculating the "starting point" for setting reasonable attorney fees on remand by using a flat rate instead of the sliding scale specified in the firm's initial proposal, resulting in an adjusted $25.9 million for the firm.  That amount should be $22.2 million, he said.

In light of the alleged violations, Clore asked the Ninth Circuit to send a message that class counsel are not immune to the California state bar's professional rules, and require the law firm to either forfeit its fees, or at the very least reduce the fees to keep in line with the firm's initial $22.2 million fee proposal.  As support, Clore cited the Ninth Circuit's 2012 decision in Rodriguez v. Disner, which held that a court has "broad equitable powers to … require an attorney to disgorge fees already received" for a serious ethical violation.

But class counsel Shana E. Scarlett, of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, argued that $31 million in fees is justified given the length of litigation and how fiercely the litigation was fought.  She also argued that the judge properly awarded additional fees on top of the initial $25.9 million proposal based on his discretion and understanding of the case.

But Judge Bea asked why the trial judge used a flat rate instead of the sliding scale methodology specified in the firm's initial bid proposal.  "Why isn't Judge Seeborg wrong in using a flat basis rather than a sliding scale basis based on the schedule we have before us?" the judge asked the attorney.  Scarlett replied that the firm's initial bid proposal was just one part of what informed the trial judge's decision. But Judge Bea appeared skeptical.

"You're talking about extrinsic evidence that was used by Judge Seeborg to interpret the writing, which we have before us?" Judge Bea asked.  "What factual evidence was there?  Are you saying that the written document is ambiguous and requires factual findings interpreted?"  Scarlett replied that the initial proposal was clear that the fees should use a flat rate, and not a sliding scale, but Judge Seeborg "went further and made the finding that we intended to be flat rate structure."

Article: Do We Really Need An Attorney Fee Expert?

April 18, 2022

A recent article by William F. Cobb, “Do We Really Need An Attorney Fee Expert?” discusses the need to hire an attorney fee expert.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In 2002, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a decision in Island Hoppers Ltd. v. Keith 820 So. 2d 967 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) discussing whether or not expert testimony should be required to support an award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party.  The decision questioned the necessity and wisdom of the longstanding judicially-created requirement.

Justice Polen, who authored the opinion in Island Hoppers, recognized that an award of attorneys’ fees must be supported by competent substantial evidence and Florida courts have required testimony by the attorney performing the services, together with testimony by an expert fees witness as to the time and value of those services.  The expert in that case spent a scant three hours in preparation of his opinion in this wrongful death case and is accused of lacking a sufficient factual predicate to form an opinion.  Although Justice Polen and the court allowed the testimony, claiming the testimony went to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility, the opinion questions whether the longstanding rule requiring the corroborative testimony of an expert fees witness is always the best or most judicious practice. 

The opinion recognizes that expert witnesses are presented to assist with guidance to the trier of fact and fails to see what “guidance” if any a fees expert provides to judges who see various levels of skill and experience in the courtroom on a regular basis.  The opinion does recognize the expert may provide some assistance to the court in terms of a multiplier determination in the market, but distinguished the more fundamental issues of determining appropriate hours expended and rates charged and states the trial judge has greater insight and understanding regarding what is reasonable.   The Island Hoppers decision prompted a Florida Bar Journal article, authored by Robert J. Hauser, Raymond E. Kramer III and Patricia A. Leonard, of Beasley & Hauser, P.A., in January 2003 regarding the same topic, (Vol. 77, No. 1, page 38) essentially agreeing the requirement should be revisited and perhaps eliminated.  In virtually every case decided by the Florida Supreme Court, both before and subsequent to the Island Hoppers decision, the Court has found, or at least commented upon, the requirement for an expert to testify regarding the reasonableness of the time and amount of attorney’s fees being sought, together with a multiplier determination in the relevant market area, especially where there was a fee-shifting provision involved. 

In Roshkind v. Machiela, decided in 2010, the Fourth District Court of appeal again addressed the long-standing requirement of independent expert witness testimony to support a claim for attorney’s fees.  The Court recognized generally “where a party seeks to have the opposing party in a lawsuit pay for attorney’s fees incurred . . . independent expert testimony is required” and “case law throughout this state has adhered to the requirement of an independent expert witness to establish the reasonableness of fees, regardless of whether a first or third party is responsible for payment.”  Although the opinion recognizes Island Hoppers and the previously questioned judicially-created requirement of independent expert testimony to establish the reasonableness of attorney’s fees, it ruled the judicially-created requirement “remains etched in our case law.”  The Fourth District certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court regarding whether or not an expert witness is required to testify to establish attorney’s fees, seeking a final determination of the issue.  The Florida Supreme Court initially accepted jurisdiction but later issued an opinion “upon further consideration, we have determined to deny review and discharge jurisdiction” thereby denying a review and ruling on the issue.

In 2007, In re Amendments to Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, The Florida Bar Civil Procedure Rules Committee recommended adding Rule 1.526 to The Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.  The proposed rule was entitled “Expert Opinion Testimony on Costs and Attorneys’ Fees” and included “[e]xpert opinion is not required to support or oppose a claim or an award of costs, attorneys’ fees, or both, unless by prior order of the court.”  Essentially, the proposed rule would leave it to the trial judge to determine whether or not he or she would require “guidance” in the form of an expert’s opinion regarding the determination of attorneys’ fees.  In rejecting the proposed rule, the Florida Supreme Court opined “that the issue of whether expert opinion testimony is required in this context is not one that is appropriately addressed in a rule of procedure” and declined to adopt the proposed rule.

From a review of the foregoing, although at least one District Court of Appeal has questioned the judicially-created requirement for and independent attorneys’ fee expert to testify in a fee determination hearing, it is clear the Florida Supreme Court consistently has supported and recognized the longstanding requirement and has further refused to adopt a rule of procedure that would allow the trial court to determine the need for expert testimony.  In order to support an award of attorney’s fees, the attorney for the party seeking the fees, whether first or third party obligation for payment is present, is required to retain the services of an expert to offer testimony regarding the reasonableness of the hours expended and amount being sought in recovery in order to prevail.

William F. Cobb is a Partner at Cobb Gonzalez in Jacksonville, FL.