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Category: Legal Bills / Legal Costs

NY Law Firm: Environmental Company Failed to Pay Legal Fees

November 15, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Lever, NY Firm Says Enviro Co. Failed To Pay Legal Fees” reports that Bochner IP PLLC sued environmental company Global Thermostat in New York state court over allegedly skipping out on a $102,000 bill for its work on intellectual property transactions aimed at fending off bankruptcy, saying Global Thermostat "never intended to pay" in full.

When Global Thermostat found itself at risk of bankruptcy, the company's co-founder agreed to grant it the use of her intellectual property, according to a complaint filed in New York Supreme Court.  Bochner handled the IP transactions, for which Global Thermostat paid the first few installments of the six-figure legal bill — a deliberate deception to create a false sense that Global Thermostat intended to and could pay the full bill, according to Bochner.

"Defendants successfully closed on the transactions and avoided bankruptcy, without having to fulfill their obligations to plaintiff," the complaint says.  Global Thermostat, a startup billing itself as being able to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stop climate change, was co-founded in 2010 by Graciella Chichilnisky based on technologies she patented.

Global Thermostat PBC, Global Thermostat Operations LLC and Global Thermostat Licensing LLC sought new investors to save them from a possible bankruptcy, according to the complaint.  The companies paid Chichilnisky royalties for her technology, but potential investors insisted Chichilnisky transfer the patents to the companies as a condition of investment, according to the complaint.

Chichilnisky agreed, and the companies agreed to pay her legal fees in connection with the transfer of IP as compensation for the loss of royalties.  Bochner, a civil litigation and intellectual property firm, represented Chichilnisky in the transaction.  Bochner drafted a settlement that allowed the companies to avoid bankruptcy, according to the complaint.

Global Thermostat paid Bochner's first three invoices, which were each for $20,000, before the settlement closed.  But once the settlement was finalized Aug. 12, they stopped paying, leaving $102,679.25 worth of invoices unpaid, according to the complaint.  The companies "failed to disclose material information of their intent and/or ability to pay" to give Bochner the impression they would pay the full legal bill and to keep the firm working on the settlement that would preserve their business, according to Bochner.

"Defendants made these assertions and payments in order to induce plaintiff into believing it would be paid for all further work done in negotiating and finalizing the transactions," the complaint says.  Global Thermostat also ignored demands for payment from other firms that worked on the transaction, according to the complaint.

Insurer Must Pay Attorney Fees in Nassar Coverage Action

August 31, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “USAG Keeps Fee Award in Nassar Coverage Suit reports that Liberty Underwriters Insurance Inc. must pony up the remainder of a roughly $2.1 million judgment for USA Gymnastics, a Seventh Circuit panel ruled, saying the insurer failed to show that any portion of the fees incurred during investigations into sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar were not reasonable and necessary.

At issue are legal costs incurred when USA Gymnastics responded to investigations by both houses of Congress, the Indiana Attorney General's Office, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee into Nassar's conduct.  During oral arguments in the case, a three-judge Seventh Circuit panel pushed the Liberty Mutual unit to address why it paid more than $1.4 million toward those defense costs if it believed it owed no reimbursement.  In the court's opinion, written by Chief Circuit Judge Diane Sykes, the court noted that in light of that payment, all that remains up for discussion is the remaining $458,472.26 of the lower court's judgment.

Liberty argued that a district court and a bankruptcy court wrongly applied a presumption established in Thomson Inc. v. Insurance Company of North America, an Indiana case, that an insured's defense costs are reasonable and necessary if the insured has secured, supervised and paid for a defense.

Liberty said the Thomson presumption does not apply because USAG failed to adequately supervise the outside counsel it engaged and did not pay the full amount of legal fees it incurred.  Liberty cited a Seventh Circuit ruling in Metavante Corp. v. Emigrant Savings Bank, in which the appellate court observed that a "prevailing party's general counsel, or similar corporate officer, has a duty, imposed by various provisions of federal and state law, to scrutinize the bills before paying them,"

The panel was unpersuaded by those arguments. It clarified Tuesday that that duty does not require a party to request write-offs from outside attorneys or ask them questions about invoices.  "We hold that a litigant may supervise its outside counsel without refusing to pay portions of legal bills or engaging in hairsplitting about those bills.  Nothing in the case law provides otherwise," the Seventh Circuit said.  Also, no Seventh Circuit case law mentions a requirement that the party seeking fees must have paid its fees in full for the presumption of reasonableness to apply, the panel said.

The insurer also argued on appeal that USA Gymnastics's damages expert had a flawed methodology and that its chief legal officer, C.J. Schneider, was effectively a "rubber stamp" for defense counsel.  It also said his review of the work of his own law firm, Miller Johnson, constituted a conflict of interest.  But an apparent conflict of interest does not negate the presumption under governing case law and "an insurer's objections to a policyholder's selection of defense counsel lose force when the insurer disclaims its duty to defend and turns out to be wrong on the law," the panel said.

Liberty could have reserved its defense that it had no duty to defend and assumed USAG's defense, choosing and supervising the lawyers defending USAG and seeking reimbursement later, the court said.  "Liberty chose not to do so, instead electing to gamble by not defending USAG. With the benefit of hindsight, Liberty now identifies a purported conflict of interest," the panel said.  "The case law does not reward such a choice, and Liberty cannot use the purported conflict to render the presumption inapplicable."

Further, Schneider was not the only one engaging in an internal review of USAG's legal bills, as its CEO and chief financial officer also checked the bills and approved them for payment, the court said.  And, while Liberty asserts that the nearly $8 million in grant funds USAG received from the National Gymnastics Foundation removed the incentive for USAG to drive down costs, the very basis for the Thomson presumption, it does not cite evidence to back that up, the panel held.

Article: A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients

August 12, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Joshua Wurtzel, “A Lawyer’s Guide To Collecting Fees From Nonpaying Clients,” reports on collecting unpaid fees.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

You've done the work and sent the bill, but haven't been paid. What do you do?  This is unfortunately a question that lawyers, from solo practitioners to BigLaw partners, confront all too often.  But most lawyers struggle with the answer.  And even worse, many end up doing nothing — leaving significant receivables on the table from clients who have the ability to pay.  Struggle no longer.  Here, I offer some recommendations on how to deal with a nonpaying client. The article focuses on the law on account stated in New York.  These principles and advice are generally applicable in most U.S. jurisdictions, though you should of course consult the specific law in your jurisdiction.

Make Sure Your Retainer Agreement Gives You Adequate Protection

Good collection starts with a good retainer agreement.  There are several important clauses any retainer agreement should have.

Thirty Days to Object

Your retainer agreement should include a clause stating that if a client has an objection to an invoice, the client must make a specific objection in writing within 30 days.  Courts have upheld these types of clauses, and have further held that a client that fails to make a specific, timely objection in accordance with this clause waives objections to the invoice.

Fee Shifting

Many lawyers avoid suing clients for unpaid fees because the time spent doing so can be better spent on other, billable tasks.  But if you include a fee-shifting clause in your retainer agreement, a nonpaying client could end up being responsible for fees you incur in bringing the suit.  Make sure, however, that the fee-shifting clauses run in favor of the client as well if he or she is the prevailing party, or else it will be unenforceable.

Choice of Forum and Acceptance of Service of Process

Your retainer agreement should also include a forum selection clause in the state in which you practice so you don't have to go out of state to sue a nonpaying client.  And it should also include a clause stating that the client agrees to accept service of process by mail or email, in case you have trouble serving the client personally.

Rely on the Retaining Lien and Charging Lien

New York law strongly favors attorneys who are stiffed by their clients.  So there are some tools you can use to try to collect without having to bring a lawsuit.

Retaining Lien

When a client has an outstanding balance with his or her former lawyer, the lawyer can assert a retaining lien over the client's file. This allows the lawyer to refuse to turn over the file to the client or his or her new counsel until the outstanding balance is paid or otherwise secured.  To lift the retaining lien, the former client must either pay the amount owed to the lawyer or post a bond for that amount.

Charging Lien

Under Section 475 of the New York Judiciary Law, "from the commencement of an action," the lawyer who "appears for a party has a lien upon his or her client's cause of action," which attaches to a verdict, settlement, judgment or final order in his or her client's favor.

This section gives the lawyer a lien on the proceeds of the former client's case to the extent of the amount owed to the lawyer, with the result that no proceeds can be distributed to the former client or his or her new counsel until the former lawyer is paid.

In 1995, the New York Court of Appeals in LMWT Realty Corp. v. Davis Agency Inc. held that this lien "does not merely give an attorney an enforceable right against the property of another," but instead "gives the attorney an equitable ownership interest in the client's cause of action."

Sue for Account Stated

If all else fails and you need to sue a nonpaying client, the account stated cause of action will be your best friend.  Indeed, in New York, this cause of action allows a professional services provider to sue a client for nonpayment of an invoice if the client has retained the invoice for at least a few months and has failed to make timely, specific, written objections.  This cause of action thus provides lawyers with a substantial tool to pursue a nonpaying client.

Invoice Requirement

To state a claim for account stated, you must show only that you sent the invoices to the client and the client retained them — usually for at least a few months — without making specific, written objections.  It is thus important to maintain a record of when invoices are sent and to whom — ideally by email to an email address the client gave to receive invoices.

Oral Objections

Generally, a client must make specific, written objections to an invoice; general or oral objections will not be enough to defeat a claim for account stated. Nor will general claims by a client that he or she is dissatisfied with a particular outcome suffice.

Reasonableness of Fees

Many nonpaying clients will defend against a nonpayment suit by claiming that they were overbilled or that the quality of the work was not to their liking.  But if these objections are not made in a timely way, with specificity and in writing, courts generally hold that they are waived.

This is significant for a lawyer pursuing a nonpaying client, as most clients will defend by claiming that there was something wrong with the work done by the lawyer.  And so if an account is stated by virtue of the client's retention of the invoices, the reasonableness of the fees and the quality of the work has no bearing on the merit of the account stated claim.

Underlying Agreement to Pay

While account stated is a powerful cause of action, it works only if there is an underlying agreement to pay for the services rendered.  So a person who randomly sends out invoices without having an underlying agreement with the recipients of the invoices can obviously not rely on account stated.

But if you have a retainer agreement that properly covers the scope of the work you will be doing, you shouldn't have a problem.  Nor is there a requirement that the client has agreed to pay for the specific invoices at issue, as long as the client has agreed to pay for your services generally.

The Dreaded Malpractice Claim

Most nonpaying clients faced with a lawsuit by their former lawyer will assert counterclaims for malpractice — even if the malpractice claim has no merit.  While the lawyer must, of course, still deal with the malpractice claim, courts generally go out of their way to sever a lawyer's account stated claim from a nonpaying client's malpractice counterclaim.  This is especially so if the alleged malpractice relates to different work from what is at issue on the unpaid invoices.

Further, as a strategic matter, unless the malpractice counterclaim has merit, most nonpaying clients will drop it after the lawyer obtains a quick judgment on summary judgment at the outset of the case.

Conclusion

Suing a former client is never pleasant, and is a last resort after the attorney-client relationship has broken down. But using efficient, streamlined ways to collect from nonpaying clients can allow a law firm to provide greater value to the rest of its clients.

Joshua Wurtzel is a partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP in New York.

NALFA Releases 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report

July 19, 2022

Every year, NALFA conducts an hourly rate survey of civil litigation in the U.S.   Today, NALFA released the results from its 2021 hourly rate survey.  The survey results, published in The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report, shows billing rate data on the very factors that correlate directly to hourly rates in litigation:

City / Geography
Years of Litigation Experience / Seniority
Position / Title
Practice Area / Complexity of Case
Law Firm / Law Office Size

This empirical survey and report provides micro and macro data of current hourly rate ranges for both defense and plaintiffs’ litigators, at various experience levels, from large law firms to solo shops, in regular and complex litigation, and in the nation’s largest markets.  This data-intensive survey contains hundreds of data sets and thousands of data points covering all relevant billing rate categories and variables.  This is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive survey or study on hourly billing rates in litigation.

This is the second year NALFA has conducted this survey on billing rates.  The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report contains new cities, additional categories, and more accurate variables.  These updated features allow us to capture new and more precise billing rate data.  Through our propriety email database, NALFA surveyed thousands of litigators from across the U.S.  Over 8,400 qualified litigators fully participated in this hourly rate survey.  This data-rich survey was designed to aid litigators in proving their lodestar rates in court and comparing their rates to their litigation peers.

The 2021 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report is now available for purchase.  For more on this survey, email NALFA Executive Director Terry Jesse at terry@thenalfa.org or call us at (312) 907-7275.

UK Authorities May Feel Sting From ‘Loser Pays’ Ruling

May 27, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Christopher Crosby, “Authorities May Feel The Sting From Loser Pays Ruling” reports that the U.K. Supreme Court opened the door to public authorities being forced to pay defendants' costs from failed enforcement actions, but attorneys say it is too soon to know whether that risk will deter agencies from bringing cutting-edge cases.  Britain's highest court has ruled that the Competition and Markets Authority might have to cover the legal costs of drugmaker Pfizer and a distributor, Flynn Pharma, after the watchdog's market abuse case against the two companies fell short.

Britain's highest court ruled, in a unanimous 55-page decision handed down, that costs could follow a failed enforcement action because there is no automatic presumption that authorities do not pay for legal fees when they lose cases.  Businesses and trade organizations have applauded the development, which they say will help defendants with small budgets recover their legal fees if they can prove that an enforcement case was groundless.

But the ruling, written by Justice Vivien Rose, does not mean that regulators will always be on the hook for costs — that issue will be determined by the trial court or tribunal on a case-by-case basis.  But the justices said the Court of Appeal was wrong to assume that costs automatically have a chilling effect on regulators in every case.  "The Court of Appeal had created an unhelpful precedent, which puts a potential appellant in the unenviable position of being forced to pay the CMA's legal costs if their appeal failed yet prevented them recovering their own legal costs if their appeal succeeded," Robert Vidal, a competition partner at Pinsent Masons LLP, said.

The competition watchdog fined the drug companies £84.2 million ($106 million at today's rates) in 2016. A three-year investigation had concluded the companies had overcharged the National Health Service for the anti-epilepsy drug phenytoin sodium.  But the Competition Appeal Tribunal found errors in the regulator's analysis in 2020 and ordered it to reassess the fairness of the prices.  Those findings were upheld by the Court of Appeal.  The tribunal then ordered the CMA to pay part of Flynn and Pfizer's multimillion-pound costs after concluding that the default position in cases involving regulators was that the loser bears the burden of costs.

Although the losing side in litigation usually pays the winner's costs, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the tribunal.  The appellate court ruled in 2019 that the "starting position" is that public agencies should not be made to pay for trying to do their job — even if they are unsuccessful in court.  Overturning the lower court's findings, the justices said the Court of Appeal was wrong to overturn the Competition Markets Authority's costs ruling and instructed that there would be no order about costs.

The appellate court had looked at a line of cases beginning with Bradford Metropolitan District Council v. Booth in 2000 and found that the starting assumption for courts was that all public bodies are protected from costs when they lose a case.  Justice Rose said that, even though those cases created a strong preference against deterring regulators, it cannot be assumed that every case involving every regulator carries that risk.

In the case of the CMA, the watchdog can offset its litigation costs against the penalties it imposes, the Supreme Court said.  The competition authority incurred £2 million in legal costs during the last year, which it covered with £56.7 million in penalties handed out, justices noted.  Justice Rose said the "way that the functions of the CMA are funded dispels any plausible concern that its conduct will be influenced by the risk of adverse costs orders."

Robert Vidal said that the CMA "already has all the financial and legal resources of the state behind it, so it was difficult to understand why the Court of Appeal felt it needed to provide the CMA with an additional advantage on exposure to legal costs."  Stijn Huijts, a former CMA director and partner at Geradin Partners, said that it was a "bridge too far" for justices to accept that a public body like the CMA should be shielded from adverse cost awards.

"It's important to recognize that this doesn't mean all costs of litigants like Pfizer will fall to the CMA from now on," Huijts said.  "Nevertheless, the CMA will be in a position where it will need to challenge costs claimed in individual cases and, in most cases that it loses, it will at least need to pay part of the litigants' costs from public money."  Sophie Lawrance, a Bristows partner who acted for two pharmaceutical groups in the CMA case, said the issue was of particular concern to companies active in the pharmaceutical industry, which may have been discouraged against appealing future infringement decisions by the watchdog.

In the last year the CMA has fined several drugmakers in complex medication-pricing cases, finding in February that the cost for anti-nausea medication and thyroid medication was excessive.  In one case, Advanz Pharma Corp. and two private equity firms, Hg and Cinven, have asked the Competition Appeal Tribunal to annul a £100 million ($126 million) fine over Liothyronine tablets, which are used to treat thyroid hormone deficiency.

Drugmaker Allergan and four other pharmaceutical companies are also appealing against a record £260 million fine from the competition watchdog for allegedly abusing their market dominance over an adrenal drug.  Lawrence said that the Supreme Court's decision "ensures that meritorious appeals — which can result in crucial guidance for the sector as a whole — are not deterred."

The Supreme Court Justices highlighted the fact that costs have not prevented the CMA from investigating large companies such as Google and Apple.  The regulator is looking into whether their duopoly on the "mobile ecosystem" threatens competition for digital services, setting up potential enforcement actions.  "Whether this will have a chilling effect on the CMA will in reality probably depend on how it fares in a number of high-profile cases making their way through the courts now, and in investigations against digital giants like Apple and Google," Huijts said.  "Win most of those, and this chapter will be easily forgotten. Lose the majority, and the watchdog may grow more timid."

Article: What is a Legal Fee Audit?

October 7, 2021

A recent article by Jacqueline Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego “What is a Legal Fee Audit?,” reports on legal fee audits.  This article was posted with permission.  The article...

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