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Category: Legal Malpractice

Lack of Jurisdiction Dooms Billing Suit Against K&L Gates

June 7, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Justin Wise, “Lack of Jurisdiction Dooms Billing Suit Against K&L Gates,” reports that a federal judge has dismissed a health center's lawsuit alleging K&L Gates LLP and one other firm engaged in deceptive billing practices during a South Carolina bankruptcy action, ruling the lawsuit is not sufficiently related to a bankruptcy matter to justify federal jurisdiction.

In a three-page order handed down, U.S. District Judge Jill N. Parrish rejected arguments from Chicora Life Center, a Utah-based subsidiary of Chicora Garden Holdings, that the court could hear the dispute since it arose and was related to Chicora Life's prior bankruptcy.  Federal courts only have jurisdiction over such cases when it can affect the administration of an estate, Judge Parrish wrote, something that's impossible in this matter since the bankruptcy proceeding was terminated in 2017.

"The outcome of this action cannot 'conceivably have any effect on the estate being administered in bankruptcy' because the bankruptcy proceedings terminated over two years before this action was filed," Judge Parrish wrote.  "In short, this court lacks jurisdiction because this lawsuit cannot have any impact 'on the handling and administration of the bankruptcy estate,' nor can it affect 'the estate of the debtor' in a closed bankruptcy case."

Douglas Durbano, a Utah lawyer and developer who manages Chicora Life and also served as counsel for Chicora Life in the current case, told Law360 that he'd seek to move forward with the claims in a different venue.  "The matter will be refiled in a court that does have jurisdiction," he said, adding that he's "studying" possible new venues based on the ruling and previous court admissions from the firms.

Chicora Life Center sued K&L Gates and South Carolina law firm McCarthy Reynolds & Penn LLC in August, alleging that its attorneys engaged in, among other things, fraudulent billing practices and malpractice during its representation in a South Carolina bankruptcy proceeding.  According to the lawsuit, K&L Gates used several tactics to increase its billing in the Chapter 11 proceeding against Charleston County over a lease termination dispute.  The billing practices resulted in about $1.6 million in fees between May and October 2016.

The health center also alleged that actions from K&L Gates and McCarthy Reynolds attorneys caused the bankruptcy court to approve a "cramdown" plan against its own interests.  The "cramdown" plan called for the county to purchase a Chicora Life property to satisfy its obligations to creditors, a scheme that it claimed led to a $3 million tax liability, according to Friday's ruling.

In a court filing this year, K&L Gates said it secured an "extremely favorable" settlement for Chicora Life where Charleston County agreed to purchase the property in question for $30 million.  It also said a fee examiner appointed by the bankruptcy court determined the firm was entitled to all of its requested fees.

Quinn Emanuel Defends Billing Practices, Expenses

May 5, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Schart, “MiMedx Slams Quinn Emanuel Fees As 2 Other Firms Settle,” reports that MiMedx has accused Quinn Emanuel of seeking unreasonable fees, including for lawyers' luxury hotel stays and fine dining, as part of the cost of defending two former company executives who were convicted of securities fraud.  The allegation, in court papers, comes after the life sciences company settled claims with two other law firms seeking payment of fees as part of the same dispute.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Kobre & Kim LLP initially filed suit in New York state court on April 15 alleging MiMedx Group Inc. shirked its obligations to indemnify the firms' clients, company President William Taylor and ex-CEO Parker "Pete" Petit.  Both men were sentenced to a year in prison in February after being convicted of one of two counts each at trial.

Freshfields and Kobre & Kim said in court filings that they had settled their claims against MiMedx.  Without disclosing the terms, the firms wrote in similar notices that their "claims in this proceeding do not make, and never were intended to make, a charge of deception against MiMedx or its general counsel, Butch Hulse, and that the filed action in this matter was a good faith fee dispute, which now has been swiftly and amicably resolved."

But Quinn Emanuel has yet to drop its claims in the lawsuit, and MiMedx took aim at the law firm in an answer filed in a related Florida state court legal fee dispute with the former executives.  In response to the men's counterclaims seeking additional fees to appeal their convictions, MiMedx accused Quinn Emanuel of overbilling Petit and Taylor and then unfairly attempting to collect from the company.

"Quinn Emanuel will have to explain its billing and expense practices," MiMedx wrote.  "These include staffing its trial team with over ten professionals, mostly from out-of-town despite having a large New York office within a few miles of the courthouse; staying in a luxury boutique hotel; having meals catered by a Michelin-starred chef (and supplementing them with separate orders of crab legs and sushi to boot); and charging MiMedx tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 'last-minute' motion to adjourn the trial that the court found 'border[ed] on the frivolous.'"

MiMedx said Quinn Emanuel has refused to provide it with invoices for its expenses in the case, and that it and the other criminal defense firms have already been paid more than $18 million for their work defending the former executives.  MiMedx's counsel told Law360 that the company has indemnified its former executives where required, but that the law firms can't force it to pay unwarranted fees.  "The company has been reasonable.  It paid pursuant to the indemnity," said Louis M. Solomon of Reed Smith LLP.  "It always reserved the right to make sure that the fees were reasonable, and even now with the convictions in place, we're not obliged to advance any more costs."

Quinn Emanuel's in-house counsel defended the firm's billing practices to Law360.  "Quinn Emanuel tried this case during the pandemic and achieved an acquittal for its client on the most serious count," Marc Greenwald, who is representing the law firm in the New York case, said.  "Quinn Emanuel expects to get paid at the rates that MiMedx agreed, and our work was outstanding.  All the charges were appropriate and reasonable."

MiMedx lodged its Florida state court claims against Petit and Taylor in January seeking permission to stop indemnifying the former executives upon sentencing, as well as reimbursement for millions of dollars in already paid fees.  Petit and Taylor fired back with counterclaims soon after they were sentenced, arguing in April that the company must continue indemnifying them in the upcoming appeal.  Quinn Emanuel, Freshfields and Kobre & Kim filed their separate New York state court suit in April, alleging that MiMedx has violated its contractual duty to pay Petit and Taylor's criminal defense costs.

Under Economic Pressure, More Firms Sue Clients for Unpaid Fees

April 13, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Justin Henry, “Under Economic Pressure, Large Firms May Increasing Sue Clients for Nonpayment,” reports that economic pressures accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many law firms into difficult conversations with clients, as they aim to balance flexibility during an economic downturn with their own budgetary constraints. In some instances, the challenge is leading to lawsuits.  Over the last 12 months since the onset of the pandemic, Am Law 200 firms including Blank Rome, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Armstrong Teasdale and Baker McKenzie, among others, have sued clients for allegedly unpaid legal fees, court filings show.

Attorneys who represent law firms in collections disputes say firms are wary to sue clients over unpaid fees because it potentially leaves them vulnerable to counterclaims of legal malpractice.  They say law firms see litigation as a last resort, especially during an economic downturn when flexibility in collections can be key to maintaining solid client relationships.  But law firms are also on alert for exploitation by clients citing the economic tribulation of the last 12 months as a pretext to avoid costs, attorneys say.  Industry leaders also said a large portion of these claims by law firms don’t show up on the public record because the services contracts include an arbitration provision for settling fee disputes.

“As firms become billion-dollar-plus big businesses, they tend to be run more like big billion-dollar-plus businesses,” said Ronald Minkoff, a litigation group partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, who represents law firms in fee collections disputes.  “If they feel that a client is taking advantage of them, they’re much more willing to call the client to account for that.”

Last summer, according to court filings, Buchanan found itself with $2.7 million in outstanding legal fees from Best Medical International, a medical device company that retained Buchanan for patent litigation against alleged infringers in which Buchanan was victorious.  The fee is now the subject of ongoing litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Our cash flow difficulties do indeed continue to make it difficult to pay the Buchanan legal bill which now approaches $2.8 million,” said James Brady, Best Medical’s in-house counsel, in a May 11, 2020, email to Buchanan CEO Joe Dougherty, that was included in court documents.  “We will do everything we can to achieve a reasonable settlement with Varian and Elekta so your firm can be fairly compensated.  We appreciate your willingness to continue the forbearance on any collection efforts and we are hopeful a successful plan will be forthcoming soon.”

Court documents also included a May 12 email reply, in which Dougherty told Brady the firm’s board is “growing impatient with my forbearance on initiating collection efforts.”  Dougherty added Buchanan “is not immune from cash flow challenges these days, and the $2.7 million owed is very significant to us.”  Buchanan has annual revenue around $300 million, according to the most recent ALM data for the firm.

Best Medical took the firm to court in July, alleging it had breached fiduciary duties by failing to provide monthly estimates as promised in their initial contract, which the firm denies.  Court records show Best Medical failed to pay monthly payments from Sept. 23, 2019, through Feb. 11, 2020, citing the opposing parties’ request to stay proceedings and postponing a potential settlement.  Buchanan declined to comment for this story.

Armstrong Teasdale on March 17 filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against former clients, who the firm had represented in multiple lawsuits and in various arbitrations before the American Arbitration Association from October 2018 to October 2020. The suit alleges that the clients owe more than $3.5 million to the firm, plus a 9% annual interest rate.  That amount is equal to 2.3% of the firm’s 2020 revenue of $149.2 million.

In its complaint, Armstrong states the former clients paid legal bills invoiced through July 2019, but alleges that legal bills remain unpaid from then until September 2020, when the clients informed Armstrong they were retaining new counsel.  Armstrong Teasdale declined to comment for this story.  Blank Rome in a Jan. 8 complaint, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claimed former clients Joseph Gurwicz and GR Ventures of New Jersey have outstanding legal fees for the firm’s services connected to preparing and filing a provisional patent application.

As of the date of filing, more than 100 invoices dated from Nov. 8, 2017, through Nov. 6, 2019, remain either partially or fully unpaid, the firm alleges.  Of the $485,563 in legal costs incurred by Blank Rome on behalf of their client, the firm claims $187,860.85 have yet to be paid in full.  In addition, Blank Rome said it’s owed an annual accrued interest rate of 6%, bumping the total amount of the firm’s claim to just over $211,000.

Last week the firm opted to withdraw from the case. Blank Rome declined to comment for this story.  In another case, related to a five-figure fee, Baker McKenzie sued former client Catherine Brentzel in June 2020 in D.C. Superior Court.  Last month, the court entered judgment in the amount of $77,325.88 in the law firm’s favor, court records show.

Minkoff said there had been a stigma attached to firms using the court to induce payments from clients, because it might signal poor client relationship management on the part of the law firm.  But that has taken a back seat in recent years due to revenue pressures and stagnant demand, which have been ramped up by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“There were businesses and law firms who were affected by the pandemic in a negative way, and that increased the pressure in these situations,” Minkoff said.  “The Big Law numbers were not usually affected, particularly at the top levels, but the pressures that existed before the pandemic existed during the pandemic and will exist after the pandemic.”  Minkoff said the industry may be in for a rise in the volume of fee collections disputes between firms and their clients, mirroring the uptick that occurred in the mid-2010s.

“Partners are under pressure to bring in as much money as they can, and that has led to more aggressive behavior in terms of fee collections and those kinds of disputes,” Minkoff said.  He added that the rise in fee collections litigation coincides with firm protectionism in partnership agreements.

Expense-related pressures fall on the side of clients, who are sometimes surprised by high litigation fees and prefer to wait for a result to pay.  “The firms are more aggressive, they have more tools at their disposal to get paid, they’re more willing to litigate to get paid, especially if it’s a sort of one-off arrangement,” Minkoff said.  “Clients are faced with this kind of sticker shock.”

Akerman litigation partner Philip Touitou said law firms are even more focused on collections during the pandemic.  He said the crisis has “changed the dynamic” between clients struggling to make payments and law firms, who work to balance accommodations for struggling clients with their own financial pressures to make budget.  Touitou added that flexible fee structures are “here to stay” as law firms work to avoid potential fee disputes from the outset of a client engagement.

“I think the pandemic has only accelerated that effort,” Touitou said. He added that as firms reevaluate their costs after working remotely and cutting travel expenses to zero, they “may be in a better position to offer more flexible [fee] structures.”  “I think the benefits of law firm cost consciousness will work to the benefits of clients,” he said.

Fee Dispute Sent to Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause

March 31, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Atty-Client Spat Sent To Arbitration Despite Illegal Fee Clause, reports that a Florida state appeals court ruled that a woman's suit against her former attorney for erroneously wiring funds to a hacker's account number is subject to an arbitration clause in their retention agreement, even though a fee-shifting provision in the agreement was deemed invalid.  Florida's Third District Court of Appeal said that the arbitration clause in the agreement between Valeria Sessa and Natalie Lemos of Leinoff & Lemos PA is valid, and that it unambiguously covers Sessa's tort claims against her former attorney for sending half of her divorce settlement to a hacker's bank account.

Sessa had argued that the disputes subject to the arbitration clause in the agreement are limited to claims of fee disputes and legal malpractice, not generalized tort claims like hers, but the appeals court disagreed.  "The duty Lemos owed to Sessa, and allegedly breached by Lemos, is simply not the type of duty generally owed to others besides the contracting parties," the appeals court said. "It is, rather, a duty 'created by the parties' unique contractual relationship.'"

The agreement also included a severability provision, which the appeals court said allowed it to divorce the enforceable arbitration clause from the invalid provisions that require the client to advance any arbitration costs in the event of a dispute and to pay for the firm's attorney fees and costs.  The appeals court said Florida lawyers are barred from agreements with clients that prospectively limit their liability for malpractice.

"While the subject provisions in the arbitration clause are certainly not the type of exculpatory clauses expressly prohibited by the rule, in practice the two provisions erect a significant barrier to a client seeking recourse against her lawyer," the Third District said.  Sessa hired Lemos in June 2018 to represent her in her divorce.  In 2019, Sessa and her ex-husband negotiated a settlement that required him to make two lump-sum payments to her, according to the opinion.

The first payment was made directly to Sessa's brokerage account, but the second was made to Lemos' trust account so that she could deduct any outstanding fees and costs before wiring the balance to Sessa, according to the opinion.  But someone hacked into either Sessa's or Lemos' email accounts, and Lemos received fraudulent wiring instructions. She wired the balance of the second payment to a phony bank account and the money was never recovered.  Sessa then filed a lawsuit and Lemos asked for the court to compel arbitration. The trial court denied that request after finding that the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable because of the invalid fee-shifting provisions in the agreement.

Former Client Questions Law Firm’s Billing Rate in Fee Dispute

March 23, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “Coffee Co. Tries To Turn Up Heat on Sills Cummins in Fee Dispute,” reports that Sills Cummis & Gross PC is facing amended claims of legal malpractice in a years-long case for allegedly misleading a New Jersey-based coffee company about its fee rate.  The Newark-based law firm originally filed a complaint in New Jersey Superior Court against Two Rivers Coffee LLC in 2017 to collect on portions of an $85,181 legal bill the firm claims the coffee company owes for 262 days of work.

Two Rivers, however, responded by filing a malpractice counterclaim against Sills Cummis, alleging the firm regularly failed to follow the coffee company's instructions, failed to communicate properly with the company and inflated its fees.  On March 12, Two Rivers filed a motion seeking to amend its answer and bolster its counterclaims against Sills Cummis.  "From the outset, Sills did not honor these billing rates and, in its purported invoices, charged Two Rivers in excess of what its purported engagement letter allowed," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.

"Our bills for professional services are based on hourly billing rates.  A different billing rate is applicable to each attorney depending upon that attorney's experience and area of expertise," Sills Cummis explained in its engagement letter, according to an exhibit.  "The firm's hourly rates for members working on this matter will be $500 and $375 for associates and $125 for paralegals. These hourly rates change annually each October 1."

But Two Rivers claims it wasn't charged at the promised rates.  Sills' first purported invoice to Two Rivers, dated March 10, 2015, and covering January 2015, billed Two Rivers $595 and $525 per hour for two members and $465 per hour for an associate, according to the motion.  In March of that same year, Sills Cummis invoiced Two Rivers $525 for a member fee, according to the motion.  The alleged overbilling did not come to Two Rivers' attention until it was going through discovery, according to the motion.

The "overcharging scheme" involved Sills Cummis "invoicing Two Rivers at hourly rates in excess of the rates set forth in the purported engagement letter," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.  The alleged overbilling "is based on documents that have always been in Sills' control — its own purported engagement letter and its own purported invoices," the coffee company said.

Sills has always known, or at least should have known, what it agreed to charge and what it in fact did charge, Two Rivers contended.  Because the documents in question are in the possession of Sills Cummis, Two Rivers believes it will be difficult for the law firm to argue against the coffee company's claims.  Discovery, Two Rivers said, would have no impact on the files already in possession of the firm.

"This outcome is all the more fair when one considers that it is based on evidence that has always been in the possession of Sills, rather than in the possession of Two Rivers or a third party," Two Rivers claimed in its motion.  "There is no credible way for Sills to argue that this amendment constitutes any unfair surprise or prejudice to Sills.  To the contrary, it is more likely that Sills has known all along that it charged excessive hourly rates and chose to keep that knowledge to itself until Two Rivers brought it up."

Two Rivers is claiming Sills Cummis committed legal malpractice by willfully breaching its fiduciary duty and damaging the coffee company.  It is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the law firm in amounts to be determined at trial.