Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes


News Blog

Category: Novel Fee Ruling / Award

Second $185M Attorney Fee Request Called ‘Indefensible’

March 6, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Jack Karp, “Quinn Emanuel’s 2nd $185M Fee Bid Blasted as ‘Indefensible’”, reports that Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP's second attempt to win $185 million in attorney fees in $3.7 billion litigation over the Affordable Care Act still fails to justify the "indefensible" amount and barely pays "lip service" to a reevaluation ordered by the Federal Circuit, health insurers told the federal claims court.

The Federal Circuit already wiped out the $185 million attorney fee that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarded to Quinn Emanuel and directed the claims court to reexamine objecting class members' insistence that the firm hadn't justified its fee request, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and UnitedHealthcare Insurance Co. said.

"Despite this clear direction, class counsel's second petition again fails to justify its lodestar and again seeks to avoid a lodestar cross-check.  It instead asks the court to rubberstamp the same $185 million award," the health insurers said in their opposition to the firm's latest motion for approval of its fee request.

That motion for approval fails to support the 10,000 hours Quinn Emanuel says it spent on the case, suggests that the firm double-counted hours by including time spent on a separate multibillion-dollar class, and tries to skew its rates higher by seeking 2023 rates, even though its first fee petition was filed in 2020, according to the insurers.

"Trying to reverse-engineer defenses for its indefensible fee demand, class counsel uses inflated and unproven hours, multiplies those alleged hours by unprecedented rates, and then proposes a multiplier that is miles outside accepted norms.  That is akin to applying no cross-check at all," the insurers said.

Quinn Emanuel and a group of healthcare plan insurers the firm represents have insisted the firm used a novel claim and achieved a 100% recovery for the class in litigation over so-called risk corridor payments under the ACA.  But objectors Kaiser Foundation, UnitedHealthcare and others have argued that class counsel was entitled to just $8.8 million after a lodestar cross-check.

A Court of Federal Claims judge granted Quinn Emanuel's request for $185 million, or 5% of the total $3.7 billion settlement, in 2021 finding that a lodestar cross-check was unnecessary.  But that conclusion "was legal error," according to the Federal Circuit, which vacated the award in 2023.

That $185 million amount was inconsistent with promises made in class opt-in notices, and the "extraordinarily high award" wasn't justified, the three-judge panel ruled, ordering the fees to be recalculated.  But Quinn Emanuel's renewed request for $185 million "does little more than pay lip service" to the Federal Circuit's order, according to the insurers.

While the insurers still think their original $8.8 million fee request is reasonable, they are willing to agree to a fee award between $11.77 million and $23.14 million in "the interest of finality," they told the claims court.  "[T]he objectors sincerely want class counsel to be handsomely rewarded.  $11.77 [million] to $23.14 million represents an incredibly large fee award that also fulfills class counsel's promise of a lodestar cross-check," the insurers said.

Attorney Fees as Stock Options in Tesla Case?

March 4, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “Tesla Stock for Fees? Attys Who Got Musk’s Pay Cut Say Yes”, reports that the lawyers who convinced the Delaware Chancery Court to scuttle Elon Musk's proposed $55 billion Tesla compensation package filed a request for legal fees that came with a twist — they want to be paid in Tesla stock that rounds out to about $5.6 billion.

The attorneys from Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP, Friedman Oster & Tejtel PLLC and Andrews & Springer LLC, who represent the shareholders who in November 2018 challenged Musk's pay package as unfair, asked for more than 29 million Tesla shares and an additional $1 million to cover their litigation expenses, according to the motion.

They are seeking about 11% of the 267 million shares they say are now available for Tesla's use as a result of Chancellor Kathaleen St. J. McCormick's decision in January striking down Musk's 10-year compensation plan, the motion states.  She found that disclosure failures, murky terms, conflicted director architects and Musk's own hand on the tiller warranted an order to roll back the award.

"Rather than debate the value conferred to Tesla by canceling the options or the value of the underlying stock returned to the Tesla treasury free of restriction, plaintiff's counsel instead seeks a fee award in kind — a percentage of the shares returned for unrestricted use by Tesla (rather than cash)," the lawyers said.  "In other words, we are prepared to 'eat our cooking.'"

"This structure has the benefit of linking the award directly to the benefit created and avoids taking even one cent from the Tesla balance sheet to pay fees," they added. "It is also tax-deductible by Tesla."  The plan went to a week-long trial in November 2022 after it was challenged by stockholders led by plaintiff Richard J. Tornetta.  The compensation scheme included 12 tranches or performance milestones that Musk had to meet before qualifying for a portion of the total, once estimated at as much as $56 billion.

In her order squashing the plan, Chancellor McCormick found that "Musk dictated the timing of the process, making last-minute changes to the timeline or altering substantive terms immediately prior to six out of the ten board or compensation committee meetings during which the plan was discussed."  Although the defendants argued that Musk was "uniquely motivated by ambitious goals," with Tesla desperately needing him to succeed, the opinion observed, "these facts do not justify the largest compensation plan in the history of public markets."

The price was no better than the process, the chancellor concluded, observing that "Musk owned 21.9% of Tesla when the board approved his compensation plan.  This ownership stake gave him every incentive to push Tesla to levels of transformative growth — Musk stood to gain over $10 billion for every $50 billion in market capitalization increase."

In their motion for attorney fees, the shareholders' attorneys from the three firms said they collectively logged nearly 19,500 hours throughout the case, which came out to about $13.6 million in lodestar, as well as $1.1 million in out-of-pocket expenses.  And although a typical attorney fee request seeks about one-third of a settlement or verdict won in favor of their client, in this case, the attorneys said they are asking for a conservative 11% of the recovery.

"We recognize that the requested fee is unprecedented in terms of absolute size," the attorneys said.  "Of course, that is because our law rewards counsel's efforts undertaken on a fully contingent basis that, through full adjudication, produce enormous benefits to the company and subject the lawyers to significant risk."

"And here, the size of the requested award is great because the value of the benefit to Tesla that plaintiff's counsel achieved was massive," they added.  And this isn't the first time a court has awarded plaintiffs a fee of recovered shares, according to the motion.  The attorneys point to the 2000 case Sanders v. Wang, in which the Chancery Court granted plaintiffs judgment on the pleadings over the improper issuance of 4.5 million shares, approved a settlement and then awarded the plaintiffs a fee comprising 20%, or 900,000, of the 4.5 million recovered shares.

Overall, the attorneys said their fee request is supported by their history as experienced stockholder advocates, the substantial effort they put forth, the complexity of the case, and the "unprecedented result" they achieved in this case.

Judge: Bad Faith Needed for Defense Fees in BIPA Class Action

July 31, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “BIPA Defendants Must Show Bad Faith For Fees, Judge Says”, reports that an Illinois federal judge has rejected Christian Dior's argument that it should be the first defendant awarded attorney fees under Illinois' biometric privacy law, finding that a threshold showing of a plaintiff acting in bad faith would be required for such an award and that the luxury retailer couldn't meet that burden.

U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo in February dismissed the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act suit brought by lead plaintiff Delma Warmack-Stillwell, holding that an exemption under BIPA for data captured "from a patient in a health care setting" freed Christian Dior Inc. from the suit over its online tool for users to virtually try on sunglasses.

In May, Dior argued that Judge Bucklo should award it attorney fees and costs, saying BIPA's plain language makes clear that a "prevailing party" may recover its attorney fees and that the Illinois Supreme Court has held that prevailing parties include defendants.  But Judge Bucklo noted that the only way to enforce compliance with BIPA is through the statute's private right of action, and forcing plaintiffs who don't act in bad faith to foot the bill for a defendant's attorney fees would contradict that intent.

"Exposing plaintiffs bringing BIPA suits in good faith, even if ultimately unsuccessful, to attorneys' fees would unduly chill the sole enforcement mechanism for a law the legislature clearly intended to protect critical privacy interests and would defy BIPA's remedial purpose," the judge said.

Dior failed to establish Warmack-Stillwell had acted in bad faith by bringing her complaint, Judge Bucklo said, despite its arguments that she should have known better given two other similar lawsuits against other companies that were dismissed by Illinois federal judges under the same health care exemption — one before Warmack-Stillwell's case was filed and one tossed about a week after hers was filed.

Those district court rulings were not binding, Judge Bucklo said.  "Neither the Seventh Circuit nor the Illinois Supreme Court has expressed guidance on the matter, so it was not unreasonable for plaintiff to pursue her case," she said.  Judge Bucklo said it was "unnecessary" to decide whether BIPA allowed defendants to win attorney fees at all, because the law would still require a showing of bad faith, which Dior failed to meet.

Michigan Supreme Court: Pro Bono Status Not A Fee Award Factor

July 27, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Carolyn Muyskens, “Mich. Justices Say Pro Bono Status Can’t Affect Fee Awards”, reports that pro bono representation should not be a factor in determining a reasonable attorney fee award, the Michigan Supreme Court said, finding a judge wrongly slashed Honigman LLP's fee award when it represented a pair of journalists for free in a public records case.  In a majority opinion written by Justice Kyra H. Bolden, the state's high court, considering the issue for the first time, held that whether a client is represented pro bono "is never an appropriate factor for a court to consider in determining the reasonableness of an attorney fee," and ordered the trial judge to reconsider Honigman's fee request.

Dan Korobkin, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, called the ruling a "major victory" for Michigan's pro bono community in a statement.  "For the ACLU of Michigan and other nonprofit organizations like it, as well as private sector law firms that provide pro bono legal counsel to support important public interest work, it is vital that attorneys' fees be recoverable in cases involving civil rights, civil liberties, and government transparency," Korobkin said.

Honigman attorneys and Korobkin partnered to represent freelance journalists Spencer Woodman and George Joseph in litigation seeking the release of video footage of a fatal fight in a Michigan state prison after their Freedom of Information Act requests were denied.  After Woodman and Joseph secured the release of redacted versions of the video, Honigman and the ACLU each requested attorney fees under the Michigan FOIA law's fee-shifting provision.

The ACLU was awarded 100% of its request, but the judge awarded Honigman $19,000 of its $190,000 fee request because the firm represented the journalists for free.  While judges can consider a range of factors to adjust fee awards up or down, whether a client is paying for his or her representation is not one of them, the state Supreme Court said.

Factors such as the difficulty of the case, time limitations, and experience of the attorneys can help a judge analyze the reasonableness of attorney fees, but pro bono representation is "not relevant" to such an analysis, the majority said, in line with the principle that a reasonable fee award is not based on the actual dollars a client has paid to his or her lawyer.  "When an attorney agrees to represent a client pro bono, the pro bono nature of the representation should not have any effect on the quality of representation provided or the time spent on the case," Justice Bolden wrote.

In an email to Law360, Robert M. Riley of Honigman LLP, who represented Woodman and Joseph, said the ruling "puts Michigan in accord with every other state and federal court that has considered the issue."  "Attorneys willing to donate their time and energy rightly deserve to be treated the same as their paid counterparts.  We're grateful to the ACLU of Michigan for the opportunity to work together, and to the organizations who filed briefs in support of our position.  It's a historic moment for the Michigan pro bono community and we're honored to have played a role in this significant milestone," Riley said.

The majority said its conclusion aligns with the purpose of the fee-shifting provision in Michigan's FOIA law, which is to encourage government agencies to comply with the law and allow plaintiffs to pursue FOIA litigation they otherwise would not be able to afford.  "This case is a prime illustration of the 'private attorneys general' model working to vindicate the private rights of the litigants and the right of the public to access its government's information.  As recognized by other jurisdictions, a contrary ruling could have a chilling effect on the willingness of private attorneys to represent indigent litigants," the majority said.

Justice Brian Zahra, in a dissent joined by Justice David F. Viviano, disagreed that the majority should have taken up the issue of pro bono representation, calling it "premature" to review it because the Court of Appeals had declined to address the issue and had remanded the issue for reconsideration by the trial judge.  The majority was wrong to tie courts' hands and bar them from weighing pro bono status as a factor when it could be relevant to a fee award, Justice Zahra said.

Additionally, the majority's ruling "creates a strong, and seemingly perverse, incentive for lawyers and law firms to focus their pro bono activities in areas where they can expect to recover attorney fees rather than in the many diverse areas of the law where pro bono services are desperately needed," the dissenting justices said.

Although Justice Zahra did not reprise the suggestion he made during oral arguments that law firms could be required to donate their pro bono attorney fee awards to the state bar, he was concerned that the majority's opinion distorts the purpose of pro bono representation and pushed back on the majority's point that attorney fee awards help incentivize pro bono work.  "Let's not be afraid to acknowledge the elephant in the room.  If a lawyer or firm will not take a 'pro bono' case unless there is an opportunity to make money at the end, is it truly pro bono?" Justice Zahra wrote.

The majority also found Woodman and Joseph prevailed in full on their FOIA claims, which entitled them to a mandatory award of attorney fees instead of a discretionary award, which is available to plaintiffs who partially prevail.  Even though the freelance journalists received only redacted video with the faces of the prison staff blurred to protect their identities, the majority said the video was still "everything the plaintiffs initially sought" because the FOIA requests did not specify that the records must be unredacted and the journalists chose not to fight the redactions.  The dissenting justices also disagreed with that conclusion, saying it "defies common sense."

The journalists' FOIA requests can be assumed to have been requests for unredacted video because that is the default under FOIA and their complaint in the litigation specified they were seeking "complete, unredacted" footage.  "Perhaps redaction was not ultimately a major sticking point for plaintiffs, but it was an issue that they contested and lost," Justice Zahra wrote.  The dissenting justices said the majority's conclusion will allow FOIA litigants to manipulate the fee-shifting statute and win attorney fee awards by accepting less than the records they initially sought and using that concession to argue they fully prevailed and are entitled to attorney fees.

McDermott Will & Emery LLP partner Elizabeth Lewis, president of the Association for Pro Bono Counsel, told Law360 in a statement that APBCo was pleased the state supreme court "recognized the importance of ensuring that counsel who work on matters pro bono are still entitled to statutorily mandated fees."

"Pro bono counsel's eligibility for and receipt of fee awards are crucial in promoting equal access to justice — they ensure that pro bono and private representation are equally effective and support the work of legal services organizations — and the near-universal practice is to donate such fees to those legal services organizations and other charities to further facilitate these goals," Lewis said. APBCo filed an amicus brief in Woodman and Joseph's case.

In a First, Prevailing Defendant Seeks Fees in BIPA Class Action

July 21, 2023

A recent Law 360 story by Celeste Bott, “In a First, Dior Wants Fee Award For Beating BIPA Suit”, reports that Christian Dior says it should be the first defendant awarded attorney fees in a case under Illinois' biometric privacy law, urging a federal judge who threw out class claims against it to reject the argument that the law only allows for the recovery of fees for prevailing plaintiffs.  U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo in February dismissed the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act suit brought by lead plaintiff Delma Warmack-Stillwell, holding that an exemption under BIPA for data captured "from a patient in a health care setting" freed Christian Dior Inc. from the suit over its online tool for users to virtually try on sunglasses.

Warmack-Stillwell qualified as a patient because Dior's virtual try-on tool "facilitates the provision of a medical device that protects vision," the judge said.  In May, Dior argued that Judge Bucklo should award it attorney fees and costs, saying BIPA's plain language makes clear that a "prevailing party" may recover its attorney fees and that the Illinois Supreme Court has held that prevailing parties include defendants.

Dior claimed those fees were particularly warranted in this case, citing two other lawsuits that were dismissed by Illinois federal judges under the same health care exemption — one before Warmack-Stillwell's case was filed and one tossed about a week after hers was filed.  "These decisions were dispositive of this case, such that pursuing these claims would necessarily be wasteful," Dior claimed. "Plaintiff filed and pursued a lawsuit premised on a repeatedly-rejected theory of liability and increased the costs of this lawsuit with wasteful discovery demands."

Warmack-Stillwell, meanwhile, contends that no BIPA case has ever awarded fees to a defendant and says that BIPA provides a "prevailing party" may seek to recover its fees "for each violation," a phrase that necessarily implies further the word "proven" and therefore applies only to plaintiffs, she said.

In Dior's response contesting that interpretation, it cited the Illinois Supreme Court's recent holding in Cothron v. White Castle, which said claims accrue each time data is unlawfully collected and disclosed rather than simply the first time.  There, the justices cautioned against an "interpretation-by-assumption approach in the context of BIPA itself" by forbidding parties from creating "new elements or limitations not included by the legislature."

"In Cothron, it acknowledged that its ruling could result in 'annihilative liability' and that 'there is no language in [BIPA] suggesting legislative intent to authorize a damages award that would result in the financial destruction of a business,'" Dior said.  "And yet, because it found the statutory language was clear, those sort of policy judgments are reserved for the legislature. The same result applies here."

Judge Bucklo should also reject the plaintiff's other argument that the term "prevailing party" in BIPA should exclude defendants because the law's purpose is to protect consumers, Dior said in its reply.  "Of course, the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act was also intended to protect consumers, but that did not stop the Supreme Court from holding that its prevailing party provision applied to prevailing defendants as well," Dior said.