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The NALFA

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Category: Practice Area: Bankruptcy / Restructuring

Article: New Ruling Considers Hourly Rates in Chapter 11 Cases

November 8, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Tyler Brown, Jason Harbour and Justin Paget of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, “How Ch. 11 Ruling Ends War Between National, Local Rates” reports on a recent ruling on hourly rates in Chapter 11 cases.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Oct. 18, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia approved the professional fee applications in the Nordic Aviation Capital bankruptcy cases, including the rates of each of the professionals as appropriate market rates.  This settles any remaining uncertainty in how professionals' hourly rates will be considered for approval in bankruptcy courts in the district. In particular, the bankruptcy court noted that

[m]uch ink has since been spilled differentiating so-called "local" rates from "national" rates. The distinction is much ado about nothing.  The market for professional services cannot be predetermined by geography alone.

Instead of relying on geography alone, the bankruptcy court stated that

the plain language of the Bankruptcy Code directs the Court to consider the "customary compensation charged by comparably skilled practitioners in cases other than cases under [Title 11]."  The Court must, therefore, look at whether the rates charged are consistent with those set in the relevant market.

To determine the relevant market, the court noted that the market rate will be set for the most part by the amount clients are willing to pay for professional services.  The factors clients may consider in the selection process might include the reputation of the professional, the specialization of the professional, the need for the professional's experience and expertise, the stakes of the transaction and the time pressures of the engagement.

The court also stated that a good understanding of the relevant market in any given case could be gleaned from the rates of professionals other than those engaged by:

    The debtor;

    Debtor-in-possession financing budgets;

    Monthly operating reports of the debtor;

    Information required by the U.S. trustee program guidelines; and

    The checks and balances built into the fabric of the reorganization process to police the market.

The bankruptcy court also reiterated that the applicable factors for approving professional fee applications are those enumerated in Title 11 of the U.S. Code, Section 330(a)(3), and the Johnson factors.

Additionally, the bankruptcy court noted that in applying the Johnson factors, "it must heed the Fourth Circuit's admonition against per se rules beyond those legislatively mandated," noting that the court cannot "abdicate the equitable discretion granted to it by establishing rules of broad application which fail to take into account the facts of a particular case and the overall objectives of the bankruptcy system."[6]

After identifying the applicable legal standard, the bankruptcy court addressed the evidence that was relevant to the approval of the professional fee applications, including the rates of the professionals.  As the fee applications were uncontested, the court stated that it issued the memorandum opinion to provide guidance to practitioners on the facts they need to develop in support of fee applications filed in bankruptcy cases pending before that court.

In taking the unusual step of issuing a lengthy memorandum opinion for uncontested fee applications, the bankruptcy court put to rest what one commentator recently suggested was a war between national and local rates in the Eastern District of Virginia in mega Chapter 11 cases.  The issue arose in connection with the appeal of the plan confirmation order in the Mahwah Bergen Retail Group Inc. cases on unrelated grounds.

After vacating confirmation in that case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered that the bankruptcy court issue proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on any further fee applications in the case and questioned whether attorney rates should exceed the prevailing market rates in the Richmond division of the Eastern District of Virginia.

The district court's order created uncertainty as to how the bankruptcy court might subsequently analyze the rates of professionals from outside the Richmond division.  That uncertainty was short-lived.  Importantly, the memorandum opinion represented one of the bankruptcy court's first opportunities to address professional fee applications in a large Chapter 11 case since the entry of the district court order adopting the bankruptcy court's report and recommendation in the Mahwah Bergen bankruptcy cases.

In the memorandum opinion and the bankruptcy court's report and recommendation, two bankruptcy judges from the Eastern District of Virginia have extensively detailed the legal precedent in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the appropriate factual predicates for approving market rates.

In sum, the memorandum opinion provides comfort to all practitioners, including those from outside the Eastern District of Virginia, that the appropriateness of attorney rates in cases filed in the district will continue to be assessed through application of the factors identified in Section 330(a)(3) and the Johnson factors on a case-by-case basis, without any additional requirements or per se rules.

NALFA Members Quoted in Bloomberg Story on Billing Rates

June 10, 2022

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Roy Strom, “Big Law Rates Topping $2,000 Leave Value ‘In Eye of Beholder’” quoted two NALFA members, John D. O'Connor of O'Connor & Associates in San Francisco and Jacqueline S. Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego, on a news story on hourly billing rates.  His story reads:

Some of the nation’s top law firms are charging more than $2,000 an hour, setting a new pinnacle after a two-year burst in demand.  Partners at Hogan Lovells and Latham & Watkins have crossed the threshold, according to court documents in bankruptcy cases filed within the past year.  Other firms came close to the mark, billing more than $1,900, according to the documents.  They include Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Boies Schiller Flexner, and Sidley Austin.

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett litigator Bryce Friedman, who helps big-name clients out of jams, especially when they’re accused of fraud, charges $1,965 every 60 minutes, according to a court document.  In need of a former acting US Solicitor General? Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal bills time at $2,465 an hour.  Want to hire famous litigator David Boies?  That’ll cost $1,950 an hour (at least).  Reuters was first to report their fees.

Eye-watering rates are nothing new for Big Law firms, which typically ask clients to pay higher prices at least once a year, regardless of broader market conditions.  “Value is in the eye of the beholder,” said John O’Connor, a San Francisco-based expert on legal fees.  “The perceived value of a good lawyer can reach into the multi-billions of dollars.”  Law firms have been more successful raising rates than most other businesses over the past 15 years.

Law firm rates rose by roughly 40 percent from 2007 to 2020, or just short of 3 percent per year, Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor data show.  US inflation rose by about 28% during that time.  The 100 largest law firms in the past two years achieved their largest rate increases in more than a decade, Peer Monitor says.  The rates surged more than 6% in 2020 and grew another 5.6% through November of last year.  Neither level had been breached since 2008.

The price hikes occurred during a once-in-a-decade surge in demand for law services, which propelled profits at firms to new levels.  Fourteen law firms reported average profits per equity partner in 2021 over $5 million, according to data from The American Lawyer.  That was up from six the previous year.

The highest-performing firms, where lawyers charge the highest prices, have outperformed their smaller peers.  Firms with leading practices in markets such as mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and real estate were forced to turn away work at some points during the pandemic-fueled surge.  Firms receive relatively tepid pushback from their giant corporate clients, especially when advising on bet-the-company litigation or billion-dollar deals.

The portion of bills law firms collected—a sign of how willingly clients pay full-freight—rose during the previous two years after drifting lower following the Great Financial Crisis.  Collection rates last year breached 90% for the first time since 2009, Peer Monitor data show.  Professional rules prohibit lawyers from charging “unconscionable” or “unreasonable” rates. 

But that doesn’t preclude clients from paying any price they perceive as valuable, said Jacqueline Vinaccia, a San Diego-based lawyer who testifies on lawyer fee disputes.  Lawyers’ fees are usually only contested when they will be paid by a third party.

That happened recently with Hogan Lovells’ Katyal, whose nearly $2,500 an hour fee was contested in May by a US trustee overseeing a bankruptcy case involving a Johnson & Johnson unit facing claims its talc-based powders caused cancer.  The trustee, who protects the financial interests of bankruptcy estates, argued Katyal’s fee was more than $1,000 an hour higher than rates charged by lawyers in the same case at Jones Day and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.  A hearing on the trustee’s objection is scheduled for next week.  Hogan Lovells did not respond to a request for comment on the objection.

Vinaccia said the firm’s options will be to reduce its fee, withdraw from the case, or argue the levy is reasonable, most likely based on Katyal’s extensive experience arguing appeals.  Still, the hourly rate shows just how valuable the most prestigious lawyers’ time can be—even compared to their highly compensated competitors.  “If the argument is that Jones Day and Skadden Arps are less expensive, then you’re already talking about the cream of the crop, the top-of-the-barrel law firms,” Vinaccia said.  “I can’t imagine a case in which I might argue those two firms are more reasonable than the rates I’m dealing with.”

USTP Balks at Hourly Rate in J&J’s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

May 24, 2022

A recent Bloomberg Law story by James Nani, “DOJ Balks at J&J Unit’s Plan to Hire Katyal at $2500 an Hour” reports that the Department of Justice’s bankruptcy watchdog is opposing a bankrupt Johnson & Johnson unit’s proposal to retain former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal at nearly $2,500 an hour to work on its Chapter 11 case.

LTL Management LLC, which was created by the healthcare giant to house and limit its liability from its talc products, is proposing to retain Katyal, a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP, at a rate as high as $2,465 an hour, the US Trustee said in its objection.   Hogan Lovells’ hourly rates for its partners are “significantly higher” than the rates of the seven other law firms LTL Management has retained, the US Trustee said.  LTL hasn’t shown the rates are reasonable or in the best interest of the bankruptcy estate, the Trustee said.   Katyal would act as special appellate litigation counsel for LTL, according to LTL’s application to hire Katyal.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed to hear several appeals by asbestos victims who are trying to end LTL’s bankruptcy.  The Third Circuit’s review will include the New Jersey bankruptcy court’s decision earlier this year denying tort claimants’ motion to dismiss the Chapter 11 case.  The tort claimants argue LTL’s bankruptcy—which would address lawsuits from its talc product users who allege they developed cancer—was filed in bad faith.

LTL told the bankruptcy court it needs experienced counsel in connection with the appeals. Hogan Lovells “provides exceptional appellate litigation services,” LTL said.  In light of the appeal’s complexity and “anticipated intensity,” hiring Hogan Lovells is “appropriate and warranted,” LTL said.  The US Trustee argued that law firms LTL has already retained, such as Jones Day and Skadden Arps Slate Meager & Flom LLP, have helped the company and are familiar with the case.  But their hourly rates are lower, it added.

SCOTUS to Rule on Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Fee Increases

January 10, 2022

A recent Reuters story by Maria Chutchian, “Supreme Court to Determine Constitutionality of Bankruptcy Fee Increases,” reports that the U.S. Supreme Court said it will review a dispute over a recent increase in fees that Chapter 11 debtors are required to pay the federal government.  The issue, which stems from a 2017 law that hiked the government fees that most large companies in bankruptcy must pay, has divided top appellate courts across the country.

The law's imposition of higher fees in most, but not all, U.S. bankruptcy courts has caused uncertainty over the legal status of around $324 million in fees imposed under the law, according to the U.S. Trustee, which serves as the U.S. Department of Justice’s bankruptcy watchdog.

The underlying lawsuit was brought by Alfred Siegel, the trustee who oversaw Circuit City’s liquidation process.  He argued that the 2017 law violated the U.S. Constitution’s Bankruptcy Clause, which requires bankruptcy laws to be uniform, because it hiked fees for Chapter 11 debtors in most states but failed to do the same for Alabama and North Carolina.  Those two states use a different government entity, known as the Bankruptcy Administrator program, to perform similar duties as the U.S. Trustee in large corporate bankruptcies.

The law was eventually amended to include Alabama and North Carolina, but Siegel argued in his September petition to the Supreme Court that companies that filed for Chapter 11 in those two states were still permitted to go several months without being subject to the same fee increases that were imposed in the other states.  The government argued in its response that the constitution’s bankruptcy clause gives Congress flexibility in creating new statutes that govern bankruptcy court administration.

The law has been challenged in several districts with conflicting outcomes.  The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, which ruled in Siegel's case, and the 5th Circuit have upheld the law while the 2nd and 10th Circuits have deemed it unconstitutional.  Though they oppose each other’s interpretation of the law, the U.S. Trustee and Siegel both asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the case.

USTP Asks Supreme Court to Review $324M Bankruptcy Fee Matter

December 11, 2021

A recent Reuters story by Marla Chutchian, “Government Asks Supreme Court to Review $324M Bankruptcy Fee Fight,” reports that the U.S. Department of Justice’s bankruptcy watchdog is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a dispute over bankruptcy fees Chapter 11 debtors are required to pay the government that has divided top appellate courts across the country.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said in a brief on behalf of the U.S. Trustee program that the high court should review the matter to resolve confusion over the fees created by the conflicting rulings.  She also argued the court should find that a 2017 law increasing government fees that many Chapter 11 debtors must pay complies with the U.S. Constitution’s Bankruptcy Clause, which requires bankruptcy laws to be uniform.  The law's imposition of higher fees in most, but not all, U.S. bankruptcy courts has caused uncertainty about the legal status of around $324 million in fees imposed under the 2017 law, according to the U.S. Trustee.

The dispute stems from a lawsuit filed by Alfred Siegel, the trustee who oversaw Circuit City's liquidation process.  He claims the law violated the uniformity requirement by increasing U.S. Trustee fees for Chapter 11 debtors in most states but failed to do the same for two states that use a different government entity, known as the Bankruptcy Administrator program, to perform similar duties in overseeing large corporate bankruptcies.

Siegel argued in a September petition to the Supreme Court that the alleged disparity forced the Circuit City liquidating trust to pay substantially higher fees than it had in prior years, while Chapter 11 debtors in North Carolina and Alabama, the states with the alternative program, went several months without being subject to the same fee increases.  North Carolina and Alabama opted in 1986 for the Administrator program.

While the U.S. Trustee opposes Siegel’s view of the law, it agrees that the Supreme Court should review the case.  The law has been challenged in several districts with conflicting outcomes – the 4th and 5th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have upheld the law while the 2nd and 10th Circuits have deemed it unconstitutional.

The government argued that the constitution’s uniformity requirement does not restrict Congress’s ability to amend U.S. Trustee fees.  Additionally, it said, the bankruptcy clause gives Congress flexibility in creating new statutes that govern bankruptcy court administration.  “There is no basis for concluding that any of those administrative variations are unconstitutional,” the government said in Wednesday’s filing.

The case is Alfred Siegel v. John Fitzgerald III, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 21-441.