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Category: Prevailing Party Issues

FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award

May 31, 2022

A recent Metropolitan News story, “FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award” reports that the Federal Trade Commission’s “Holder Rule”—under which an assignee of a consumer credit contract cannot be held liable for a breach by the seller for more than what the purchaser has paid—does not preclude the award of attorney fees in excess of that amount under California’s “lemon law,” the California Supreme Court held.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu authored the opinion which affirms a Jan. 29, 2021 decision by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal. Div. Five, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin, upheld a $169,602 award of attorney fees against TD Auto Finance, LLC, declaring that “the Holder Rule does not limit the attorney fees that a plaintiff may recover from a creditor-assignee.”  Yesterday’s opinion resolves a conflict among the courts of appeal.

Under a provision of the Code of Federal Regulations, a consumer credit contract must include this notice: “Any holder of this consumer credit contract is subject to all claims and defenses which the debtor could assert against the seller of goods or services obtained pursuant hereto or with the proceeds hereof. Recovery hereunder by the debtor shall not exceed amounts paid by the debtor hereunder.”

The contract that Tania Pulliam signed when she purchased a used Nissan from HNL Automotive Inc. in Beverly Hills contained that language.  Dissatisfied with the vehicle she purchased, Pulliam sued HNL and the assignee of the contract, TD Auto Finance, under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (the “lemon law”) and was awarded $21,957.25 in damages.  TD insisted that the award against it of attorney fees, under the act’s fee-shifting provision, was improper because Pulliam was entitled to nothing in excess of what she had paid under the credit contract.

Disagreeing, Liu wrote: “We conclude that the Holder Rule does not limit the award of attorney’s fees where, as here, a buyer seeks fees from a holder under a state prevailing party statute.  The Holder Rule’s limitation extends only to ‘recovery hereunder.’  This caps fees only where a debtor asserts a claim for fees against a seller and the claim is extended to lie against a holder by virtue of the Holder Rule.  Where state law provides for recovery of fees from a holder, the Rule’s history and purpose as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s repeated commentary make clear that nothing in the Rule limits the application of that law.”

Before the FTC enacted its rule in 1975, Liu recited, a consumer was liable to the holder in due course of a note even for goods that were not delivered.  The rule places the holder in the shoes of the seller, subjecting it to all claims against, and defenses available to, the seller, limiting damages against the seller, and consequently against the assignee, he explained.  In formulating the rule, Liu said, “the FTC had damages in mind when limiting recovery under the Rule, and there is no indication that attorney’s fees were intended to be included within its scope.”

Attorney fees, in California, where awardable, are costs, not an element of damages, he noted.  The FTC, itself, has issued an advisory opinion declaring, “the Holder Rule does not limit recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs when state law authorizes awards against a holder,” Liu said.  The justice pointed out: “Were attorney’s fees part of the Holder Rule’s limit on recovery, the effective result for many, if not most, consumers would be the same as their options were under the holder in due course rule that the FTC sought to supplant.”

School Parents Denied Attorney Fees in Mask Dispute

May 12, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Behrend Law Group Denied Fee Bid in School Mask Dispute” reports that a group of parents who sued to make a Pittsburgh-area school district keep its mask mandate were not the "prevailing party" for the purpose of awarding Behrend Law Group attorney fees just because the Third Circuit had temporarily restored the mask order, a Pennsylvania federal judge ruled.  U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV said he had denied the parents a temporary restraining order on the district, and they had never argued their case on the merits on appeal, so a temporary order from a single Third Circuit judge keeping the masks on until the case was dismissed was not the same as a win – and didn't merit nearly $109,000 in fees and costs that the parents' attorneys sought from the Upper St. Clair School District.

"The interim relief granted by the Third Circuit to maintain the status quo pending appeal does not constitute relief on the merits and does not render plaintiffs prevailing parties," Judge Stickman wrote.  "Plaintiffs had the burden of establishing their right to relief as prevailing parties, and the court has determined that they failed to do so.  Attorney fees are, therefore, not available."

Attorneys Ken Behrend and Kevin Miller had represented a group of parents of children with disabilities who claimed in January that the school district's decision to make masks optional while COVID-19 was still spreading would put their children at risk.  The school district, the parents claimed, had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing them to choose between risking infection and being shunted back into online learning.

Judge Stickman had denied the parents' request for an injunction, ruling that they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their ADA claim.  But when they appealed to the Third Circuit later in January, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro issued an order that temporarily granted the parents' request to keep the district's mask mandate while the case was pending.

Briefs were submitted, and the case was set for argument in March along with a similar suit from the North Allegheny School District, where a different judge had granted another group of parents' request for an injunction keeping masks.  But before the case was argued, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention issued new guidance for measuring the level of the pandemic's spread and the necessity of masks, such that the Third Circuit declared the appeals moot.

When Behrend and Miller argued that the Third Circuit had granted the relief their clients wanted and they were entitled to fees, the school district countered that he hadn't actually gotten a ruling on the merits and therefore hadn't "prevailed." Judge Stickman agreed.  In other cases, the Third Circuit had denied fees to parties that had gotten temporary restraining orders and rulings that they had a likelihood of success on the merits, but the parents in Upper St. Clair hadn't even gotten that much, Judge Stickman said.  The Third Circuit's order wasn't enough, either, he said.

"The relief afforded to plaintiffs was not merits-based," Judge Stickman wrote.  "Here the Third Circuit's entry of a temporary emergency injunction was specifically viewed by that court as temporary.  Moreover, it did not even attempt to discuss and determine the substantive issues raised by the parties -- much less express a determination that plaintiffs had satisfied their burden to demonstrate that injunctive relief was warranted."

Without prevailing on the merits, the parents and Behrend could not seek to make the school district pay their attorney fees and were left to cover their own costs, the judge said.

Article: Courts Are Right to Reject Insurer ERISA Attorney Fee Awards

May 9, 2022

A recent Law 360 article by Elizabeth Hopkins, “Courts Are Right To Reject Insurer ERISA Atty Fee Award” reports on ERISA attorney fee awards.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

As the U.S. Supreme Court has often recognized, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act is remedial legislation that is primarily intended to protect plan participants and beneficiaries, promote their interests and ensure that they receive the benefits they are promised.  According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's 1984 ruling in Smith v. CMTA-IAM Pension Trust: "An important aspect of that protection is to afford [plan participants and beneficiaries] effective access to federal courts."

And one of the ways that this access is promoted is through ERISA's fee-shifting provision, which grants courts in actions brought by plan participants and beneficiaries the discretionary authority to allow a reasonable attorney fee and cost of action to either party.  Despite these protective statutory goals, individual ERISA claimants face uphill battles in attempting to reverse adverse benefit determinations.  They are not entitled to anything like a full trial in federal court, but are instead normally stuck with a trial on the record that was assembled by the decision-making fiduciary, who is in many instances entitled to great deference.

And the only recovery they can hope to achieve if they are successful is full payment of the benefits that they were always entitled to and perhaps some interest on this amount.  Given all these hurdles and limitations to recovery, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not always easy for ERISA plaintiffs to obtain counsel, especially when there is only a small amount of benefits at stake.

For this reason, as the Ninth Circuit explained in Smith, "without counsel fees the grant of federal jurisdiction is but a gesture for few [plaintiffs] could avail themselves of it."  Plan participants and beneficiaries who successfully challenge benefit denials or bring successful fiduciary breach suits against plan fiduciaries do invariably seek and almost always are awarded some attorney fees under this provision.

The Supreme Court made clear in 2010 in Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co., that participants need not even be prevailing parties in an ERISA action to qualify for fees, so long as they have had "some degree of success on the merits."  Once the success threshold has been met, to determine whether a discretionary award of fees is warranted, courts apply a five-factor test first developed in 1993 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Quesinberry v. Life Insurance Co. of North America — factors that clearly and intentionally favor successful plaintiffs.

But a potent new threat to the ability of plan participants and beneficiaries to bring suit is looming.  Increasingly, insurance companies are seeking attorney fee awards against claimants who are partially or wholly unsuccessful in overcoming deference and other substantive and procedural advantages to the plan decision makers, and are thus unable to have a denial of benefits reversed.

For the most part, courts continue to reject attorney fee applications from insurance companies that successfully defeat lawsuits seeking plan benefits.  A November 2021 decision in Martin v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky is instructive of both the heavy-handed tactics of insurance companies seeking fees from claimants and one court's reaction.  In Martin, the insurance company that insured disability benefits sought nearly $138,000 against the claimant, the father of a minor child whose only income was roughly $756 a month in veterans benefits and who had only $1,500 in his bank account.

The court seemed especially put off by Guardian's argument that Martin declined to participate in an independent medical examination and that this indicated bad faith, finding, to the contrary, that his attested reasoning for hesitation about the examination was a concern with going to an unknown medical facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the court noted that granting Guardian's motion for attorney fees "would tend to create a chilling effect on other plaintiffs seeking redress under ERISA."

Other courts have expressed similar concerns in denying fee applications asserted by insurance companies against disability plaintiffs.  For instance, in December 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Amoroso v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, declined to order the plaintiff to pay $66,000 in attorney fees to the insurance company simply because it "completely prevailed on the merits."

Noting that application of the five factors that courts apply in determining whether fees are warranted very frequently suggests that attorney fees should not be charged against ERISA plaintiffs, the court concluded that was certainly true with respect to Sun Life's application for fees in that case.  With respect to the first factor, the Amoroso court concluded that there was nothing approaching bad faith in the record.  The court found the second factor weighed strongly against a fee award because Sun Life did not show that Amoroso had sufficient assets to pay an award, and the facts that his home was valued at over $1 million and that he had a medical practice was simply irrelevant with respect to his ability to pay.

Addressing Sun Life's most revealing argument — that the third factor weighed in its favor because awarding fees would deter other participants from brining unsuccessful benefit suits — the court disagreed, reasoning that deterring disabled plan participants from suing for plan benefits was flatly inconsistent with ERISA's policy and with ERISA's fee-shifting provision.

Likewise, the court rejected out of hand Sun Life's argument that awarding fees would benefit all other participants and beneficiaries of the plan by saving the insurance company money and perhaps leading to lower premiums.  The court found instead that such an award "would deter insureds from seeking such benefits at all, and it would only embolden insurers in denying claims at the administrative level."

Considering the relative merits of the parties' positions — the final factor — the court declined to "force a losing ERISA plaintiff to pay an insurer's attorneys' fees based solely on the fact that he lost," reasoning that to do so "would not be consistent with ERISA, the better-reasoned cases decided under it, equity, or common sense."

In the court's view, such a fee award in favor of an insurer would only be justified in unusual circumstances not presented by Amoroso's case.  Numerous other recent decisions have had no trouble denying insurers' requests for attorney fee awards against unsuccessful benefit claimants.

At this point, it appears that the recent and sharp uptick in fee applications from insurance companies seeking fees against plan participants and beneficiaries who are unsuccessful in reversing a denial of benefits is meeting with little or no success in the courts.

Application of the Quesinberry test, along with a healthy reluctance to punish disabled, sick or retired plan participants for seeking to obtain plan benefits, has quite correctly led courts in all but the most unusual circumstances to reject these fee applications.  Let's hope these kinds of decisions discourage insurance companies from engaging in this unfair tactic.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a partner at Kantor & Kantor LLP in Northridge, CA.

Honeywell Wants Workers to Cover Attorney Fees in ERISA Suit

May 4, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Abby Wargo, “Honeywell Wants Workers To Cover Atty Fees in ERISA Suit” reports that Honeywell International Inc. told a Michigan federal judge to grant it attorney fees after it won a retirement benefits suit against its former workers, saying the workers' unnecessary prolonging of the suit caused the company to expend additional resources that should be reimbursed.  The corporation asked U.S. District Judge Denise P. Hood to approve its request for a "carefully limited" sum of $263,485 after winning a decade-long suit against the United Autoworkers of America and Honeywell retirees.

Honeywell asked the court to approve only the payment of fees incurred during a period of several months in 2018 and early 2019, rather than the full 11 years of the lawsuit, which it told the judge is a reasonable request compared to the millions of dollars spent throughout the suit.  "Having defeated all of plaintiff's claims, Honeywell should be awarded a narrow portion of its attorneys' fees.  Specifically, the court should award Honeywell's fees most related to plaintiff's second summary judgment filing, as well as the unsupportable vesting claims that plaintiff pursued on appeal," according to the motion for attorney fees.

Honeywell said that it is proposing "voluntary concessions" to its requested award, such as excluding fees paying for the time of noncore legal team members and reducing the rates of the award to less than what Honeywell was actually paying for its lawyers.  If the award is granted, it would be only a small fraction of the millions of dollars Honeywell spent fighting the lawsuit, it said.

But Honeywell said that the plaintiffs were "unpersuaded" by the rulings and moved for summary judgment again, though they still lost. Regardless, the company's attorneys had to spend hundreds more hours on the case than was necessary, it said in the fee motion.

Feds Push Back on $1.9M Fee Request in GMO Salmon Action

April 28, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “Feds Push Back On Bid For $1.9M Fees in GMO Salmon Suit” reports that the federal government has opposed a motion from environmental groups seeking $1.9 million in attorney fees and costs in a suit alleging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrongly approved the first genetically modified salmon for human consumption, saying the "excessive" fees request follows a "narrow" suit victory.  In an opposition brief, the government said the groups, led by the Institute for Fisheries Resources, saw limited success and repeated losses in the suit, prevailing narrowly on only three of the 14 claims, including losing all claims under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

That limited success should in turn limit the amount that the court awards in fees, according to the brief, and the government said if the court decides to award fees at all, they should be capped at $246,333.37, while expenses should max out at $1,135.91.  In particular, the government said, the groups should not be able to recover fees for their unsuccessful claims, such as the claims under the FDCA and the bulk of their claims under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The plaintiffs sued the FDA in March 2016, claiming the agency's groundbreaking 2015 approval of a genetically engineered salmon for human consumption poses unknown dangers to food, health and the environment.  AquaBounty used genetic material from a Pacific Chinook salmon and from another fish, the ocean pout, to create a line of fish that grow to full size in about half the standard time, according to court documents.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in November 2020 found the FDA should have looked deeper into regulating genetically modified salmon, saying the agency didn't meaningfully analyze what might happen to normal salmon if the genetically engineered salmon were able to establish a population in the wild.

The environmental groups asked for the $1.9 million in attorney fees in March, after a previous bid — seeking $2.9 million — was rejected in February.  In March's motion, the groups said they had cut down their billable hours to 3,190.6.  In the brief, the government further argued that the plaintiffs had used "unreasonable" hourly rates that go beyond the market standards in the attorneys' home markets by using the benchmark of San Francisco rates despite three out of four core counsel working out of Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

And the hours claimed are excessive, the government wrote, with the plaintiffs presenting vague time entries and block billing that make it impossible for the government defendants to figure out what hours apply to which claims.  In addition, the time sheets include hours that are not compensable, the government wrote, such as hours spent in separate regulatory proceedings, client solicitation, media activities and challenges to the FDA's deliberative processes.

In other cases, the attorneys' time sheets included duplicative time entries for overlapping efforts among multiple attorneys, resulting in excessive hours for which they should not be billed.  The government also challenged particular time entries linked to tasks that they say were well in excess of the actual time spent on those actions, such as 240 hours marked as being spent on a procedural motion that "did not necessitate so many hours."

Finally, the government argued that the plaintiffs should not be granted any fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows fees to be granted to the prevailing party unless the government shows its actions were substantially justified.  Both the FDA's approval decision and its conduct in the litigation were substantially justified, the government argued, saying the FDA had diligently examined AquaBounty's application and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with its determination.  That the government prevailed on the bulk of the claims in the suit is further evidence that its position was reasonable, according to the brief, and therefore no fees should be awarded under the EAJA.