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Category: Prevailing Party Issues

Fourth Circuit Affirms Fee Award for Abortion Protestors

November 2, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hayley Fowler, “Abortion Protesters Keep Atty Fees in 4th Circ. Picketing Row,reports that the Fourth Circuit affirmed an attorney fee award for abortion protesters in a suit challenging the constitutionality of a North Carolina city's picketing ordinance, finding the sidewalk ministry had notched some semblance of a win in the parties' consent agreement.  In a published opinion, a three-judge panel said the consent decree allows Cities4Life Inc. to hand out pamphlets at an abortion clinic where they were previously banned from doing so, meaning the legal relationship between them and the city of Charlotte altered in such a way that Cities4Life was a "prevailing party" under the agreement.

The Fourth Circuit's decision allows the ministry to keep its $39,811 in attorney fees awarded by the district court.  "Contrary to the city's assertion at oral argument, this was no 'technical victory' — plaintiffs' previous inability to distribute literature to vehicles at the center was central to their claim," U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz wrote.  "Thus, we hold that the consent judgment here granted plaintiffs 'some relief on the merits' sufficient to establish this prerequisite for fee shifting."

Cities4Life had accused Charlotte police in 2019 of enforcing the city's picketing ordinance too liberally outside an abortion clinic that the Fourth Circuit said "performs the most abortions in the southeastern United States," where anti-abortion volunteers were allegedly inundated with citations.

One of the activities under scrutiny involved protesters stepping into the road to give literature to patients visiting the clinic. Police said it was a safety hazard that violated a city ordinance barring disrupting, blocking, obstructing or otherwise interfering with traffic.  But Cities4Life had argued police were infringing on their volunteers' First Amendment rights.  The parties reached a consent decree 17 days before the case was set to go to trial in 2020, the Fourth Circuit said.

Under the agreement, Cities4Life could approach cars with some caveats and would be issued an initial warning instead of an immediate citation if any of those conditions were violated.  The parties did not, however, settle the issue of attorney fees, which was decided at a later date by the district court.  Cities4Life had sought more than $150,000 in fees, which the judge ultimately slashed by 75% to land at the $39,000 figure.

On appeal, Charlotte argued the agreement had been a "practical resolution." Counsel for the city specifically said during oral arguments that the consent decree went "out of its way" to dismiss all the ministry's claims with prejudice, which he argued was a win for Charlotte — not the other way around.  But the Fourth Circuit said dismissing the claims with prejudice is typical of parties wanting to "ward off future litigation" and is a "poor indicator" of which one prevailed.

The panel found the decree "easily passes" its four-part test for determining fee awards, saying the parties had reached a consent decree that grants Cities4Life some relief, materially alters their legal relationship and is enforceable by the court.  In doing so, the Fourth Circuit dismantled the city's claim that an admission of liability is necessary to award attorney fees, which wasn't present in the consent decree, saying such an admission is not always necessary because judges have a "special degree" of oversight.

Construction Firm Challenges Utah’s Attorney Fee Request

October 31, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Caleb Symons, “Utah’s $100K Atty Fee Bid Excessive Construction Co. Says” reports that one of the federal contractors working on a Colorado gold mine when it ruptured in 2015 denies owing the state of Utah more than $100,000 in attorney fees for mishandling certain records, calling the request "unreasonable" because it avoided a harsher punishment for that infraction.  The sanctions dispute — part of multidistrict litigation over the Gold King Mine blowout, which released 3 million gallons of toxic waste — centers around Utah officials' claim that Harrison Western Construction Co. withheld documents detailing its construction plans at the mine.

U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson ruled earlier this year that Harrison Western must pay the state's attorney fees in those proceedings, but the company now seeks to substantially reduce an estimate of its obligation.  Noting that the judge declined to issue a more severe punishment, the Denver-based construction firm said last week that Utah should not be allowed to recoup its full legal bill after achieving only "relatively minimal success" on its March 7 sanctions request.

Rather than covering more than $100,000 in attorney fees — which includes Utah's estimate of future expenses in the ongoing spat — Harrison Western proposed paying the state less than $29,000 for those costs.  "Given Utah did not prevail on the two primary sanctions it sought, it should not be awarded fees on fees," the company said.  "At most, it should be awarded only one-third of the attorney fees and costs sought for preparation of its fee request, as it prevailed on only one of three sanctions sought."

State authorities asked Judge Johnson in early October to approve their $105,578 sanctions bill, claiming that Harrison Western "refused to participate in a good-faith effort to resolve this motion for an award of attorneys' fees without requiring judicial intervention."  The company responded that Utah is entitled to only a fraction of that sum because the judge had approved only the "least severe" of its sanction requests.

Moreover, the state's compensation formula — based on an hourly fee of $795 for partners and $550 for associates — is well above the typical rate in both New Mexico, where the MDL is located, and the Rocky Mountain region, according to Harrison Western.  Nor has Utah shared enough information about the hours worked by its King & Spalding LLP lawyers to prove an accurate accounting, the company added.

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.

Judge Awards $90M in Attorney Fees in RICO Win

July 28, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “Judge Says Google Should Get Atty Fees In $90M RICO Win” reports that a Florida magistrate judge agreed with Google that it should be awarded attorney fees for prevailing in a $90 million Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act lawsuit over an allegedly blacklisted website owned by conservative individuals, but recommended slashing Google's fee request because the case was resolved quickly and was uncomplicated.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said Google LLC's request for $202,205 was excessive given the fact that the case was resolved at the motion to dismiss stage in 14 months and involved no discovery, and said an award of $145,455 is more appropriate.  The magistrate judge also took issue with the hourly fees being requested by Google's attorneys, which he said are "excessive by current Palm Beach County standards" and suggested reducing them.

Google asked for fees after the dismissal of plaintiff DJ Lincoln Enterprises Inc.'s suit was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit on appeal in January.  In its suit, St. Lucie, Florida-based DJ Lincoln, which described itself as a closely held, family-owned business, accused Google of blacklisting its website SeniorCare.com and intentionally demoting its ranking in search results because it is owned by conservatives.

Google moved for attorney fees under the fee-shifting provisions of Florida's RICO and FDUTPA statutes, but Judge Reinhart recommended that fees be awarded only under the state RICO law after finding that there was no evidence DJ Lincoln brought the FDUTPA claim in bad faith.