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Plaintiffs Firms Seek $20M in Fees in ATM Antitrust Case

February 28, 2022

A recent Reuters story by Mike Scarcella, “Plaintiffs Law Firms Seek $20 mln in Legal Fees From ATM Antitrust Case” reports that three plaintiffs' law firms have asked a federal judge to award more than $20 million in legal fees as part of a $66 million antitrust settlement with banks accused of participating in a scheme to fix ATM charges.  The class attorneys representing ATM operators and consumers said in a petition for fees on Feb. 25 they had invested more than 30,500 hours in the case since 2011, when it was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

A judge last year approved a settlement with Bank of America NA, Wells Fargo & Co and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Two other co-defendants, Visa Inc and Mastercard Inc, are pressing a legal challenge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The class damages exceed $1 billion, according to the three plaintiffs' firms seeking fees: Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Mehri & Skalet.

The bank defendants agreed to resolve consumer claims that they overpaid certain charges levied on transactions at bank-operated ATMs.  "This is not a case where plaintiffs settled quickly after filing their pleadings or relied on parallel guilty pleas," the plaintiffs' lawyers said in their fee petition.

The firms said their requested fee marked a 30% cut of the overall settlement fund and was "reasonable when compared to awards in antitrust class actions in this district."  The lawyers also argued the "litigation required an atypically high amount of expert work."  They pointed to a 2021 academic report showing the median antitrust fee award was 30% for settlements between $50 million and $99 million from 2009 to 2020.

First Circuit Affirms Sanctions in Long-Running Fee Dispute

February 10, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “1st Circ. Backs Sanctions Against Lieff Cabraser in Fee Tiff,” reports that the First Circuit left intact a Massachusetts federal judge's sanctions against Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP in a fees spat, finding that the lower court didn't abuse its discretion in punishing the firm for misrepresenting a study regarding fee awards in similar cases.  A three-judge panel affirmed a decision from U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf, who sanctioned the firm for misrepresentations it made to the court while justifying a $75 million fee award for Lieff Cabraser and co-counsel at Labaton Sucharow LLP and Thornton Law LLP. 

The fees stemmed from their work securing a $300 million settlement with State Street Corp., and they were later slashed to $60 million following a lengthy investigation into allegations of overbilling and other improprieties.  The First Circuit said that Judge Wolf had provided notice to the firm that it was facing possible violations of Rule 11 in several instances, rejecting the firm's argument to the contrary.

"The court repeatedly explained to Lieff, over the course of two years, that it would consider whether any misconduct in the original fee application warranted sanctions — specifically flagging 'the accuracy and reliability of the representations' made by class counsel in its filings," the panel said.  It added that Lieff Cabraser "certainly responded as if it well understood what was at stake."  Thus, Judge Wolf met the important requirement of giving the firm both notice of the basis for a possible sanction and a fair opportunity to show why there shouldn't be any sanction, the First Circuit panel said.

The panel had hinted that the firm's appeal may be futile at oral arguments in November, saying that Judge Wolf may just double down if the appeals court held that he unfairly punished the firm.  Lieff Cabraser received far less flak from Judge Wolf than the other two firms but fought a $1.1 million reduction in its fees, arguing that reversing the rule violation finding is even more important than the money.

In the decision, the First Circuit noted that the district court had found that Lieff Cabraser and its co-counsel used a template for their fee declaration that misleadingly indicated that they regularly charged paying clients the rates supporting its lodestar.  The court also held that the firms failed to exercise reasonable care in contributing to a suspect $4.1 million payment to a lawyer in Texas and for misrepresenting a study regarding typical fees awarded in similar cases, according to the opinion.  Lieff Cabraser was formally sanctioned for misrepresenting the study, but not for the other criticisms, the panel said.

No other firm joined Lieff Cabraser in the appeal and no parties to the underlying litigation wanted to participate either, the First Circuit said.  That led Judge Wolf himself to try to lawyer up to defend his ruling.  However, the appellate court refused to let Judge Wolf participate and instead permitted amicus Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute to file a brief in the dispute.  While Lieff Cabraser didn't challenge the fee award in its appeal, it argued that if the appellate court set aside all of the district court's criticisms, it may be entitled to some money out of the funds awarded to the class if any funds are unclaimed, according to the decision.

But the First Circuit said it found no basis for deviating from the circuit's general rule that a district court's criticism of counsel unconnected to any challenge to a judgment or order on appeal is not itself reviewable on appeal.  The panel also rejected Lieff Cabraser's argument that it didn't sign the memorandum in support of the fee award underlying the dispute and thus cannot be held liable for any misrepresentations contained in it.  That contention "goes nowhere," the First Circuit said.  The firm's name and the names of three of its attorneys were placed on the signature page of the challenged papers and the firm advocated for the fee at a hearing, the panel said.

Compare & Prove Hourly Billing Rates with NALFA Survey

December 4, 2021

NALFA conducts custom hourly rate surveys for clients such as law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our hourly rate surveys provide accurate data on hourly rates within a given geography market and/or practice area(s).  Our hourly rates surveys have been cited by litigators in court documents and referenced by court adjuncts in court proceedings.  Our surveys can also be used for internal purposes, such as rate comparisons.  Some of our recent hourly rate survey engagements include:

  • A boutique law firm in Boston engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of associate and partner level billing rates in litigation in the greater Boston area.
  • A large Miami law firm hired NALFA to conduct a survey of plaintiffs’ and defense rates in commercial litigation in South Florida.
  • A small plaintiffs’ law firm in Dallas engaged NALFA to conduct a survey and report of hourly rates in consumer class actions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. This survey was cited by a federal judge in his attorney fee award.
  • An insurer hired NALFA to conduct a survey of billing rates of defense counsel in insurance coverage litigation throughout California.
  • A large law firm in Seattle engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly billing rates in regular and complex litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington jurisdiction.
  • A small law office in Albany hired NALFA to conduct a national survey of billing rates in public interest and civil rights litigation in federal court.
  • A technology firm engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in large and mid-size law firms in patent litigation in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley region.
  • A defense law firm with offices throughout North Carolina hired NALFA to conduct an hourly rate survey of similarly sized law firms in the Charlotte area so they could compare billing rates with their litigation peers.
  • A government agency engaged NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in large Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases, nationwide.
  • A mid-size law firm in Atlanta hired NALFA to conduct a survey of hourly rates in IP litigation in several major markets.

Law Firms with Over 100 Attorneys Have Higher Rates Across All Experience Levels

September 4, 2021

NALFA recently released the results from our 2020 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey.  The results, published in The 2020 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report, contains billing rate data on the very factors that correlate to hourly rates in litigation: geography, years of litigation experience, complexity of case, and litigation practice size.

This empirical survey and report provides macro and micro data of current hourly rate ranges for both defense and plaintiffs’ litigators, at various litigation experience levels, from large law firms to solo shops, in routine and complex litigation, and in the nation’s largest legal markets and beyond.  This is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive survey or study on hourly billing rates in litigation. 

Law firms with over 100 attorneys have higher rates across all litigation experience levels.  When compared to solo practitioners, law offices with 2-11 attorneys, and law firms with 12-99 attorneys, large law firms consistently have higher rates for litigators at all experience levels.  Almost half (49%) of litigators at large law firms bill at tier 2 rates ($401-$650).  While the percentages of litigators at smaller law firms and law offices who bill at tier 2 rates are lower.  "From our survey, the data analysis shows that associates at large law firms start with higher rates and raise them more frequently than litigators at small law firms and law offices," said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.

The 2020 Litigation Hourly Rate Survey & Report is now available for purchase.  For more information on this survey, email NALFA Executive Director, Terry Jesse at terry@thenalfa.org or call us at (312) 907-7275.

More Doubt if ’Exceptional’ Patent Fees Include PTAB Work

September 2, 2021

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Matthew Bultman, “Doubts Deepen if ‘Exceptional’ Patent Fees Include PTAB Work,” reports that companies that win an “exceptional” patent lawsuit can be reimbursed for their attorneys’ fees—but they can’t count on recouping money spent fighting at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.  Patent law allows the winning side to collect fees from the losing side when a district court judge finds that the lawsuit is “exceptional,” as outlined in Section 285 of the Patent Act.  Courts are split on how the law applies to PTAB expenses.

Some courts have found the fees can include money companies spent challenging a patent at the PTAB after being sued.  Recently, however, other judges, including a magistrate judge in Delaware, have indicated those are likely sunk costs.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has yet to provide a definitive answer, but “it is pointing in the direction, perhaps, that awards are not going to be given for proceedings that are outside of the district court case,” Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP attorney Rubén Muñoz said.

While PTAB reviews are a less expensive way to challenge a patent’s validity, the proceedings can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the Delaware case, a judge said PTAB fees may account for a significant portion of the $1.1 million and $1.5 million Dish Network LLC and Sirius XM Radio Inc. spent in the litigation, respectively.  For smaller businesses, in particular, that’s not an insignificant expense.  A bar on recovering those fees could be a consideration in their litigation strategies.

‘Optional’ Proceedings

Questions about whether Section 285 allows companies to recover costs at the patent office predate the 2011 America Invents Act, the law that created the popular inter partes reviews at the PTAB.  In 1988, the Federal Circuit ruled Celanese Polymer Specialties Co. could recoup fees spent opposing PPG Industries Inc.’s reissue patent applications at the agency.  Celanese had been sued for infringement, and the court said its participation in the agency proceeding wasn’t optional.  The court also said the patent office proceeding “substituted for the district court litigation” on certain issues.

How the Federal Circuit views “the relevance of that case may drive its ultimate decision on whether or not fees can be awarded for PTAB work,” said Sandip Patel, an attorney at Marshall Gerstein & Borun LLP.  Without deciding the question, the Federal Circuit said last year in the Dish and Sirius cases it saw “no basis in the Patent Act for awarding fees under § 285 for work incurred in inter partes review proceedings that the Appellants voluntarily undertook.”

While the statement wasn’t binding, Magistrate Judge Jennifer Hall in the District of Delaware agreed. In a recent report, the judge emphasized Dish and Sirius weren’t required to challenge Dragon Intellectual Property LLC’s patent at the PTAB, but rather that they chose to do so.

Some attorneys say the realities of patent litigation mean PTAB reviews aren’t that optional.  Most of the patents challenged at the PTAB are brought by a defendant that has been sued in district court on the patent, a 2016 study found.  “Because most IPRs are filed because there’s a parallel district court action and because it’s common sense to have an inexpensive determination of validity, rather than a ridiculously expensive evaluation of it, it’s not so voluntary,” Patel said.  “It’s practical,” Patel said, “and that’s the way people proceed.  That’s the way business is conducted in patent litigation after the AIA passed.”

Substituting Work

Some district courts have been more willing to allow defendants to recover fees spent at the patent office.  A judge in the Eastern District of Texas, for example, said in 2017 that My Health Inc. owed companies almost $60,000 for work on an IPR petition because the “defendants never would have sought IPR if they had not been sued for allegedly infringing.”  In another case involving Southwest Airlines Co., a judge in the Southern District of California said the airline could recover fees for reexamination proceedings at the patent office because the proceeding “essentially substituted for work that would otherwise have been done before this court.”

Hall acknowledged the My Health and Southwest cases, but said their reasoning wasn’t persuasive.  While Dish and Sirius argued they were effectively being punished for choosing the more “efficient route,” Hall said to take it up with Congress.  “Federal courts don’t make policy,” Hall wrote, recommending the companies’ fee award be limited to what they spent in the district court.

Dish and Sirius XM have objected to Hall’s report, which will be reviewed by a district court judge.  The companies argue, among other things, that inter partes reviews aren’t optional because defendants sued for infringement have one year to file for inter partes review - “a non-extendable deadline to act.”

Revisiting PPG

Questions about PTAB fees have put a spotlight on the Federal Circuit’s decision in PPG. Some legal scholars say the court took a wrong turn in its decision, and skipped an important step by looking at whether the proceedings were optional.  Megan La Belle, a law professor at Catholic University of America who studied the subject, said the U.S. Supreme Court has established a clear framework for recovering fees for work in administrative tribunals.

The first step is to look at the language of the relevant statute.  Section 285 states that courts “in exceptional cases may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party.”  Administrative proceedings, like PTAB reviews, generally aren’t viewed as “cases,” La Belle said.  “You only get to that second step if there’s an argument that administrative proceedings are captured by the language of the statute,” La Belle said.  “I think clearly they’re not under 285.”

Another avenue for companies could be to pursue fees directly at the patent office.  The PTAB has the power to sanction a party for misconduct at the board, which can include frivolous arguments.  But La Belle suggested in a 2016 article that Congress pass legislation allowing for recovery of PTAB fees in exceptional cases in district court.  “From a policy perspective, to me it seems obvious that the Congress that passed the AIA, if they thought about this and if they were asked the question, ‘Can you recover fees for AIA proceedings?,’ I don’t see why they would ever say ‘No,’” La Belle said.