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Insurer Seeks to Dodge Attorneys Fees in Overbilling Matter

January 14, 2021 | Posted in : Billing Practices, Billing Record / Entries, Defense Fees / Costs, Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Fee Award, Fee Dispute, Fee Expert / Member, Fees & Insurance Policy, Fees Paid by Insurers, Hourly Rates, Practice Area: Insurance Litigation, Third-Party Payer

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “Insurer Seeks to Dodge Mass. Firm’s Overbilling Probe Fees” reports that an insurance company asked a Massachusetts federal court to declare that it is not responsible for paying attorney fees incurred by Thornton Law Firm LLP when the firm faced an investigation over alleged overbilling in a $300 million State Street Corp. settlement.  Continental Casualty Co. should not be obligated to pay Thornton Law the unspecified amount of fees the firm paid to its legal counsel for representation throughout the investigation, along with the unspecified amount the court ordered to be deducted from the firm's fee award to help cover the investigation's costs, according to the complaint in the District of Massachusetts.

Continental argues that Thornton Law did not take out insurance that would require the insurer to defend or indemnify the firm in the investigation.  The company noted that the investigation was not a claim triggered by an "act or omission in the performance of legal services" by Thornton Law, nor does it leave open the possibility of covered damages, according to the complaint.  The investigation's findings — that Thornton Law and Labaton Sucharow LLP repeatedly violated the rules of professional conduct in part by overbilling — meant that the insurance policy's "intentional acts exclusion" is also triggered, according to the complaint.

"The acts or omissions at issue in the special master fee investigation are not services performed by Thornton as a lawyer," the complaint reads.  "To the contrary, the special master fee investigation arose from the insured's false and misleading submission regarding its billing rates and business practices in a declaration to the court."

The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.  The class action resulted in a $300 million settlement between State Street and investors, and U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf approved $75 million in attorney fees for Thornton Law, Labaton Sucharow and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP in 2016.

The billing issues first came to light later that year in a Boston Globe report. The firms later acknowledged they overstated their billing, but claimed the $75 million fee was still proper.  Following the investigation by a special master, Judge Wolf in February reduced the firms' fees to $60 million.  Judge Wolf noted at the time that Thornton Law managing partner Garrett Bradley also signed a false fee declaration, which Bradley lamented as a "stupid mistake" when testifying in one of the case's hearings.

"The United States has a proud history of honorable, trustworthy lawyers," Judge Wolf wrote.  "However, this case demonstrates that not all lawyers can be trusted when they are seeking millions of dollars in attorneys' fees and face no real risk that the usual adversary process will expose misrepresentations that they make."