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Insurers Fail to Disqualify Law Firms in Recovery of Attorney Fees

August 10, 2021 | Posted in : Coverage of Fees, Expenses / Costs, Fee Agreement, Fee Dispute, Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR, Fee Entitlement / Recoverability, Fee Request, Fees & Insurance Policy, Fees Paid by Insurers, Third-Party Payer, Unpaid Fees

A recent Law 360 story by Pete Brush, “Effort By NHL Insurers to DQ Skadden, Proskauer Rejected”, reports that a New York judge declined to disqualify Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and Proskauer Rose LLP from representing the NHL in its effort to recover tens of millions of dollars of legal fees from insurers for concussion litigation, finding no conflict between the firms and hockey.

During a video hearing, New York Supreme Court Justice Melissa A. Crane turned aside a motion by Chubb and other insurers to remove the BigLaw firms from a dispute over who will be on the hook for what insurers say are $92 million of legal bills associated with an underlying $19 million concussion settlement.  I'm denying the motion.  The interests of the NHL and Skadden are aligned and the underlying case is over," Judge Crane said.

The NHL sued insurers including TIG Insurance, Chubb and Zurich last year, alleging a refusal to fund fees stemming from litigation over retired hockey players' claims that they endured long-term injuries.  The suit seeks damages and interest for an alleged breach of duty under policies dating back to 1974.  The suit says only about 25% of fee requests have been paid.

The defendant insurers dispute liability and, in a 2021 motion, some claim that "Skadden and Proskauer's fees and expenses for the underlying litigation were, in large part, unreasonable and unnecessary."  In a later filing, they say fees and expenses have thus far totaled $92 million.  The law firms counter that the insurers are using a meritless disqualification bid as a "ploy" to further their effort to angle for a "lowball" settlement.

During brief argument counsel for the insurers, Andrew Poplinger, said the firms are unable to be "objective" about their own billing practices.  Counsel for Skadden, Lawrence Spiegel, said insurers are engaging in "gamesmanship," with a "borderline frivolous" motion.

Judge Crane rejected the insurers' contention that lawyers from the firms cannot be permitted to act as witnesses in a case that centers on "reasonableness and necessity of their own legal fees."  The judge found not only that the NHL has waived the conflict, but also that different groups of lawyers will be at work on the fee case than were at work in the underlying concussion litigation.  "You're just going to add more fees if we switch it up now," Judge Crane also observed.