Contingent Fee: $18,500 per hour?

I continue to struggle to find the motivation to blog.  My malaise bugs me.  Rather than dwell on it, this morning I decided to rid myself of it.  My plan is simple: find an interesting story and figure out a way to tie it Vermont legal ethics and write about them.  Then, do it again a few days later. So, here goes.

Earlier this week, the ABA Journal posted Quinn Emanuel seeks fee amounting to $18,500 per hour; will judge approve it?  Quinn Emanuel is a law firm.  The firm represented a class of health care insurers that sued the federal government.  Bloomberg Law posted the firm’s motion to have its fee approved.  The motion’s introductory paragraph sets the stage better than I can:

  • “In February 2016, Quinn Emanuel became the first firm in the nation to file a lawsuit on behalf of a Qualified Health Plan issuer against the federal government alleging that the government improperly failed to make risk corridor payments in violation of Section 1342 of the Affordable Care Act. Four years later, following round after round of fierce litigation and a loss at the Federal Circuit, eight justices of the Supreme Court adopted the exact legal theory Quinn Emanuel set forth in the initial Health Republic complaint and which it advocated at every step, including in the parallel cases that eventually made their way to the Supreme Court. The result? An entire industry was able to collect three years’ worth of unpaid risk corridors amounts they had previously been forced to write off as a total loss—approximately $12 billion. Nearly $4 billion of that recovery will go to the class members in these class actions.”

Cutting to the chase, years ago, the firm notified class members that it would ask a court to approve a fee equal to 5% of any recovery.  Here, 5% of $3.7 billion is $185 million. Per the ABA Journal, that “translates to a whopping hourly fee of about $18,500.”

It’s not my point today to comment on the Quinn Emanuel case.  Rather, I’m using it as click bait to provide a refresher on contingent fee agreements.

Rule 1.5(a) prohibits lawyers from agreeing to, charging, or collecting unreasonable fees and expenses.  Contingent fees, and expenses in contingent fee cases, are subject to the rule.

A contingent fee agreement MUST be in a writing that is signed by the client.  In Vermont, the failure to reduce a contingent fee in writing has resulted in lawyers being reprimanded and admonished.  Tip: do this at the outset of the representation.

In addition, Rule 1.5(c) states that a contingent fee agreement MUST:

  • state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including:
    • the percentage that will accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial, or appeal;
    • the litigation & other expenses that will be deducted from any recovery; and,
    • whether such expenses will be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated.
  • clearly notify the client of any expenses for which the client will be liable whether or not the client is the prevailing party.

Upon the conclusion of a contingent fee matter, a lawyer:

  • MUST provide the client with a written statement showing the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, the remittance to the client and the method by which it was determined.

Lawyers are NOT allowed to agree to, charge, or collect:

  • a contingent fee in a criminal case;
  • a fee that is contingent upon the securing of a divorce; or,
  • a fee that is contingent upon the amount of spousal maintenance or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof, in a domestic relations matter.

However, lawyers may use contingent fees in domestic relations matters that involve the collection of:

  • spousal maintenance or support due AFTER a final judgment has been entered; or,
  • child support and maintenance arrearages due AFTER a final judgment has been entered, provided that the court approves the reasonableness of the fee agreement.

In other words, contingent fees are okay in some POST-JUDGMENT divorce & custody matters.

Finally, two cautionary tales.

First, in this post, I referenced a case in which a contingent fee agreement called for a firm to receive 40% of any recovery.  It also included this provision:

  • “Should [Client] refuse to make any settlement which my attorneys advise me is reasonable and should be taken, then I understand that I am responsible for their fee on the basis of that offer, unless they waive this provision.”

Sure enough, the client rejected a settlement offer that the firm advised the client to accept. The firm withdrew and, pursuant to the clause, sought its fee. The Tennessee Supreme Court publicly reprimanded the lawyers, concluding that the settlement provision chilled the client’s right to decide whether to settle.

Second, the failure to reduce to a fee agreement to writing can result in more than a disciplinary sanction.  As the ABA Journal reported here – in a case in which the client was Johnny Depp – a contract for attorney’s fees can be voided if not reduced to writing.

I’ve blogged.  With that weight lifted, off to do what I never lack the motivation to do: get some miles in on a sunny day.  Enjoy the weekend!

Dollar Sign

An Improper Contingent Fee

I’ve used the past few Tuesdays to post on trust accounting.  I’m going off script today to call attention to a disciplinary case that strikes me as important.

Alberto Bernabe is a professor of law at the John Marshall Law School. Regular readers will recognize Professor Bernabe as a frequent member of this blog’s #fiveforfriday Honor Roll.  His Professional Responsibility Blog is a fantastic source of information on legal ethics & professional responsibility.

Yesterday, Professor Bernabe posted Tennessee Supreme Court imposes sanctions for improper contingency fee.  The opinion issued on May 13 and is here. The issue: whether a lawyer violated the rules by attempting to collect a fee that was based on a percentage of a settlement offer that the client rejected.

Before I get into the details, let’s review the rules that would apply if the issue arose in Vermont.

  • Rule 1.2(a) requires a lawyer to “abide by a client’s decision to settle a matter.”
  • Rule 1.5(a) prohibits a lawyer from agreeing to, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee;
  • Rule 1.5(c) allows a fee that is contingent upon the outcome of a matter; and,
  • Rule 1.8(i) prohibits a lawyer from acquiring a proprietary interest in a client’s cause of action but allows (1) liens authorized by law to secure fees & expenses; and (2) contracts for reasonable contingent fees.

The facts of the Tennessee case:

Client filed a pro se complaint alleging that she’d been injured by the defendant’s negligence. Soon thereafter, Client retained Law Firm.  Client & Law Firm entered into a written fee agreement. Per the agreement, Client would pay Law Firm a contingent fee, plus expenses.  The amount: 40% if recovery were made before an appeal, 45% if recovery made after an appeal.  The fee agreement did not include any language that provided for an hourly fee.  It did, however, include this provision:

  • “Should [Client] refuse to make any settlement which my attorneys advise me is reasonable and should be taken, then I understand that I am responsible for their fee on the basis of that offer, unless they waive this provision.”

Following discovery, the defendant offered $12,500.  Attorney and another at Law Firm advised Client to accept. Client did not.

Attorney moved to withdraw.  In the motion, Attorney also requested a lien in the amount of $13,605 for fees, plus $2,4528.52 for expenses.  The motion asserted that Law Firm had put in 45.35 hours of work at $300 per hour.  The court granted the motion to withdraw but did not rule on the request for a lien.

Eventually, Client filed a disciplinary complaint.  By then, Attorney had filed two additional motions requesting a lien on any recovery.  The final request referenced the fee agreement and sought 40% of the settlement offer that Client had rejected.

At the trial level, a court concluded that Attorney violated Tennessee Rules 1.5(a), 1.5(c), 1.8(i).  The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed and publicly reprimanded Attorney.

Some key points from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion:

  • the “Settlement Offer Provision” created a fee that was contingent on Attorney recommending that Client accept a settlement offer, but not, as required by the rule, on the outcome of the matter;
  • the so-called “Settlement Offer Provision” was unreasonable in that had an impermissible “chilling effect” on Client’s decision whether to settle;
  • The “Settlement Offer Provision” impermissibly provided Attorney with a proprietary interest in any settlement offer that Attorney recommended Client accept; and,
  • The “Settlement Offer Provision” was unreasonable in that it by recommending that Client accept an offer, “Attorney thereby became entitled to a fee, regardless of whether [Client] accepted the offer and regardless of whether she obtained any recovery whatsoever.”

As noted by Professor Bernabe, Faughnan on Ethics blogged on the opinion here.  Like Bernabe, Faughnan is a terrific resources on professional responsibility.  The post notes:

  • “At its core, this case explains the limits on the ability of a plaintiff’s attorney to try to guard against what happens if their client rejects the attorney’s advice on whether to accept a settlement offer. There do, in fact, have to be limits on the ability to hedge against that because the ethics rules establish explicitly that the decision whether to settle a civil case or not is the client’s decision.”

The post goes on to remind us that, generally, the rules allow lawyers who withdraw “to assert a lien as authorized by statute and pursuant to either the terms of their contract or, perhaps, depending on how things turn out for payment in the form of quantum meruit.”

Again, this is a Tennessee opinion.  It’s worth noting, however, that the rules involved are identical to Vermont’s.

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Monday Morning Answers: #67

This week’s answers come to you live from Boston, MA.  I’m preparing to run the Boston Marathon.  Unlike most marathons, Boston seeds its start.  Faster runners up front, with runners organized, more or less, in numerical order.

It appears that I’m not one of the favorites:

IMG_2118

Friday’s questions are HERE.  The answers follow the honor roll.

HONOR ROLL

  • Evan Barquist
  • Penny Benelli
  • Beth DeBernardi
  • Laura Gorsky
  • Robert Grundstein
  • Anthony Iarrapino
  • Keith Kasper
  • Patrick Kennedy
  • Nicole Killoran
  • Deborah Kirchwey
  • Elizabeth Kruska
  • Cristina Mansfield
  • Hal Miller
  • Jim Runcie

Answers

Question 1

Which is most accurate?  A contingent fee:

  • A.   Must be fair
  • B.   Must be in a writing
  • C.   Must be in a writing signed by the client; See, Rule 1.5(c) and my blog on the basics of contingent fees.
  • D.  Must not be calculated until after the client’s expenses are deducted

Question 2

Attorney called with an inquiry.  I listened. I replied “It doesn’t matter that your client ‘initiated’ it, the rule still applies.  And the fact that you cc’d your client on the e-mail is not the same as consent.”

What topic did Attorney call to discuss?

Communicating with a represented party.  Specifically, Attorney called to discuss whether by cc’ing her client on an email to opposing counsel she had given opposing counsel permission to contact client directly.  I blogged on the issue HERE.

Question 3

Fill in the blank.

In an advisory ethics opinion okaying the use of a particular type of technology, the Philadelphia Bar Association concluded that:

  • CROWDFUNDING sites can be a beneficial source of funds allowing the public to assist in the assertion of valid legal claims that might otherwise go without recourse. Thus, great care should be taken to make sure that the initial development of such sites not affect the ability of subsequent persons to use such a source.”

My blog on crowdfunding is HERE.

Question 4

North Carolina gained national attention for an amendment to its rules that went into effect last month.  If Vermont were to follow the Tar Heel state’s lead, nearly all lawyers would have a duty that, today, only applies to a subset of the bar.  It’s the rule that, right now, relates to:

  • A.  “Admiralty” lawyers being allowed to advertise their area of specialization
  • B.  Conflicts for defense attorneys who move from a public defender’s office to a state’s attorney’s office
  • C.   Television ads by lawyers who represent large classes of plaintiffs
  • D.  A prosecutor’s duty to disclose evidence that tends to negate the guilt of an accused.  

My blog on the issue is HERE.

Question 5

Earlier this week, three news media organizations were named co-winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism.  The organizations were The Miami Herald, The McClatchy Group DC, and The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.  

The Pulitzer reflected their efforts on reporting a story that involved, among other things, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, and offshore shell companies. The story came to light after a whistleblower “leaked” 11.5 million documents that a law firm had stored electronically. Review of the documents resulted in the law firm’s name partners being arrested and jailed on suspicion of money laundering.

By what name is the scandal better known?

THE PANAMA PAPERS

Back to the Basics: Contingent Fees

Sometimes a column must get back to the basics and discuss legal ethics without reference to music, tv, movies or sports.

As a result of a few seminars I’ve taught over the past few weeks, I’d like to get back to the basics of contingent fees.

Rule 1.5(a) prohibits lawyers from agreeing to, charging, or collecting unreasonable fees and expenses.  Contingent fees, and expenses in contingent fee cases, are subject to the rule.

In addition, Rule 1.5(c) states that a contingent fee agreement:

  • MUST be in a writing that is signed by the client;
  • MUST state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including:
    • the percentage that will accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal;
    • the litigation & other expenses that will be deducted from any recovery; and,
    • whether such expenses will be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated.
  • MUST clearly notify the client of any expenses for which the client will be liable whether or not the client is the prevailing party.

Upon the conclusion of a contingent fee matter, a lawyer:

  • MUST provide the client with a written statement showing the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, the remittance to the client and the method by which it was determined.

Lawyers are NOT allowed to agree to, charge, or collect:

  • a contingent fee in a criminal case;
  • a fee that is contingent upon the securing of a divorce; or,
  • a fee that is contingent upon the amount of spousal maintenance or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof, in a domestic relations matter.

However, lawyers may use contingent fees in domestic relations matters that involve the collection of:

  • spousal maintenance or support due AFTER a final judgment has been entered; or,
  • child support and maintenance arrearages due AFTER a final judgment has been entered, provided that the court approves the reasonableness of the fee agreement.

In other words, contingent fees are okay in some POST-JUDGMENT divorce & custody matters.

So, there you have it.  The basics of contingent fees.

Of course, speaking of “back to the basics,” this is not one of those columns sans reference to music, tv, movies or sports.  Who could forget the Barden Bellas and their version of Back to the Basics in Pitch Perfect 2?

Pitch Perfect 2