Thursday, May 20, 2021

Upson Downs: D.C. Approves Attorney's Fee Awards To Self-Representing Law Firms

A law firm may recover attorney's fees for self-representation in enforcing an arbitration award for unpaid fees, according to a decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals

Relying on the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Kay, a number of courts have held, under various statutes, that law firms can recover attorney’s fees when they are represented by a member or employee of the firm. See, e.g., Treasurer, Trs. of Drury Indus., Inc. Health Care Plan & Tr. v. Goding, 692 F.3d 888, 898 (8th Cir. 2012) (noting that there is attorney-client relationship between self-represented law firm and particular firm attorney who is representing firm; citing cases); Baker & Hostetler LLP v. U.S. Dep’t of Com., 473 F.3d 312, 325 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (although law-firm member may be “interested in the affairs of the entity, [the member] would not be so emotionally involved in the issues of the case so as to distort the rationality and competence that comes from independent representation”) (internal quotation marks omitted). We are persuaded by those decisions, and we reach the same conclusion in the context of the fee provision in D.C. Code § 16-4425(c).

The facts

Quinn Emanuel represented Dr. Nwaneri in a lawsuit but later withdrew from that representation. A dispute arose about the payment of attorney’s fees to Quinn Emanuel for the representation, and the matter went to arbitration.

On January 12, 2018, after a hearing, a panel of arbitrators from JAMS (an organization that provides arbitration services) issued an award of approximately $90,000 in favor of Quinn Emanuel.

The former client fought a Superior Court action to enforce the award and had sought to remove the case to federal court.

In April 2019, Dr. Nwaneri removed the case to federal court. The District Court for the District of Columbia promptly remanded the case to Superior Court, concluding that the removal was “patently improper.” The District Court also ordered Dr. Nwaneri to pay Quinn Emanuel’s costs and expenses, including attorney’s fees. The district court left calculation of the amount of attorney’s fees to the Superior Court.

Following the remand from the district court, the Superior Court ordered Dr. Nwaneri to pay approximately $23,000 in attorney’s fees arising from the removal proceedings. In calculating that amount, the Superior Court reduced the hourly rate claimed by Quinn Emanuel, instead applying the so-called Laffey matrix to determine the hourly rate.

The court's prior Upson decision had denied attorneys fees to a pro se lawyer in a domestic relations case.

Responding to the dissent

We agree with a number of points in the concurring and dissenting opinion. We respectfully differ, however, on several points. First, our holding in this case does not result in a “special rule just for law firms.” Post at 17. Rather, our holding would logically apply to other organizational litigants as well. Second, we disagree that the Supreme Court’s statement in Kay about the differences between individual and organizational litigants was “tailored to the particular statute at issue.” Id. at 20. The Supreme Court’s statement about those differences is worded in general terms. As we have noted, federal courts have relied on that statement in a number of different statutory contexts. Supra at 9. Third, the concurring and dissenting opinion appears to take the view that Upson should be read broadly to apply without regard to the factual distinction between Upson and this case, whereas Kay and Saxon should be read narrowly as limited to the specific context of those cases. Our decision in Saxon has already declined to read Upson as being broadly applicable to cases presenting materially different circumstances. Saxon, 97 A.3d at 577. We take the same approach in this case.

Associate Judge Easterly

I cannot critique my colleagues for wanting to limit the reach of Upson. Its holding that attorneys who represent themselves are ineligible to receive attorney’s fee awards is hardly intuitive. The court reasoned in Upson that the language of Superior Court Domestic Relations Rule 11 “presupposes a paying attorney-client relationship,” 3 A.3d at 1167, but all the rule (like the statute in this case) said was that the fees must be “incurred.” Id. at 1165 n.33. An individual who chooses not to pay another to do work they are educated and licensed to do themselves nonetheless incurs her own fees in the form of the lost opportunity cost to represent other clients. See McReady, 618 A.2d at 624 (Ferren, J., dissenting). The court also suggested that the pro se attorney and the pro se layperson were indistinguishable. 3 A.3d at 1167–68. But it makes sense that the latter group would not be included in a provision that authorizes “attorney’s fees” since they, being neither educated nor licensed in the law, are not “attorneys.”

Further, the court’s reliance in Upson—a case where a defendant was seeking attorney’s fees—on Kay and McReady—cases where a pro se civil rights plaintiff and a FOIA plaintiff, respectively, were seeking fees—is questionable. As the Supreme Court in Kay explained, the “specific purpose” of the attorney’s fee statute in that case “was to enable potential plaintiffs to obtain the assistance of competent counsel in vindicating their rights.” 499 U.S. at 436; see also supra note 2. But that is clearly not the objective of a sanctions provision like Domestic Relations Rule 11, especially not when the sanctions are sought, as in Upson, by the defendant.

Law firms representing themselves pro se should be eligible for attorney’s fee awards under D.C. Code § 16-4425(c). Individual pro se attorneys should also be eligible for fee awards under this provision. But Upson is an obstacle to both of these propositions. Because I disagree that there is sufficient justification for carving out a special rule for pro se law firms, and creating an asymmetry between individual and institutional litigants, en banc review is the only solution.

Associate Judge McLeese authored the opinion, joined by Associate Judge Deahl. (Mike Frisch)

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