Attorney Fee Multipliers in PIP and the Search for a Guiding Lodestar
November 20, 2017
In October 2017, the Supreme Court again addressed the issue of contingency fee multipliers to awards of attorneys' fees. Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Plaintiff attorneys felt a tinge of delight and perhaps delayed buying their lottery tickets in hopes that this new decision will help them win an attorney fee multiplier if they prevail in a PIP suit. While HB 119 in 2012 eliminated multipliers from newer PIP lawsuits, there are still many older cases that are now being resolved which face the possibility of large awards of attorney fees going to Plaintiff attorneys. Additionally, there is no penalty for a Plaintiff attorney to attempt to pursue a multiplier, thus the key question is how to best defend against this potential windfall.
To understand the new decision in Joyce v. Federated Nat'l Ins. Co., 2017 Fla. LEXIS 2070 (Fla. 2017), it is beneficial to look back at the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of how and when to award a multiplier. The seminal decision regarding the applicability of multipliers is still the Quanstrom decision from 1990. Specifically, the requirements under Quanstrom necessary to find a fee multiplier are:
1. Whether the relevant market requires a contingency fee multiplier to obtain competent counsel.
2. Whether the attorney was able to mitigate the risk of non-payment in any way.
3. Whether any of the factors set forth in Rowe are applicable, especially, the amount involved, the results obtained, and the type of fee arrangement between the attorney and his client. Id. at 834.
Joyce re-iterates that a market inquiry as to whether a multiplier was necessary to obtain competent counsel is the primary factor under the Quanstrom requirements. This is important to PIP litigation since there are
Interestingly, the Florida Supreme Court in Joyce noted that the United States Supreme Court in 1992 revisited the issue of contingency fee multipliers in Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557 (1992), concluding that "enhancements for contingency [was] not permitted under the fee-shifting statutes at issue...[and] Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, reasoned that enhancement for contingency would likely duplicate in substantial part factors already subsumed in the lodestar." Joyce. at 17, citing Dague at 567.
Under Joyce, the Florida Supreme Court separated itself from this federal precedent and continued to allow the use of multipliers under Florida law. The fear was that without the possibility of contingency multipliers some individuals with meritorious claims would fail to obtain competent counsel and the Florida Supreme Court noted "their usefulness in helping parties secure legal representation and their importance in ensuring access to Courts." Id. at 17-18 citing Bell v. U.S.B. Acquisition Co., Inc., 734 So.2d 403, 411 (Fla. 1999). In other words, the Florida Supreme Court was concerned that Justice Scalia failed to consider that without a potential multiplier there is a danger of never obtaining competent counsel. Id. at 25. But with the thousands of PIP lawsuits being filed every year, can a Plaintiff truly make an argument that finding a PIP attorney is difficult?
Under Joyce, it appears that contingency fee multipliers are alive and well under Florida Law, and there are some circumstances where they are certainly warranted. Paradoxically, the best argument against the applicability of multipliers to the majority of PIP lawsuits comes from the Joyce opinion itself. The majority opinion which intentionally diverged from federal precedent on multipliers in order to preserve access to courts appears to have absolutely no concern about whether prohibiting multipliers in PIP lawsuits somehow prevents individuals from obtaining fair access to courts or diminishes one's ability to obtain competent counsel. The dissent also argues that PIP litigation suffered no decrease in volume after HB 119 and that there was no negative impact on an insured's ability to obtain counsel in PIP cases. Id. at 40-41. The dissent even cites the Plaintiff's own expert testimony that there is no lack of attorneys willing and able to take PIP cases and "that same fee expert begrudgingly 'hate[d]' to admit that plaintiffs' attorneys throughout the entire State of Florida are abundantly motivated to take PIP cases (even though PIP cases contain no possibility of a multiplier)." Id. at 42.
The majority opinion in Joyce actually agreed with the dissent that PIP litigation is different because of the number of attorneys willing to take PIP lawsuits. The majority opinion notes that PIP should not be compared to other types of first-party litigation since, "the fact that there are attorneys who specialize in PIP claims, which can be handled with relative ease in a volume practice, does not correlate with the availability of competent attorneys who are willing to litigate other types of insurance coverage cases, where generally more complex issues are raised." Id. at 25. Clearly, the majority opinion is willing to differentiate PIP lawsuits from other types of first-party litigation due to the ease of obtaining a competent attorney.
Ultimately, none of the Quanstrom factors changed with the recent Joyce decision. However, the new opinion does provide an excellent analysis and justification as to how multipliers developed under Florida law and why the Supreme Court continues to think multipliers are necessary to ensure fair and equal access to the courts. It is important to keep in mind that Joyce does not mean a PIP lawsuit can never justify a multiplier. In fact, the Quanstrom decision is a PIP lawsuit. Understanding the best way to contest aggressive attempts to collect fee multipliers and create an appropriate record at the trial court level remains important in PIP litigation.
 Standard Guaranty Insurance Co. v. Quanstrom,555 So.2d 828 (Fla. 1990)
 Other notable PIP lawsuits have been awarded multipliers after there was substantial and competent evidence to justify that a multiplier was necessary. See State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Palma, 555 So.2d 836 (Fla. 1990)