alternative litigation funding

The New York City Bar Association recently found that common forms of third-party litigation funding for law firms violate New York’s Rule 5.4(a), which like the analogous Model Rule, bars fee-splitting with non-lawyers.

In its Opinion 2018-5, the NYCBA’s Professional Ethics Committee advised that “a lawyer may not enter into a financing agreement with a litigation funder, a non-lawyer, under which the lawyer’s future payments to the funder are contingent on the lawyer’s receipt of legal fees or on the amount of legal fees received in one or more specific matters.”  (Left untouched by the opinion are agreements between funders and clients, which do not implicate the fee-splitting issue.)

While ethics opinions are advisory, they can be cited by courts as persuasive authority; and an opinion from the influential NYCBA could help shape the conversation in an area that has been marked by controversy.  As we described earlier this year, two jurisdictions now require some disclosure when third-party funding is part of a case (Wisconsin by statute and the Northern District of California by rule), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has favored a change to the Rules of Civil Procedure to require such disclosure.  And as we have also described, some courts still view third-party funding as impermissible under the old doctrines of champerty and maintenance.  Yet, litigation funding is big business, with the U.S. market estimated at $5 billion annually, and growing.

Fee-splitting problem

Against this backdrop, the Committee considered two arrangements, both of which it found forbidden by the fee-splitting rule:  (1) where the funding to the firm is not secured other than by the lawyer’s fee, “so that it is implicit that the lawyer will pay the funder only if the lawyer receives legal fees in the matter;” and (2) where instead of a fixed amount or interest rate, the amount of the lawyer’s payment to the funder will depend on the amount of the lawyer’s fee.

Rule 5.4(a) (“Professional Independence of a Lawyer”) provides that “a lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a non-lawyer.”  The purpose of the rule, as described in comment 1, is to protect independent legal judgment.  See also Roy Simon & Nicole Hyland, Simon’s New York Rules of Professional Conduct Annotated at 1420 (noting that the rule’s intention is to protect independent legal judgment by removing the incentive for non-lawyers to interfere or pressure lawyers to use improper measures to win cases).

The Committee noted the long-standing nature of the fee-splitting prohibition, and that it has been broadly interpreted to bar many different types of business arrangements in which lawyers agree to make payments to non-lawyers based on the lawyer’s receipt of legal fees, or on the amount of those fees.  A financing arrangement contingent on the receipt of fees or their amount is no different, and is impermissible, said the Committee, “regardless of how the arrangement is worded.”

“Rightly or wrongly,” the Committee said, Rule 5.4(a) “presupposes that when non-lawyers have a stake in legal fees from particular matters, they have an incentive or ability to improperly influence the lawyer.”

Lessons from the case law… and a call to the legislature?

The Committee acknowledged that New York courts have enforced litigation funding contracts against attempts to invalidate the agreements based on public policy grounds, but said that would be expected:  “[L]awyers who violate the Rules cannot ordinarily invoke their own transgressions to avoid contractual obligations.”

And as for the argument that the prohibition on fee-sharing is overbroad?  The Committee recognized that there is room for question there, including whether there might be adequate contractual or other means of preventing litigation funding arrangements from interfering with independent legal judgment.  But “that is a matter to be decided by the state judiciary,” said the Committee.

Funder reaction:  not warm

As described in Law360 (subscription required), the chief investment officer at one major funder, Burford Capital, called the NYCBA’s opinion “flatly wrong.”  The chief investment officer of another funder, Bentham IMF, said it was “going the wrong way.”

Perhaps these reactions are predictable; but the NYCBA’s opinion is only the most recent of a string of advisory opinions from other jurisdictions, such as Maine, Virginia, Nevada and Utah, that point in the same direction.

Stay tuned.  This is a topic with possible ramifications on how new firms are financed, as well as an ongoing debate over the role of the fee-splitting rule in actually protecting clients.

Early last year, the federal Northern District of California became the first court to require — by rule — that a party receiving outside litigation funding must disclose the arrangement.  As we described, the rule is limited to class actions; it had been favored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which views it as promoting needed transparency.

Now comes the first statute on the subject, Act 235, which passed in a narrow vote by the Wisconsin state legislature, and was signed into law on April 3.

“Forward” for the Badger State?

The U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform had lobbied in support of the Wisconsin bill, and said on its website that its passage lived up to the state’s motto — “Forward” — by “bring[ing] litigation funding out of the shadows.”

The statute requires a party to disclose “any agreement under which any person … has a right to receive compensation that is contingent on and sourced from any proceeds of the civil action, by settlement, judgment or otherwise.”  It exempts lawyer-client contingency fee agreements, and only applies to actions filed in Wisconsin state courts.

Burford Capital, one of the largest of the U.S. commercial litigation funders, downplayed the significance of the Wisconsin law.  As reported by the ABA Journal, Burford’s chief marketing officer said that the statute overreached in applying to commercial litigation finance as well as consumer finance, and predicted a backlash from businesses.  Proponents of funding also point to a possible Pandora’s box of discovery disputes that will be opened with increasing regulation.

But you can’t invest in your cake and eat it, too…

Whether the new Wisconsin statute will be the first of many remains to be seen.  Another unknown, as we’ve discussed before, is how courts will deal with the doctrines of champerty and maintenance that have historically placed limits on the ability of third parties to fund suits.

But in another litigation-funding development, the New York State Bar Association last month decided that neither a lawyer nor the lawyer’s firm can represent a client in an action funded by a litigation finance company in which the lawyer is an investor.

In Opinion 1145, the NYSBA’s ethics committee said that doing so raised an unwaivable conflict of interest that couldn’t be remedied by the client’s informed consent.  New York’s version of Model Rule 1.8(e) bars a lawyer from providing “financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation,” subject to limited exceptions for advances covering court costs and expenses, and indigent clients.  The committee said that even though the lawyer wouldn’t be the only investor in the funding company, the “reality [is] that money from the [lawyer] would be paid as financial assistance to the … client.”

And representing a client funded through the company the lawyer invests in would also violate New York’s version of Model Rule 1.8(i), which prohibits acquiring a “proprietary interest” in a client’s claim, the committee ruled.  By providing money to the client in exchange for a percentage of the prospective recovery, the funding company would acquire such an interest, and the lawyer would also do so, as a part owner of the company.

There is no provision for waiving these prohibitions, said the committee, and they are imputed to the investing lawyer’s whole firm.

Still trending

Third-party funding remains a hot topic, and we predict that there will be further developments, on all fronts — legislative, case-law, and regulatory.  (The U.S. Chamber is one of more than two dozen organizations that last summer asked the federal courts’ Rules Committee to consider amending the Rules of Civil Procedure to require disclosure of third-party funding arrangements.)   We’ll continue to keep you posted, so check back often.

One dollar billsLitigation funding is in the news again, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spearheading a request to amend the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to require initial disclosure of all third-party agreements for compensation that are “contingent on, and sourced from, any proceeds of the civil action, by settlement, judgment or otherwise.”

The Chamber joined with 28 other organizations in a letter sent earlier this month to the federal courts’ Rules Committee, saying that its aim is to bring third-party litigation funding out of “the shadows” and to identify “a real party in interest that may be steering a plaintiff’s litigation strategy and settlement decisions.”

The new push follows up on a 2014 proposal that the Chamber and a few other organizations made to the same rulemaking committee, which was rejected.  Things have changed since then, the Chamber’s June 1 letter said, citing expansion of third-party funding in the U.S., with several significant players reporting significant and steady growth, and on-line marketplaces opening the way for investors to shop for individual cases to contribute to.

Shift in momentum?

As we reported in February, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California became the first court to mandate disclosure of litigation funding that parties in class actions receive from outside sources, under a revision to the court’s standing order.  That was followed up in March, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, which likewise would require disclosure of third-party funders in class actions.  The bill is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Problems with alternative litigation funding

The process for amending the federal civil rules is a lengthy one.  But with at least some momentum on its side, the U.S. Chamber cited several justifications for the rule change it seeks, including:

  • The champerty problem.  This old legal doctrine, which seeks to prevent buying and selling lawsuits, still continues to be in play, with at least three state courts of appeals citing it or suggesting it as a viable defense in 2016-17, and a U.S. bankruptcy court in January finding an agreement to be champertous.
  • Fee-sharing issue.  Model Rule 5.4(a) bars almost all forms of sharing legal fees with non-lawyers, with the goal of preserving the lawyer’s independent professional judgment. But some models of third-party litigation funding apparently involve plaintiffs’ counsel repaying the funder’s investment out of the lawyer’s attorney fees, if any.
  • Confidentiality and conflicts.  To the extent that funding arrangements require disclosure of client information to the financier they could raise confidentiality concerns under the ethics rules, as well as privilege issues.  And lawyers who have “contracted directly with a funding company may have … duties to it that are … perhaps inconsistent with” the duties of loyalty to the client, including conflicts arising from steering clients to favored funders.

Watch and wait

In a press release, one large litigation funder, Bentham IMF, said that the Chamber’s proposal was misguided, including because the law firms using such financing were assisting under-served and under-funded clients — small-to-mid-size businesses and individuals — who could not otherwise afford to litigate their claims.  Bentham also said that the rule amendment proposal was unfairly one-sided, and that defendants should have to abide by similar disclosure rules.

Litigation funding will continue to be a hotly debated issue, and if your clients are involved in civil litigation, these are developments that bear watching.  Stay tuned.

Money and gavelOn January 26, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California became the first court to mandate disclosure of litigation funding that parties in class actions receive from outside sources, under a revision to the court’s standing order applicable to all cases.  The rule provides that “in any proposed class, collective or representative action, the required disclosure includes any person or entity that is funding the prosecution of any claim or counterclaim.”

Final rule — more “funder friendly”

The final rule is more limited than an earlier draft, which would have expressly mentioned “litigation funders,” and required their identification in the first appearance in all civil proceedings.

The court’s request for comments on the earlier draft, during summer 2016, drew input from two large litigation funders.  The CEO of Burford Capital, which calls itself “the largest provider of strategic capital to the legal market,” criticized the earlier draft proposal as “unnecessary and discriminatory” in a comment he filed in July.  He told Law360 (subs. req.) that Burford was happy with the district court’s “incremental approach” to disclosure reflected in the final rule.

Another litigation funder, Bentham IMF, based in Australia, also commented this past summer on the earlier draft rule, expressing concern that it would open up wasteful “discovery sideshows,” intrude on attorney-client privilege and “give defendants in all cases the unprecedented and unintended advantage of knowing which claimants lack the resources to weather a lengthy litigation campaign.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has supported disclosure of litigation funding, and told Law360 that the rule would force law suit investors out of the shadows, where they shouldn’t be allowed to control litigation, especially in class actions.

A growing segment — but is it champerty?

In its comments, Burford said that commercial litigation funding is in its infancy in the U.S., and that fewer than 75 cases in federal district court involve such funders each year.  That limited figure would appear to exclude the many other forms of third-party funding available to plaintiffs and investors.   And the market for litigation investing is lucrative and growing, according to Forbes, which headlined a story last year “The next great investment idea:  Somebody else’s lawsuit?”

Which raises the question — do law schools need to start teaching the law of champerty and maintenance again?  If you’ve never heard of the doctrines, here’s a 2003 explanation from the Ohio Supreme Court:

The doctrines of champerty and maintenance were developed at common law to prevent officious intermeddlers from stirring up strife and contention by vexatious and speculative litigation which would disturb the peace of society, lead to corrupt practices, and prevent the remedial process of the law.

The modern trend has been away from applying these old doctrines (which some jurisdictions codify by statute) to third-party funding agreements, as exemplified by a Delaware trial court decision last summer, involving Burford Capital.  And the 2003 Ohio ruling, which voided a contract as champerty and maintenance, was later abrogated by statute.

Some courts, however, are sticking to the champerty analysis.  For instance, a recent decision of the Pennsylvania court of appeals held that “champerty remains a viable defense in Pennsylvania,” invalidating a third-party funding agreement between plaintiff’s lawyer and the funder.  New York’s highest court this fall likewise interpreted a litigation funding transaction to be a sham attempt to evade the state’s champerty statute.

Trendline to watch

It will be interesting to watch the trend toward a growing litigation funding marketplace as it meets up with a possible push for more disclosure and a potential resurgence in champerty jurisprudence.  Stay tuned.