Thakkar v. King Blackwell Zehnder & Wermuth, PA
OPINION AND ORDER. The Bankruptcy Court's Order Overruling Objection to Claim Number 6 Filed by King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, P.A. is AFFIRMED. The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case. Signed by Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell on 9/8/2020. (GLP)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
NILHAN FINANCIAL, LLC,
Case No.: 8:19-cv-1122-T-36
Bankruptcy Case No.: 8:17-bk-03597-MGW
KING BLACKWELL ZEHNDER &
Chittranjan Thakkar (“Appellant”), proceeding pro se, 1 appeals the bankruptcy court’s
Order Overruling Objection to Claim Number 6 Filed by King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth,
P.A. (the “Order Overruling Objection”). (Doc. 1). The bankruptcy court overruled an objection
filed by Niloy Thakkar, in which Appellant joined, to Proof of Claim Number 6 of King,
Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, P.A (“Appellee”). (Doc. 7-2 at 1–2). The bankruptcy court,
accordingly, allowed Claim Number 6, filed by Appellee, in the amount of $83,988.41. Id.
Appellant has filed his brief, (Doc. 12), and Appellee has filed its brief, (Doc. 13).
Appellant was represented by counsel below, but his counsel withdrew following the initiation
of this appeal. (Docs. 6, 8).
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Upon due consideration of the record, the parties’ submissions, and otherwise being fully
advised in the premises, the Court concludes that the Order Overruling Objection should be
Several years ago, Appellant, Nilhan Financial, LLC (“Nilhan”), and other entities were
defendants in two separate state court lawsuits: Good Capital Group, Inc. v. Orlando Gateway
Partners, LLC, No. 2009-CA-039746-O (Fla. 9th Cir. Ct.) and Good Gateway, LLC v. Orlando
Gateway Partners, LLC, No. 2010-CA-015315-O (Fla. 9th Cir. Ct.) (collectively, the “State Court
Actions”). See (Docs. 7-16, 7-19). Appellant is the manager of Nilhan and also holds equity in the
entity. (Doc. 11 at 105:6–8).
On August 6, 2012, Nilhan, Orlando Gateway Partners, LLC, Nilhan Hospitality, LLC,
Niloy & Rohan, LLC, NCT Systems, Inc., Niloy, Inc. d/b/a DCT Systems (collectively, the
“Thakkar Entities”), and Appellant retained Appellee, a law firm in Orlando, Florida, to defend
them in the State Court Actions. (Doc. 7-13 at 1). This retention was memorialized in an agreement
(the “Engagement Agreement”), which Appellant signed individually and as manager of each of
the Thakkar Entities. Id. at 5–6. The Engagement Agreement required the Thakkar Entities to
provide Appellee with an initial retainer in the amount of $10,000.00. Id. at 3. The Engagement
Agreement also advised that Appellee’s attorneys would bill against this retainer until its depletion.
Id. at 3–4. Furnished monthly invoices would detail the rendered legal services, the total fee
charged, and any out-of-pocket costs paid by Appellee. Id. Appellee reserved the right to withdraw
at any stage of the litigation if its fees and costs were not being timely paid. Id. at 4. The
Engagement Agreement also contained a merger clause. Id.
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Attorneys of Appellee noticed the state court of their appearance on behalf of the Thakkar
Entities on the same day as the Engagement Agreement’s execution. (Docs. 7-17 at 2, 4; 7-20 at
3, 6). At the time of Appellee’s retention, the dockets in each of the State Court Actions exceeded
twenty-five pages. (Docs. 7-18 at 48–84; 7-21 at 144–167). By January 31, 2013, $83,988.41 was
due to Appellee, which included previous balances owed. (Doc. 7-14 at 70, 72). Along the way,
payments had stopped. See (Docs. 7-22, 7-23, 7-24).
On March 20, 2017, Moffa & Breuer, PLLC filed an involuntary petition for bankruptcy
under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code against Nilhan. (Doc. 7-5 at 3). Appellee filed its Proof
of Claim for the $83,988.41 in owed legal fees on September 28, 2017 (the “Claim”). (Doc. 7-48
at 3). Through counsel, Niloy Thakkar filed an objection to the Claim—claim number 6—on
August 15, 2018 (the “Objection”). (Doc. 7-5 at 45). The Objection raised the following
arguments: (1) Niloy Thakkar, as movant, believed that the Claim was “subject to valid defenses”;
(2) Appellee had failed to attach an engagement agreement between Nilhan and Appellee; (3) the
invoices attached to the Claim were addressed to Appellant, not Nilhan; (4) “[o]n information and
belief, at least some of the fees” charged by Appellee were for entities other than Nilhan “in the
absence of a written agreement by Nilhan to assume responsibility for those fees, and as a result
any such claim is barred by Fla. Stat. § 725.01”; and (5) to the extent that Appellee sought to
recover fees owed by Appellant from Nilhan, the Claim constituted an impermissible “reverse veilpiercing action brought against a non-shareholder manager” of Nilhan. (Doc. 7-6 at 2). Appellant
joined in the Objection on November 6, 2018. (Docs. 7-5 at 58; 7-9 at 1).
The bankruptcy court held a trial on the Objection to the Claim, and Appellant’s joinder
therein, on April 15, 2019. (Docs. 7-10 at 1; 7-5 at 72). The bankruptcy court heard testimony
during the trial. Specifically, Appellant called himself as a witness, and Appellee called attorneys
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Taylor Ford (“Ford”) and Bruce Blackwell (“Blackwell”). The parties also submitted evidence.
(Doc. 11 at 93:23–25, 94:1–6). During the trial, Appellant testified, among other things, that the
Thakkar Entities hired Appellee because attorneys of a Georgia law firm retained as lead counsel
by the Thakkar Entities in the State Court Actions (“Georgia Counsel”) had advised Appellant that
local counsel was needed. Id. at 107:22–25, 108:1–6. Appellant testified to his understanding that
Georgia Counsel would serve as the “quarterback” and would complete “all the heavy lifting.” Id.
At the conclusion of the trial, the bankruptcy court overruled the Objection and allowed
the Claim in full. Id. at 222:22–23. Relevant here, the bankruptcy court found that a number of
entities were named as defendants in the State Court Actions and that Appellee’s attorneys
represented all of the Thakkar Entities. Id. at 220:10–14. The bankruptcy court also found that the
invoices were joint and several to the clients. Id. at 220:19–20. Finally, after reciting the bases for
finding that the legal fees in the Proof of Claim were reasonably incurred, the bankruptcy court
found that there had been “no complaint about reasonableness.” Id. at 222:7–12. The bankruptcy
court entered the Order Overruling Objection after the trial, which overruled the Objection and
Appellant’s joinder therein “[f]or the reasons stated orally and recorded in open Court” during the
trial. (Doc. 7-2 at 1). Appellant appealed the Order Overruling Objection to this Court on May 9,
2019. (Doc. 1 at 1).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
District courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from final judgments, orders, and decrees
of bankruptcy courts. 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). The Court functions as an appellate court in reviewing
decisions of the bankruptcy court. See In re Colortex Indus., Inc., 19 F.3d 1371, 1374 (11th Cir.
1994). The district court reviews legal conclusions of the bankruptcy court de novo and reviews
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the bankruptcy court’s findings of fact for clear error. In re Globe Mfg. Corp., 567 F.3d 1291, 1296
(11th Cir. 2009). Thus, in reviewing the bankruptcy court’s factual findings, the district court must
accept the factual findings, unless they are clearly erroneous. In re JLJ Inc., 988 F.2d 1112, 1116
(11th Cir. 1993). “A factual finding is clearly erroneous when although there is evidence to support
it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a
mistake has been committed.” Morrissette-Brown v. Mobile Infirmary Med. Ctr., 506 F.3d 1317,
1319 (11th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Mixed questions of law and fact are
reviewed de novo. In re Cox, 493 F.3d 1336, 1340 n.9 (11th Cir. 2007).
Appellant raises two limited issues on appeal. 2 The Court will address each of these narrow
A. Joint and Several Liability and Statute of Frauds
Appellant contends that the bankruptcy court’s finding that Nilhan was obligated to pay
the attorneys’ fees and costs of Appellee’s attorneys in performing work for other entities was
“unfounded” because the Engagement Agreement did not contain any joint and several liability
language. (Doc. 12 at 8). Appellant argues that this practice runs aground of Florida’s statute of
frauds, Fla. Stat. § 725.01, because Nilhan has been held liable for another party’s debts in the
absence of a written agreement. Id. Concluding six sentences of argument, Appellant contends
As noted, this Court has jurisdiction over final orders of bankruptcy judges, 28 U.S.C. § 158(a),
and a bankruptcy court’s order overruling a party’s proof of claim constitutes a final decision
where it leaves no unresolved dispute regarding the merits of the claim, see In re PMF Enters.,
Inc., 653 F. App’x 903, 903–04 (11th Cir. 2016). As the Order Overruling Objection did not leave
any unresolved dispute regarding the merits of the Claim, the Order Overruling Objection
constitutes a final order of the bankruptcy court for purposes of this appeal.
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that, on this basis, Nilhan “should not be responsible for the payment of attorneys’ fees and costs
incurred by [Appellee’s] other clients.” Id.
Florida’s statute of frauds provides:
No action shall be brought . . . whereby to charge the defendant upon
any special promise to answer for the debt . . . of another person . . .
unless the agreement or promise upon which such action shall be
brought, or some note or memorandum thereof shall be in writing
and signed by the party to be charged therewith or by some other
person by her or him thereunto lawfully authorized.
Fla. Stat. § 725.01.
Thus, the statute “requires a written contract guaranteeing the debt of another to be signed
by the person to be charged.” First Guaranty Corp. v. Palmer Bank & Trust Co. of Fort Myers,
N.A., 405 So. 2d 186, 188 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981).
Appellant’s argument that the bankruptcy court erred in finding joint and several liability
renews the same argument that he raised in the Objection—that Nilhan did not agree to assume
responsibility for fees for other clients and that the Claim is barred by the statute of frauds. “An
objection must contain some substantial factual basis to support its allegation of impropriety and
overcome the creditor’s prima facie case.” In re Baggett Bros. Farm Inc., 315 F. App’x 840, 843
(11th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The creditor retains the ultimate
burden of persuasion as to the amount of the claim.” In re Oliver, 306 F. App’x 458, 460 (11th
Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). One of the grounds for objecting to
the Claim, as asserted by Niloy Thakkar in the Objection, in which Appellant joined, was that
“[o]n information and belief, at least some of the fees claimed are for entities other than Nilhan 
in the absence of a written agreement by Nilhan Financial to assume responsibility for those fees,
and as a result any such claim is barred by Fla. Stat. § 725.01.” (Doc. 7-6 at 2). The bankruptcy
court recognized this argument as one of the grounds raised in the Objection in issuing the ruling
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below. (Doc. 11 at 218:1–2). However, as articulated below, the bankruptcy court rejected this
The bankruptcy court treated the Claim as prima facie valid and looked to Appellant to
rebut the Claim. Id. at 94:22–24. Appellant offered slim evidence to substantiate this objection.
Appellant testified that the legal work to be completed in the State Court Actions was “primarily
on behalf of Orlando Gateway Partners and some [work was on behalf of] Nilhan Hospitality,
LLC,” while “there was very, very little, if any, activity related to Nilhan,” which “ultimately got
the defense verdict.” Id. at 107:13–18. But Appellant did not offer any explanation or further
support for this conclusory statement. The basis for claiming that Appellee’s legal services were
required for only some of the Thakkar Entities is unclear, particular when the Thakkar Entities
were defendants in the State Court Actions and, together with Appellant, retained Appellees’
attorneys for representation. This testimony is also undercut by Appellant’s later testimony that he
did not recall voicing an objection to the invoices, which were addressed to him, until months after
the retention of Appellee’s attorneys. Id. at 139:22–24, 177:21–25, 178:1. Although Appellant
could not recall receiving specific invoices, he recalled receiving invoices for considerable sums
from Appellee, and he did not dispute that he would have had availability to review invoices. Id.
at 134:9–12, 137:23–25, 138:1–6. Nonetheless, he did not present any evidence below that he
objected to the collective billing by Appellee’s attorneys at any point during the State Court
Further, Appellant did not present any interpretation of the Engagement Agreement to
support his assertion that Appellee’s attorneys were prohibited from billing the entities
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collectively. 3 Likewise, there was no testimony regarding the applicability of the statute of frauds.
Appellant did not present evidence, through testimony or otherwise, specifying the work that was
purportedly completed for only other entities, but now charged to Nilhan. Despite these many
deficiencies, Appellant’s counsel remarked in his closing argument that “[t]he idea that the Debtor
here is being charged for services that clearly were not rendered to the Debtor in cases that the
Debtor was not even involved in for periods of time I think is somewhat problematic as well.” Id.
On the other hand, Ford testified that Appellee’s attorneys deliberately included all of the
Thakkar Entities as signatories on the Engagement Agreement for two reasons: to ensure that their
representation applied to all entities at risk of an adverse judgment in the State Court Actions and
also to ensure that the firm’s attorneys would have a payor for the invoices, as Appellee was the
fifth or sixth firm retained by Appellant. Id. at 175:7–14. Ford emphasized that this practice was
to ensure joint and several liability for payment from the Thakkar Entities. Id. at 175:15–18. Ford
highlighted that the Engagement Agreement refers to the Appellant and the Thakkar Entities,
including Nilhan, collectively as “you.” Id. at 194:6–9. The Engagement Agreement, which was
before the bankruptcy court, clearly contemplates joint representation of Appellant and the
Thakkar Entities, providing, “It is our understanding you are requesting we represent both Mr.
Thakkar, individually, as well as the various corporate entities identified above in which Mr.
The only instance of Appellant mentioning joint and several” during trial stems from his response
to a question from Appellee’s counsel as to whether Appellant acknowledged the Engagement
Agreement’s merger clause, in which Appellant replied, “I don’t see the ‘joint and several clause’
that you were referring to, sir.” (Doc. 11 at 130:21–25, 131:1–6). Further, on cross-examination,
Appellant’s counsel asked whether the Engagement Agreement used the term “joint and several
liability,” to which Ford did not dispute that the Engagement Agreement did not contain that
specific term. Id. at 194:11–17.
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Thakkar has an interest, having determined that no conflict currently exists precluding our joint
representation.” (Doc. 7-13 at 2) (emphasis added).
Ford emphasized that the plaintiffs in the State Court Actions were seeking a judgment and
that he suspected that they did not care which one of the defendants they collected from. (Doc.
11at 201:15–17). To that end, Appellee’s attorneys sought to protect Appellant and all Thakkar
Entities, including Nilhan, and ensure that nothing “got through the net in one of the cases,” which
would have posed “a risk that a judgment could have been attached” to Nilhan. Id. at 201:16–23.
Although the plaintiffs in one of the state court actions filed a second amended complaint which
may have dropped Nilhan as a defendant, Nilhan’s involvement in that case did not end: discovery
was propounded as if Nilhan was still a party to the case, plaintiffs listed Nilhan as a party to that
lawsuit from time to time, and a lis pendens was filed against Nilhan. Id. at 180:14–19. Ford and
Blackwell admitted that the attorneys did not parse out tasks for each defendant in the State Court
Actions. Id. at 191:19–22, 212:20–24. However, Blackwell explained that they did not parse out
the tasks by entity because “there was so much going on that could happen to each and every one
of these entities at various times, they were all at risk.” Id. at 213:3–7.
The bankruptcy court rejected Appellant’s argument—the same one made now—that at
least some of the legal fees were for other clients, in the absence of a written agreement to assume
responsibility for those fees, and the claim was thus barred by the statute of frauds. The bankruptcy
court found that a number of entities were named as defendants in the State Court Actions,
Appellee represented all of the Thakkar Entities in connection therewith, and that the billing was
joint and several to the collective clients. Id. at 220:10–20.
The bankruptcy court’s factual findings supporting its rejection of Appellant’s objection
must be accepted, unless they are clearly erroneous. In re JLJ, Inc., 988 F.2d at 1116. Preliminarily,
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the bankruptcy court did not clearly err in finding that attorneys of Appellee represented Appellant
and the Thakkar Entities in the State Court Actions. Appellant acknowledged the Engagement
Agreement during his testimony and admitted that Appellee was retained by him and the Thakkar
Entities in the State Court Actions. (Doc. 11 at 106:22, 107:4–12). Appellant also testified that he
signed the Engagement Agreement on behalf of Nilhan and that Nilhan was a signatory to the
Engagement Agreement. Id. at 127:11–18. Ford similarly acknowledged the Engagement
Agreement and testified that Appellee’s attorneys represented Appellant and the Thakkar Entities
in the State Court Actions. Id. at 173:1–18. Blackwell likewise acknowledged the retention. Id. at
205:11–13. The parties, therefore, did not dispute the existence of the Engagement Agreement or
that Appellee’s attorneys were retained by Appellant and the Thakkar Entities in connection with
the State Court Actions. The bankruptcy judge’s factual findings regarding the amount of work
performed by Appellee’s attorneys also enjoy substantial evidentiary support. As shown above,
Appellant offered slim support to substantiate his objection. He likewise fails to do so now.
The Engagement Agreement is a written agreement whereby Appellee’s attorneys agreed
to provide legal representation to Appellant and the Thakkar Entities, including Nilhan, in
exchange for compensation. The Engagement Agreement referred to Appellant and the Thakkar
Entities collectively and provided for “joint representation.” Appellant and each of the Thakkar
Entities were signatories to the Engagement Agreement. The record clearly establishes that
Appellee’s attorneys performed extensive work for Appellant and the Thakkar Entities, including
Nilhan, and payments subsequently ceased. Appellant has not provided, on appeal or below, nor
has the Court found, any support for Appellant’s proposition that a written agreement for the
provision of legal services between attorneys and clients, all of whom sign the agreement and are
represented, must specify that the representation is joint and several among the clients in order for
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a court to find such joint and several representation, particularly where the clients are billed
collectively without objection. In the absence of such authority, Appellant’s argument that the
statute of frauds bars Nilhan, as one of the signatories, from paying the balance of the invoices is
Further, the bankruptcy court’s finding that the invoices were joint and several to the
collective clients may be analogized to the discretion a court enjoys in determining how to divide
liability in awarding attorneys’ fees and costs. See Council for Periodical Distribs. Ass’ns v. Evans,
827 F.2d 1483, 1487 (11th Cir. 1987) (“In addition to having discretion on when to apportion fees,
district courts also have discretion on how to divide liability for fees.”) (emphasis in original); see
also United States v. Patrol Servs., Inc., 202 F. App’x 357, 362 (11th Cir. 2006) (listing guideposts
to inform the court’s discretion). Continuing with this analogy, the bankruptcy court had the full
record before it to make an informed decision, and, based on the analysis herein, the bankruptcy
court did not abuse its discretion. Therefore, the bankruptcy court’s finding that the invoices were
joint and several to the collective clients is affirmed.
B. Objection to Reasonableness
Appellant also contends that the bankruptcy court clearly erred in finding that Appellant
did not object to the reasonableness of Appellee’s requested fees and expenses. 4 (Doc. 12 at 8, 10).
Appellant labels the heading for this argument as “Local counsel exceeded the scope of its work
and the fees it requested were unauthorized and unreasonable.” (Doc. 12 at 8). Without offering
further argument or authority, Appellant claims in passing that Appellee “billed for services that
were unnecessary, and unreasonable, and therefore should not have been found to have been such.”
Id. at 9. Appellant similarly claims, in the same manner, that Appellee’s unauthorized services
should not be compensable in his “Summary of Argument” section. Although briefs filed by pro
se litigants must be read liberally, “issues not briefed on appeal by a pro se litigant are deemed
abandoned.” Timson v. Sampson, 518 F.3d 870, 874 (11th Cir. 2008). “A party fails to adequately
‘brief’ a claim where he does not ‘plainly and prominently’ raise it, ‘for instance by devoting a
discrete section of his argument to those claims.’” Sapuppo v. Allstate Floridan Ins. Co., 739 F.3d
679, 681 (11th Cir. 2014). “An appellant abandons a claim where he either makes only passing
references to it or raises it in a perfunctory manner without supporting arguments and authority.”
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Appellant contends that he objected to the reasonableness of the fees on the basis that the work
performed exceeded the scope of Appellee’s role as local counsel. Id. Upon review, the bankruptcy
court did not clearly err.
Preliminarily, the Objection did not contest the reasonableness of the legal fees and costs
charged by Appellee’s attorneys. However, one of the grounds stated in the Objection was that the
Claim was “subject to valid defenses.” (Doc. 7-6 at 2). During the trial below, when Appellant’s
counsel initially sought to review billing invoices from Appellee, Appellee objected, claiming that
specific references to the invoices exceeded the scope of the Objection. (Doc. 11 at 109:20–25,
110:1–3). Appellant’s counsel pointed to the “subject to valid defenses” language within the
Objection. Id. at 110:5–10. The bankruptcy court at first overruled the objection without prejudice,
stating that the objection would be considered as part of argument at the conclusion of the trial. Id.
at 110:23–25. In response to this ruling, Appellant’s counsel stated:
The only thing I’m highlighting – the only thing I’m going to be
highlighting in the individual bills is the fact that Mr. Thakkar did
not believe that King Blackwell was authorized to do this. This was
the work that was to be done by general counsel. I’m just going to
point out three or four matters which King Blackwell claims to have
worked on that Mr. Thakkar didn’t hire them to do. Those are the
only – that’s the only point of reference to the bills.
Id. at 112:12–20 (emphasis added).
Id. See also Pouyeh v. Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, 613 F. App’x 802, 806–807 (11th Cir. 2015)
(reciting this principle in the context of a pro se brief). A party may abandon an issue when the
passing references to it are made in the “statement of the case” or the “summary of argument.”
Sapuppo, 739 F.3d at 681–82. To the extent that Appellant intends to raise these issues on appeal,
he raises them in a perfunctory manner, hidden in the brief and without further argument or
authority. He does not raise these issues “plainly and prominently.” A review of the body of
Appellant’s argument for this second issue reveals that his argument is focused on his assertion
that the bankruptcy court clearly erred in finding that he did not object to the reasonableness of the
fees and expenses.
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Thus, Appellant’s counsel focused on select billing entries only to highlight that Appellee
performed work that Georgia Counsel purportedly should have completed. The bankruptcy court
clarified that it would allow this limited line of questioning, but sustained the objection as to the
reasonableness of the fees “and to that nature,” interpreting “subject to valid defenses” as referring
to those defenses subsequently listed in the Objection and not “mean[ing] anything else in the
context of this.” Id. at 112:21–25, 113:1–3.
Thereafter, Appellant examined a few billing entries in the invoices and testified that he
did not authorize Appellee’s attorneys to perform the corresponding work. E.g., id. at 113:14–18.
As Appellant examined these entries and testified which tasks were to be performed by Appellee’s
attorneys, Appellee objected again, contending that the testimony exceeded the scope of the
Objection because Appellant was “talking about specific entries of work” and “flyspecking the
bills.” Id. at 116:23–25. Appellant again relied upon the “subject to valid defenses” language
within the Objection. Id. at 117:21–24. The bankruptcy court treated the objection as a proffer and
allowed Appellant to “make his record” while preserving Appellee’s objection so that the
bankruptcy court could rule on the merits of all objections. Id. at 119:20–25. The bankruptcy court
reasoned that limiting the testimony to only those grounds raised in the Objection could lead to an
appeal resulting in a remand, whereas hearing Appellant’s objections beyond those listed in the
Objection would allow the bankruptcy court to rule on the merits. Id. at 119:11–19. As such, ruling
against Appellee after considering objections beyond the scope of the Objection would give
Appellee a right to appeal based on the consideration of those objections, but ruling in favor of
Appellee would give Appellee “belts and suspenders on Mr. Thakkar’s appeal.” Id. at 120:1–4.
As such, in issuing its contemporaneous oral ruling following the conclusion of testimony,
the bankruptcy court recognized that it had allowed the admission of certain evidence,
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notwithstanding the limited grounds raised in the Objection. Id. at 217:20–25, 218:1–10. The
bankruptcy court found that the legal fees included in the Proof of Claim were reasonably incurred
based upon the relationship of Appellee and Georgia Counsel, Georgia Counsel’s decision to
utilize Appellee’s attorneys, the condition of the State Court Actions upon the retention of
Appellee’s attorneys, the work completed by Appellee’s attorneys to “save the sinking ship,”
Appellee working for all the Thakkar Entities, and a lack of credibility in Appellant’s contention
that he was blindsided by Appellee’s attorneys performing work purportedly intended for Georgia
Counsel. Id. at 218–222. The bankruptcy court held:
So, based on all of that, it is my conclusion that the fees that have
been included in Proof of Claim were reasonably incurred. There’s
no complaint about the hourly rates, there’s no complaint that there
was too much time spent on researching this or that. In fact, there’s
no complaint about reasonableness.
Id. at 222:7–11.
Appellant contends that the bankruptcy court clearly erred in making the finding in the
final sentence—that he did not complain about the reasonableness of the legal fees—on the basis
that the work performed by Appellee’s attorneys exceeded the scope of their role. (Doc. 12 at 10).
However, the bankruptcy court did not commit clear error. In reviewing the context of this
finding, the Court construes the bankruptcy court’s use of “reasonableness” as a reference to
“reasonableness” in the context of the amount of legal fees under a lodestar determination. “Courts
calculate attorney’s fees using one of two methods: the percentage method or the lodestar method.”
In re Home Depot Inc., 931 F.3d 1065, 1076 (11th Cir. 2019). “Under the lodestar method, courts
determine attorney’s fees based on the product of the reasonable hours spent on the case and a
reasonable hourly rate.” Id. Here, the bankruptcy court determined that Appellant had not
complained about the “reasonableness” of the fees immediately after finding that Appellant had
not complained about the hourly rates of Appellee’s attorneys or that Appellee’s attorneys spent
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too much time conducting particular tasks. Thus, the bankruptcy court referred to the two
foundational considerations for a lodestar analysis in finding that there had been no complaint
about “reasonableness.” The recognition that the bankruptcy court’s use of “reasonableness”
referred to “reasonableness” in the lodestar context is further bolstered by the bankruptcy court’s
emphasis—immediately following its finding that Appellant had not complained about
reasonableness—on the amount of work performed by Appellee in the State Court Actions, as the
bankruptcy court stated that Appellee could have faced professional liability if its attorneys did
not perform the amount of work that they accomplished. (Doc. 11 at 222:11–21). Of course, the
bankruptcy court’s use of “reasonableness” in this manner simply shows that the bankruptcy court
found that Appellant did not object to the hourly rates or the amount of time expended on particular
tasks, not that the bankruptcy court conducted a lodestar analysis.
Although Appellant’s counsel briefly stated during his opening statement that Appellant
“believe[d] that the fees are excessive on their own terms,” a review of the record below does not
demonstrate that, during the presentation of evidence, Appellant objected to the hourly rate
charged by Appellee’s attorneys as unreasonable or objected to the amount of time expended on
particular tasks as unreasonable. Id. at 96:14–15. Rather, Appellant testified that Appellee’s
attorneys were not authorized to perform entire portions of work. For example, Appellant testified
that he did not authorize Appellee’s attorneys to prepare summary judgment motions or prepare
proposed orders on motions for reconsideration. Id. at 114:16–20, 23–25, 115:1–4. Indeed,
Appellant’s purported understanding regarding the minimal role that Appellee’s attorneys would
play in the State Court Actions was a consistent theme in the trial. In his closing argument,
Appellant’s counsel emphasized that Appellant retained Georgia Counsel and received a large sum
Case 8:19-cv-01122-CEH Document 16 Filed 09/08/20 Page 16 of 17 PageID 1267
of legal invoices from Appellee, which contravened his understanding of Appellee’s role. Id. at
216:24–25, 217:1–6. He did not submit any argument about reasonableness during his closing.
On appeal, Appellant points to portions of his testimony regarding allegedly unauthorized
“type[s] of work” to show that he contested reasonableness and, therefore, the bankruptcy court
erred. (Doc. 12 at 9). However, whether Appellee’s attorneys were authorized to perform entire
types of work is distinguishable from an objection addressing an hourly rate or the amount of time
expended on particular tasks. Appellant’s testimony that there was “very, very little, if any, activity
related to Nilhan” is also distinguishable from an objection addressing an hourly rate or the amount
of time expended on particular tasks. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). A review under the
highly deferential clear error standard does not leave the Court with the “definite and firm
conviction” that the bankruptcy court committed a mistake in finding that Appellant did not object
to the reasonableness of the fees. Morrissette-Brown, 506 F.3d at 1319. As such, the bankruptcy
court’s finding that there was not a complaint about reasonableness is due to be affirmed.
Based on the foregoing analysis, the bankruptcy court’s findings that the invoices were
joint and several to the collective clients and that there was not a complaint about reasonableness
are each affirmed. As these issues constitute Appellant’s only issues on appeal, the Order
Overruling Objection is due to be affirmed.
Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED AND ADJUDGED:
1. The Bankruptcy Court’s Order Overruling Objection to Claim Number 6 Filed by King,
Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, P.A. (Doc. 2) is AFFIRMED.
2. The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case.
Case 8:19-cv-01122-CEH Document 16 Filed 09/08/20 Page 17 of 17 PageID 1268
DONE AND ORDERED in Tampa, Florida on September 8, 2020.
Counsel of Record and Unrepresented Parties, if any
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