September 21, 2018
A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Max Mitchell, “Judge Trims ‘DC Rates’ in Pittsburgh Employment Case, but Lawyers Still Land More than $2.2M in Fees,” reports that attorneys from Washington, D.C., may not have secured all of the fees they were seeking, but they are still set to receive more than $2 million for handling a series of employment lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney awarded $2.26 million in attorney fees to attorneys from D.C.-based Williams & Connolly and Pittsburgh-based The Employment Rights Group who handled the case Mozingo v. Oil States Energy Services. The litigation stems from claims by oil and gas workers that they were cheated out of overtime pay.
The employees’ attorneys had asked the court to award $2.43 million for the litigation, which started out with lawsuits for 29 separate employees. According to Kearney, attorney Zachary Warren, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, started his representation of the employees while working at The Employment Rights Group in Pittsburgh, but, after he joined Williams & Connolly, Warren continued to lead the litigation, and brought on four colleagues from the Washington firm to help him handle the litigation.
Although Kearney granted much of the attorneys’ fee request, he declined to apply the hourly billing rates common to the D.C. area, and instead said billing rates more common to the Pittsburgh area would apply. “We cannot simply accept Washington billing rates as being reasonable in Pittsburgh,” Kearney said. “The employees’ counsel do not offer evidence allowing us to make this leap. Exercising considerable discretion, we base the reasonableness of hourly rates upon blended rates for attorneys in this community.”
According to Kearney, the lawsuit began after 29 employees of Oil States Energy Services LLC opted out of a 2015 class action settlement in Texas. The plaintiffs, which consisted of frac hands, grease operators and crane operators, contended that the energy company misclassified them as exempt from overtime laws. The 29 plaintiffs, who filed suit in the Western District in early 2015, hired Pittsburgh lawyers from The Employment Rights Group, and the defendants hired attorneys from Texas.
Kearney said 14 plaintiffs settled their cases in mid-2016, and soon after Warren left The Employment Rights Group to join Williams & Connolly. Warren remained on the case, and brought four colleagues from the D.C. firm to help continue the litigation. The cases were eventually tried in two groups, and juries found in favor of the employees in both.
Regarding the request for fees, Kearney said the $375 hourly rate that Warren requested was “fair and reasonable.” However, Kearney declined to apply higher rates for the attorneys from D.C., and said the hourly rate for partners should be $500, the rate for associates should be $300 and the rate for summer associates should be $145.
Although the energy company raised numerous additional challenges, Kearney dismissed much of those, saying instead that the court was “far more skeptical of vague time entries often imbedded in block billing, or billing by several lawyers on the same task.” As a result, Kearney ended up deducting nearly $30,000 from the request for “vague entries.”