October 1, 2020
A recent Law.com story by Raychel Lean, “Court Chides Morgan & Morgan as Holland & Knight Prevails in $4 Million Attorney Fee Dispute,” reports that a federal breach of contract lawsuit which saw Holland & Knight litigators take on Morgan & Morgan came to a head when U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore awarded more than $4.1 million in fees and costs to one side and just $550,000 to the other. Now more than seven years in, the litigation itself has proved more costly for the plaintiffs than the actual judgment it obtained.
The dispute began in 2013, when the plaintiffs — Miami construction companies Architectural Ingenieria Siglo XXI LLC and Sun Land & RGITC LLC — sued over a failed irrigation construction contract worth $51.8 million. Their lawsuit accused the Dominican Republic and its water resource agency, Instituto Nacional De Recursos Hidraulicos, or INDRHI, of breaching its contract by terminating the deal under force majeure, citing financial hardship.
And though the defendants were initially slapped with a $50 million default judgment for failing to respond, that was reversed when it retained Holland & Knight attorneys, who argued service hadn’t been properly handled. Then, an eight-day bench trial resulted in a comparatively low $576,000 judgment against the water resource agency, while the Dominican Republic was absolved of liability.
Both sides moved for prevailing party fees and costs. And after a report from U.S. Magistrate Judge Honorable Chris M. McAliley, Moore found plaintiff AIS was entitled to fees from the water resource agency; the Dominican Republic was entitled to fees from both plaintiffs; and the water resource agency was entitled to fees from plaintiff Sun Land. In the order, Moore adopted McAliley’s findings on how much each side could recover. And it was good news for defense attorneys Gregory Baldwin, Eduardo Ramos and Ilene Pabian of Holland & Knight’s Miami office, who’d sought more than $3.6 million in fees, along with $629,450 in non-taxable costs and $33,000 in taxable costs.
Though the plaintiffs argued those numbers were unreasonably high and moved for a 50% to 75% reduction, Moore approved the magistrate’s 15% haircut instead, shaving $144,600 off their fees. It was a satisfying result for a case that Baldwin said “took a lot of patience, a lot of dedication and a great deal of time.” “We’re very pleased and satisfied with the result. We think, overall, it’s a just and fair result,” Baldwin said. “The Dominican Republic was completely vindicated, and INDRHI received a damages award against it in an amount that we think was reasonable.”
But the ruling was bad news for plaintiff AIS, which sought $2.7 million in fees under a 2.5x contingency fee multiplier, and asked for $438,203 in nontaxable costs. But Moore only awarded about $248,000 in fees and $302,000 in nontaxable costs — thanks to a bruising 75% reduction in fees recommended by the magistrate.
McAiley’s report levied some criticism at Morgan & Morgan, which “substantially frustrated the court’s task of working through the issues.” The report said the firm caused extra work and delay by failing to initially disclose certain fee information, demonstrated a “lack of care” in its filings, kept unreliable records and had mixed some non-recoverable appellate costs up with trial costs.
“Obvious examples include the several entries where single timekeepers claim to have worked nearly, or more than, 24 hours in one day,” McAiley’s report said. “For instance, Morgan & Morgan maintains that one of its attorneys worked 32.7 hours in one day.” McAiley denied Morgan & Morgan’s request for a fee multiplier and reduced its fees by 10% for failure to keep proper time records, 15% for block billing and 50% after factoring in the plaintiffs’ “very limited success” in the underlying case. But they argued the reduction was “too much given the significant amount of work it took to litigate this case,” according to the ruling.
Moore said he wasn’t swayed by the plaintiff’s objections. “Here, in objecting to the 75% fee reduction, plaintiffs fail to identify any factual finding in the R&R to which plaintiffs object,” Moore’s ruling said. “Rather, plaintiffs take issue with Magistrate Judge McAliley’s reasoning by arguing not that plaintiffs accurately recorded their hours worked and avoided block billing, but that the hours requested were reasonable and their success was greater in context than Magistrate Judge McAliley found it to be.”
The plaintiffs team also requested $237,400 to cover work performed by GrayRobinson. But Moore rejected that, accepting McAiley’s finding that the retainer agreement said Morgan & Morgan was obligated to pay GrayRobinson, not that the client was