A recent Law 360 story by Linda Chiem, “Virgin Asks 9th Circ. To Ax $6M Atty Fee in Wage Spat” reports that Alaska Airlines and Virgin America asked the Ninth Circuit to vacate nearly $6 million in fees awarded to attorneys for a certified class of flight attendants who won $77 million in a long-running dispute over pay and rest breaks. Virgin America Inc., which merged with Alaska Airlines Inc., filed an opening brief with the Ninth Circuit claiming that U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar in January signed off on $5.7 million in fees for the plaintiffs' attorneys without digging into whether their hours and calculations were properly justified.
The attorneys, who initially requested $13.2 million, but were awarded less than half that, are representing named plaintiff Julia Bernstein and flight attendants alleging Virgin America flouted California labor laws by not paying them for all hours worked, including overtime, and denying them state-mandated meal and rest breaks. Judge Tigar had acknowledged that the attorney fee application was too vague, saying "the level of specificity at which plaintiffs have documented their time makes it difficult or impossible for Virgin to raise certain challenges that courts have found justified partial reductions in other cases."
Despite that critical flaw, according to the airline, the court accepted all of the hours that the plaintiffs' counsel claimed and awarded a $5.7 million fee award, subject to only a 5% general reduction in hours. "That decision cannot stand," the airline said in the brief. "Because the lack of detail in the fee application deprived Virgin of a fair adversarial process and did not allow meaningful judicial review, the fee award must be vacated for that reason alone."
Moreover, the class counsel's flawed lodestar consisted of nearly 4,500 hours of billable time, most of which was billed at an absolute "top of the market" rate of $750 per hour, according to the brief. On top of that, Judge Tigar improperly approved $251,000 in court-related expenses for the plaintiffs' attorneys, Virgin argued. "Most of the expenses that the district court awarded were for 'expert fees,' which are not recoverable under black-letter California law," the airline said. "In addition, the district court erred by ignoring the rule that a party cannot recover expenses without submitting an itemized list and accompanying receipts. The district court did not identify any exception to this rule, and it candidly acknowledged that plaintiffs' counsel failed to comply with it. But the court awarded expenses anyway."