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Category: Fee Award Factors

Federal Circuit Backs Cap on Attorney Fees in IDEA Cases

August 11, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Karpan, “DC Circ. Backs Atty Fee Cap in Civil Rights Row” reports that the D.C. Circuit rejected the efforts of attorneys representing hundreds of parents in a civil rights case to collect over $5 million in fees from Washington, D.C., and ruled that a congressional cap that strictly limited the amount they could collect in those cases was perfectly valid.

The opinion, authored by U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, found that an appropriations rider Congress passed in 2009 did not violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment nor was it an illegal intervention into the court's power to award fees.  The rider expressly forbade Washington from paying more than $4,000 in attorney fees in any single civil rights case filed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates special education services for kids.

Crucially, Judge Katsas wrote, Congress started limiting the city's ability to pay out legal fees in IDEA cases in 1999, which was before the parents in these cases filed suit.  "The fee cap does not interfere with any reasonable expectations, for each of the awards at issue was entered at a time when Congress had already limited the District's ability to pay IDEA fee awards," the judge said.  The ruling covered eleven separate IDEA cases, all of which preceded 2009 and all of which successfully alleged that Washington didn't provide a special needs education to students who qualified for one.

Back in 2015, a magistrate judge calculated the city's tab in those cases at about $3.7 million, along with another $1.3 million in interest, according to Tuesday's ruling.  Two years later, a D.C. federal judge used the cap to trim the fee award to $220,000 but left the interest, which had notched up to $1.4 million by then.  Both the parents and the city challenged that ruling.

Congress, which provides funding to public schools in Washington through the District of Columbia Appropriations Act, had every reason to be concerned about using that budget to pay lawyers in IDEA cases, Judge Katsas observed.

The city's "long struggle" to comply with IDEA was costing it $10 million a year by the time Congress began limiting how much of that funding could be spent on fee payments in those cases, the ruling noted.  An appropriations rider passed in 2009 had instituted the permanent $4,000 cap on the awards.

The parents argued, in part, that the rider violated their rights to fees that a court had awarded them but the panel said shaving a fee award isn't "a per se taking."  Deciding to trim an award that had already been issued didn't misappropriate the powers of Congress either, the panel added.  Lawyers for the parents should also have known they wouldn't be able to collect more than $4,000 a case because the initial rider dated to 1999, Judge Katsas added.

But in addition to ruling that the cap was perfectly legal, the D.C. Circuit also scratched the $1.4 million in interest the parents had won.  "This principle is as old as the Republic," Judge Katsas mused on this point, citing a ruling the Supreme Court made in 1789, in Hoare v. Allen, and in which the court similarly scratched the interest on debts owed to a British creditor during the Revolutionary War, as the Constitutional Congress had expressly banned paying debts to British subjects.

Similarly, Judge Katsas wrote, Congress had banned Washington from paying lawyers in IDEA cases fees above a certain amount: interest couldn't be collected on fees above that amount either.  The panel sent the award back to a lower court to recalculate using the capped award instead.  The D.C. Circuit ruled on an IDEA fee bid in a different case just last year, when a panel initially rejected a nearly $7 million fee award in a class action suit leveled under that law, ruling in that case that a lower court had used an invalid matrix for calculating fees.

Virgin Urges Ninth Circuit to Vacate Attorney Fees in Wage Case

July 30, 2020

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."

Judge Won’t Approve Fees That Amount to $7,500 An Hour

July 24, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Judge Won’t OK Atty Fees She Says Equal $7,500 An Hour” reports that a California judge issued a tentative ruling approving Merrill Lynch's $12.5 million wage and hour deal but rejected class counsel's $3.75 million fee bid, saying the case "was not particularly complicated" and their requested award would come out to $7,500 per billable hour.  Alameda Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith said she would only approve an attorney fee award of $1.25 million, which she acknowledged is "substantially less" than the requested fee bid and represents only 10% of the total settlement.

The judge reasoned that although there's "ample authority" to support a 30% benchmark for awarding fees, when she considers the number of hours that the class attorneys spent on the case and the case's complexity, a lower fee award is warranted.  Class counsel has told the judge they expect to have spent a total of 860 hours on the case by the end of it, but the judge wrote in her tentative ruling that it's more likely they will "reasonably" have spent only 500 hours working on the case.

Judge Smith added that if she were to award $3.75 million in fees, then class counsel would receive $7,500 per hour for their 500 hours of work, or at least $4,360 per hour based on their asserted 860 hours of work.  "The court will not award windfall fees at exorbitant implied hourly rates of over $4,000/hour (accepting the asserted 860 hours) or over $7,000/hour (the 500 reasonable hours)," the opinion says.

If approved, the settlement would resolve a lawsuit that Marc D. Lowe initially filed in May 2018 and amended the following September, adding Kevin McGuan as a named plaintiff.  The latest rendition of the complaint asserts six causes of action, accusing Bank of America NA's investing and wealth management division of committing a host of state labor statute violations, including failing to reimburse financial advisers for their business expenses, failing to provide accurate wage statements, and failure to pay all wages owed.

Merrill Lynch denied the allegations, but before a dispositive motion was filed, the parties entered mediation and informed the court in October 2019 that they had reached a settlement.  Under the proposed deal, roughly 1,500 class members would receive an average of $5,738, while attorneys would seek up to $3.75 million, or 30% of the settlement, in fees and up to $35,000 in costs. McGuan and Lowe would also receive a service award of $25,000 each.

$23M in Attorney Fees in Yahoo Data Breach MDL

July 22, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Yahoo Data Breach MDL Attys Get $23M in Cut Fee Award” reports that a California federal judge approved a $117.5 million deal to resolve multidistrict litigation involving 194 million class members over Yahoo's multiple data breaches and awarded class counsel $23 million in fees, declining to award the full $30 million they requested.  In an 86-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh signed off on the settlement allotting class counsel $23 million in fees and $1.48 million in costs, while class representatives received between $2,500 and $7,500 in service awards.

In rejecting class counsel's bid for $30 million in fees, Judge Koh recognized that their requested fee amount met the 25% benchmark typically awarded in class action settlements.  But the judge said calculating fees based on a percentage of the total deal isn't appropriate in this "megafund" case involving more than a hundred million class members.  "Having overseen this case for four years, the court finds that justice would be best served by applying the lodestar method — i.e., tying the fee awards for class counsel to the actual hours they reasonably expended on this litigation and then selecting a multiplier," the order says.

During a hearing held via Zoom last month, Judge Koh heard multiple objections to the settlement and fee request.  At the time, the judge told class counsel she wanted more detailed billing information — including the "markup" on work by first-year law students — on the 31 law firms and 204 attorneys and paralegals who worked on the MDL and related litigation consolidated in state court, as well as total costs for hiring experts.  After reviewing the supplemental information, Judge Koh said in her order that class counsel's hourly billing rates — which ranged from $450 to $900 for partners, $160 to $850 for non-partner attorneys and $200 for summer associates — is reasonable.

AIG Unit Can Recover Attorney Fees in Coverage Litigation

July 21, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Mike LaSusa, “AIG Unit Nabs $212K in Atty Fees After Coverage Row” reports that AIG unit National Union can collect nearly $212,000 in attorney fees after fending off a medical services company's coverage claims stemming from a pair of employee harassment complaints, with a Florida federal judge shooting down several objections to the final fee figure.  U.S. District Judge Roy B. Dalton Jr. accepted a magistrate judge's recommendation to order TMH Medical Services LLC to pay $211,720.50 in attorney fees to National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa. — a slight reduction from National Union's request for $223,143.50 in fees.

Judge Dalton swept aside TMH's argument that National Union couldn't collect fees for litigation that happened after July 17, 2019, when the judge issued an order saying National Union would be entitled to attorney fees while leaving the amount undetermined.  TMH had argued that Florida law doesn't allow litigants to collect attorney fees racked up while fighting over the amount of attorney fees owed.  But Judge Dalton said his order last year didn't specify an amount and didn't end the battle over whether National Union was entitled to fees.

Judge Dalton noted that TMH had asked the court to reconsider its decision.  The judge rejected that request on March 20, meaning that date — not July 2019 — marked the end of litigation over entitlement to fees and start of the litigation over the final amount, he said.  The judge also wasn't convinced by TMH's arguments that the rates offered by National Union were unreasonable.  He said the rates of $285 per hour for of counsel and $355 for partners seemed reasonable, citing similar cases in which attorneys were paid as much as $550 per hour.