September 25, 2020
A recent Law.com story by Tim Ryan, “Firm Urges 8th Circ. To Ax $1 Award Over Judge’s ‘Disdain’,” reports that an Arkansas law firm that received $1 in attorney fees after settling an overtime collective action against a pipe manufacturer reinforced its request for the Eighth Circuit to reconsider the trial court's fee award, accusing the judge of having "disdain" for the firm. Three months after being on the receiving end of a scathing opinion from U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson that labeled the firm "incorrigible," attorneys with the Sanford Law Firm returned fire in a filing that called the judge's decision to slash the fees "illegal" and claimed he is waging a personal campaign against the firm.
"The district court has expressed such animosity toward SLF such that a reasonable person would question the district court's ability to make decisions regarding appellants, who SLF represents, in an impartial manner," the firm's brief said. For its work to win the $270,000 settlement in a wage and hour dispute with Welspun Inc, the Sanford Law Firm was supposed to receive $96,000, according to court filings. However, Judge Wilson rejected that amount in a June decision that accused the firm of "attempted extortion" because of how it staffed and billed the case. Judge Wilson also previously rejected a settlement offer that would have given the firm $89,000 and asked for the law firm's billing records.
The Sanford Law Firm initially petitioned the Eight Circuit to review the fee award in June, arguing it was unfairly low. Welspun defended Judge Wilson's decision earlier this month, saying the fee award was reasonable because it followed the Eighth Circuit's decision in Barbee v. Big River Steel LLC.
The firm's Wednesday reply brief, which largely focuses on the lower court judge's motivations, urged the Eighth Circuit to strike down the $1 award and send the case back to a different judge. It claims Judge Wilson has in the past month criticized the Sanford Law Firm's billing in passing while approving other settlements the firm has worked on. He also has accused attorneys at the firm of filing motions just to run up their bills in other cases, at one point even suggesting a summary judgment motion was unnecessary because the attorneys could have accomplished the same thing with an email to opposing counsel, according to the brief.
"Such insults are unnecessary, especially where the parties fully applied the standard imposed by the District Court," the brief said. "They are made only to show the District Court's disdain for SLF that impacts the District Court's ability to make obviously impartial decisions in cases involving SLF." The brief further argued judges are supposed to be deferential to the settlement agreements parties strike and that Judge Wilson was not permitted to consider the attorney fees Welspun agreed to pay when deciding whether the separate award to the employees who brought the suit was fair.
The firm's brief said Judge Wilson misinterpreted the Barbee decision as requiring parties negotiating a settlement agreement to keep their talks over attorney fees and damages separate. Because attorney fees often far outstrip the value of an individual workers' claim, such a reading would upend the settlement negotiation process because it would prevent attorneys from bargaining with the fee award and incentivize companies to take their chances at trial, the brief said.