A recent Law 360 story by Bill Wichert, “NJ Judge Wrongly Used Private Practice Past to Cut Atty Fees” reports that a New Jersey state judge improperly relied on unpublished decisions and her own private practice experience when she gave class counsel a lower attorney fee award than class counsel asked for when it settled a suit against a car dealership, a state appellate panel said Wednesday in nixing the ruling. The panel concluded in a published opinion that Superior Court Judge Mara Zazzali-Hogan — formerly with Gibbons PC — was wrong to cut the requested hourly rates for attorney Christopher J. McGinn and lawyers and a paralegal at the Wolf Law Firm LLC to about $120,772 in fees and costs, which undercut their request by more than $40,000.
"In rejecting class counsel's submissions and reducing the hourly rate for all the attorneys and the paralegal, the judge relied on her personal experience in private practice, a methodology rejected in Walker ... and considered four unpublished decisions," the three-judge panel said, citing the New Jersey Supreme Court's 2012 opinion in Walker v. Giuffre. As for Judge Zazzali-Hogan's reliance on the unpublished decisions, the panel pointed to the state Supreme Court's 2008 opinion in Brundage v. Estate of Carambio, which acknowledged that "[state court] rule 1:36-3 'provides that "[n]o unpublished opinion shall constitute precedent or be binding upon any court."'"
"Under these circumstances, we are persuaded that the judge's reduction of the hourly rates was based upon consideration of inappropriate factors, and thus reflects a mistaken exercise of discretion," the panel said, adding in a footnote: "In remanding this matter, we make no finding or suggestion about what hourly rates ultimately should be deemed reasonable for this kind of case." McGinn and the Wolf Law Firm, representing plaintiff Nina Seigelstein, appealed the judge's decision in the suit against Shrewsbury Motors Inc. and its principal, which claimed the dealership unlawfully charged customers documentary fees that were not itemized, court documents state.
Under the settlement in the case, the defendants agreed to pay $125 to each member of a 2,883-member class, court documents state. The attorneys sought roughly $162,000 in fees and costs, with hourly rates ranging from $165 for the paralegal to $500 for McGinn and $765 for fellow lead attorney Andrew R. Wolf, court documents state.
To back up the proposed hourly rates, the attorneys submitted certifications from Wolf, McGinn and three other lawyers who didn't work on the case, as well as two state court decisions, court documents state. Citing the unpublished cases and her "fifteen years of private practice," Judge Zazzali-Hogan in March 2019 reduced the hourly rates, which set McGinn's and Wolf's at $475 and $575, respectively. The judge also reduced the billable hours and used a smaller contingency fee enhancement percentage than what the attorneys requested.