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Category: Lodestar Multiplier

Sixth Circuit Tosses Hourly Rates Citing ‘Community Market Rule’

August 12, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Field, “6th Circ. Wipes Out Atty Fee Award in Vita-Mix Blender Deal” reports that the Sixth Circuit vacated a nearly $4 million attorney fees award in a class action settlement over plastic flecks in Vita-Mix Corp. blenders, finding that a lower court used the wrong billing rates to determine the award.  The appeals panel said that in its circuit, a "community market rule" is used to calculate a reasonable billing rate.  Under that rule, the billing rate should not be more than what than what competent lawyers in the relevant community charge.  However, the lower court departed from Cincinnati rates, saying that the practice of law is increasingly more national, according to the opinion.

Attorneys have to show why they deserve to recover fees equivalent to those charged by out-of-town specialists, the panel said.  "And here class counsel would be hard-pressed to make such a showing since they are very much in-town attorneys," the panel said.  "Local lawyers litigating a case in a local courthouse should receive local billing rates.  The district court erred when it concluded otherwise."

The rates used by the lower court were based on both local rates and rates requested by the class counsel, attorneys from Markovits Stock DeMarco LLC, Finney Law Firm LLC and Goldenberg Schneider LPA, according to the opinion.  "As a result, a majority of the attorneys received rates of around $500 per hour and the most senior attorneys received rates exceeding $600 per hour," the panel said.

The appeals court also noted that class counsel attorneys with similar experience levels often requested very different billing rates, with some attorneys with less experience reporting significantly higher rates.  "An attorney with twelve years of experience reported a billing rate $450 per hour, while an attorney from the same law firm with nine years of experience reported a billing rate of $530 per hour," the panel said.  "Neither class counsel nor the district court explained these discrepancies — i.e., by unique expertise or the like."  The panel directed the lower court to recalculate the billing rates.

NALFA Releases 3 Models of Growth for Litigation Hourly Rates

August 10, 2020

NALFA conducts custom hourly rate surveys for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our hourly rate surveys provide our clients with the most current and accurate hourly rates within a given geography and practice area.  Starting this year, 2020, NALFA is conducting hourly rate surveys in 5 key practice areas.  These billing rate surveys show the current average hourly rate range for both plaintiffs' and defense counsel at partner and associate levels.

NALFA has released 3 different models of growth (linear, logarithmic, and logistic) for hourly rate ranges in litigation.  These growth curves are based on the universally accepted principle that hourly rates increase with experience (i.e. partner rates are greater than associate rates).  Linear growth is consistent straight-line growth.  Generally, logarithmic growth rises sharply then levels off.  Generally, logistic (S-shaped) growth starts slowly, rises sharply, then levels off.  We did not use exponential (J-shaped) growth because an ever-increasing, very steep curve does not fit hourly rate billing economics.

“These growth models do not account for the factors that effect hourly rates such as geography, practice area, party to litigation, complexity of case, size of law firm, and economics that our surveys do,” said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "Those variables were not a part of this purely mathematical exercise," Jesse emphasized.

From these growth curves, we learn 2 key concepts:

1.  Logarithmic growth seems to represent the economics of hourly rates and the career span of litigators the best.  Generally, the growth starts rapidly, then increases slower, then eventually levels off.  Here, the highest rate of billing growth takes place in early-career.

2.  Logistic growth is another model that has some appeal to the economics of hourly rates and the career span of litigators.  Generally, the growth starts slowly, then increases rapidly, then eventually levels off.  Here, the highest rate of billing growth takes place in mid-career.



The parameters of these models include the number of years continuously practicing litigation (12 data points), plotted along the x axis and hourly rate ranges (20 data points) along the y axis.  The litigation experience data sets range (less than 2 Years-35+ years) has a variance of 1 year to 5 years.  The hourly rate ranges (less than $200-over $1,200) include a variance of $50 and $100.

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."

NALFA Welcomes Phillip Neiman, Esq., FCIArb

July 27, 2020

The National Association of Legal Fee Analysis (NALFA) is pleased to announce that Phillip Neiman, Esq., FCIArb has been named a Fellow of the association.

Mr. Neiman, a full-time neutral with JAMS in San Francisco, specializes in the resolution of complex business and commercial disputes.  He devotes much of his practice to securities and investment-related cases, including shareholder, partnership and M&A disputes, and has substantial experience in a range of other areas, including employment, insurance, IP, real property, professional liability, personal injury and privacy tort cases, as well as fintech and cannabis sector disputes.

Prior to establishing his ADR practice in 2004, Mr. Neiman spent a decade as CEO and General Counsel of a FINRA-registered investment bank.

Mr. Neiman has extensive experience resolving attorney fee disputes, both as an arbitrator ruling on contested fee petitions and as a mediator overseeing settlement negotiations with a fee component.  He has addressed a range of complex issues in contractual and statutory fee award cases, including lodestar adjustments, prevailing party determinations in partial success and disproportionate damages cases, multiparty apportionment, privilege claims related to billing records, Daubert challenges and assertions of bad faith litigation practices, among others.   

Mr. Neiman is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.

For more on Phillip Neiman, visit https://www.jamsadr.com/Neiman/

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.