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.