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Category: Fee Agreement

Should Judges Police The Gender Hourly Rate Disparity?

June 1, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Stricker, “Should Judges Police The Legal Industry Pay Gap?” reports that as the pay gap between male and female attorneys persists despite industry pledges to do better, the power of judges to potentially bridge the divide is coming into sharper focus.  Following an unusual decision by a federal magistrate, some members of the Philadelphia bar have endorsed the idea that other judges should follow suit and help police gender pay inequities, or at least call them out from the bench.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice recently issued the order critiquing elements of a notable employment firm's request and awards that put attorney "status" over performance.  "I don't think it's always my role, but in this instance, I felt I had to set the rates based on the performance of the attorneys who really tried the case, and not a rate that was maybe based more on age or seniority," Judge Rice told Law360 Pulse.

In April, Judge Rice was overseeing the last stage of an age discrimination case brought by Alison Ray, a former sales director at AT&T Mobility Services who was let go at age 49 after more than two decades at the company.  Following a five-day trial, Ray last year secured a $2.3 million award after a jury determined that a company restructuring plan had targeted older employees as "surplus."

In February, lawyers at the firm representing Ray, Console Mattiacci Law LLC, asked for $847,945 in "shifted" fees from AT&T.  That lodestar calculation, based on a 40% contingency agreement, was justified by the complexity of the plaintiff's case, Ray's counsel argued, as well as a "complete and total victory" on her claims that AT&T had willfully violated federal age discrimination law.  The fee petition included nearly 1,570 hours from partners Susan Saint-Antoine and Laura C. Mattiacci, a highly experienced lead trial counsel, and associate Daniel S. Orlow. Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci, who have practiced since 1989 and 2002, respectively, both listed their "usual and customary" rate of $730 an hour. Orlow, who has practiced since 2011, was at $320 an hour.

The petition also included 37 hours contributed by firm principal Stephen G. Console. Console, a nationally recognized employment law expert, charged $900 an hour for consulting on strategy decisions and filings, as well as settlement demands and other key elements of the case.  In an order granting a handful of reductions totaling about $83,000, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be entitled to the same per-hour rate as Console, who has been practicing for three decades.

"Historically, women in law earn less than their male counterparts, a discrepancy that may reflect hidden bias," he said, citing a 2020 report that found widening pay discrepancies at large law firms.  Referring to a fee schedule used widely in the Third Circuit to determine market rates for Philadelphia-area lawyers, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be in line for a "premium" over those numbers that put them in line with Console.  Even if the fee schedule "serves as a useful guide on setting hourly rates, its reference to experience should not serve as a cap that precludes exceptionally talented trial lawyers from receiving fair compensation simply because of age or gender," Judge Rice said.

The legal industry pay gap, and its role in women reaching firm leadership and a lack of diversity in many areas of the profession, has been under intense scrutiny for years, but without much in the way of real progress.  In the 2020 report cited by Judge Rice, legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa found that partner compensation soared between 2010 and 2018.  But in that same period, the pay disparity between male and female equity partners widened significantly, from 24% to 35%.

Nancy Ezold, a veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer, said it was "absolutely" appropriate for Judge Rice to consider rate disparities for lawyers in his court, even though AT&T counsel hadn't raised the issue in its fee-award opposition.  "I don't know of anything in the law that says you have to consider what a law firm pays people," Ezold said.  "But Judge Rice looks at the bigger picture and asks, 'Am I going to do something to perpetuate an inequality and authorize a fee for a male partner over two female partners who really handled this case?'"

Ezold, who once sued her own former law firm in the late 1980s for denying her a partnership based on her gender, argued that fee petitions often provide a substantive overview of who did what work over the history of a litigation.  Depending on the nature of the case, they can also be an opportunity for judges to compare requested rates across different firms and legal teams comprising different gender and experience makeups.

"Here the judge couldn't overlook a difference between male and female in this case because it related directly to the responsibility to decide what would be allowed for each of these attorneys," Ezold said.  "Judges speak out on a lot of things, and I don't see why this should be any different."  Judge Rice served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania before being appointed as a federal magistrate in 2005.  He retired in April, just after issuing the Ray opinion.

In an interview with Law360 Pulse, Judge Rice said the timing was coincidental, noting that the issue of male-female pay disparities had never before been "so squarely presented" to him in a fee petition.  "From the [fee] affidavits I see, and from all I know about law firm pay structures, I do think the pay gap is huge, and there are just so many variables out there that have cut against giving women equal pay," such as lack of trial experience and other opportunities to advance, he said.

"When I see lawyers perform in an exemplary fashion, it's appropriate they be paid at higher rates commensurate with their skills, not just based on the years they've practiced," Judge Rice added.  Alice Ballard, another veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer who provided a fee affidavit in the Ray case, said Judge Rice's prior time as a trial lawyer was evident in the opinion, including in his positive assessment of the hours Console Mattiacci dedicated to mock trial runs and other "essential" advocacy preparation.

Judge Rice "really understands what it means to prepare for a trial like this, and everyone on my beat really appreciates that," she said.  But Ballard took issue with Judge Rice's ultimate reliance on what she described as an outdated fee schedule, rates that don't well reflect the special skills of trial work, Mattiacci's successful track record or the contingency fee model.

She also cautioned against reading the opinion as a critique of the hourly rate request for Console, whom she called a "lion" of the city's employment bar.  Regarding his reference to the legal industry's gender pay disparities,"it's great that he took the opportunity to bring it up, but I just don't think it has much to do with this specific case," Ballard said.

Eleventh Circuit Orders Recalculation of Attorney Fees

May 26, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Rosie Manis, “11th Circ. Orders New Look At $6M Atty Fee in Man’s Death” reports that the Eleventh Circuit has vacated a $6 million attorney fee awarded as part of a $21 million jury verdict over the death of a Georgia pedestrian who was hit by a truck, ordering the trial court to reconsider its reasonableness.  The three-judge panel's per curiam opinion affirmed the jury verdict but said that two subsequent opinions from the Georgia Court of Appeals warrant the reconsideration of the attorney fees.  The jury had ordered the $6 million fees after finding bad faith on the trucker's part.

The estate of Alabama trucker James Harper and his insurer Cypress Insurance Co. appealed the February 2020 verdict in favor of Patricia and Wayne Holland, the mother and brother of Kip Holland, who was hit by Harper's truck and died in December 2016 after Harper suffered an unspecified medical event while driving.

The panel rejected most of the defendants' arguments for overturning the verdict, but they said the Hollands' 40% contingency agreement alone doesn't necessarily make the attorney fee award reasonable.  U.S. Circuit Judge R. Lanier Anderson III pointed out during oral arguments in February that the fee amounted to about $5,000 an hour.  "A contingency fee agreement alone, without more, is not sufficient to support the award of attorney fees," the court said, citing Georgia case law.  "Rather, the party seeking fees must provide other evidence of the value of the professional services actually rendered."

The panel cited a March 2021 opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals that vacated a $12.7 million attorney fee award in a wrongful death case after a $32.8 million damages verdict.  The attorney fee in that case was based solely on a 40% contingency fee agreement.  In the other cited case, the Court of Appeals upheld a July 2021 $1 million attorney fee award that was less than what the relevant contingency fee agreement would have provided.  The trial court in that case assessed the work of the plaintiff's lawyers as well as the fee agreement in determining a reasonable award.

The Eleventh Circuit judges said they did not comment on the cited cases or the reasonableness of the original $6 million attorney fee "to avoid influencing the district court's reconsideration."  They were not persuaded by the defendants' contention that Harper did not act in bad faith and therefore the Hollands couldn't get attorney fees under Georgia law.

Florida Panel Finds Attorney Fee Error in Irma Coverage Suit

May 19, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Ben Zigterman, “Fla. Panel Finds Atty Fees Error in Irma Coverage Suit” reports that a Florida state appellate panel reversed a lower court's award of attorney fees to counsel for homeowners suing underwriters at Lloyd's of London for coverage of damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.  Instead of being paid for more than 550 hours of work to get a $52,000 jury verdict for Roniel Candelaria and Amelia Padura, the three-judge panel agreed with the underwriters that the homeowners' attorney fees should be recalculated based on 480.5 billed hours.

The panel said Judge Martin Zilber should have gone through the time records of the homeowners' counsel line by line, but instead applied an arbitrary 15% cut.  The judge awarded the homeowners' counsel a lodestar amount of $312,000, applying a 1.8 multiplier to that amount and adding other legal costs, for a total award of more than $600,000.

"The lodestar amount is not supported by competent substantial evidence because the trial court did not make 'specific findings' as to its determination," Judge Kevin Emas wrote for the panel.  While the homeowners' expert suggested a 7.5% billing hours cut, the judge instead applied a 15% cut, according to the opinion.

"The insureds' expert did not conduct a line-by-line analysis of the billing," Judge Emas wrote.  "The trial court adopted plaintiff's expert's arbitrary methodology.  Indeed, in the instant case the trial court did not merely adopt the expert's methodology but added its own across-the-board reduction of 15%."  The panel said its previous decisions require "specific findings as to disputed time entries" and "particularized reductions."

"The trial court's comments at the conclusion of the hearing reveal that it had only examined 'several' of the timesheets," instead of making a line-item review, Judge Emas wrote.  The panel also said the trial judge improperly applied the 1.8-contingency multiplier.  The trial judge lacked "competent substantial evidence to address whether the attorney was able to mitigate the risk of nonpayment in any way — specifically, whether the client could afford to pay a retainer or hourly fees," Judge Emas wrote.

Client Drops Attorney Fee Dispute Against Law Firm

May 16, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Caroline Simson, “Taiwanese Co. Says It Won’t Arbitrate Fisch Sigler Fee Dispute” reports that a Taiwanese manufacturer of smartphone camera lenses is pressing a DC federal court to quash arbitration initiated by intellectual property boutique Fisch Sigler LLP seeking millions in additional fees for its work on a "meandering, inconclusive" and expensive patent lawsuit that settled last year.  Largan Precision Co. Ltd. told the court in the lawsuit filed May 10 that it never gave its informed consent to arbitrate the dispute with Fisch Sigler, which is set to be heard by the DC Bar Attorney/Client Arbitration Board, or the ACAB.

The company noted that while the DC Court of Appeals requires any attorney who is a DC Bar member to submit to arbitration before the ACAB if a client chooses that venue to pursue a fee dispute in matters with some connection to DC, there has never been any such rule for clients.  Largan argued that since it intends to challenge the validity of an arbitration agreement that was "quietly added" to its engagement agreement with the firm near the end of their negotiations, that question should be left to the court.

"[G]overning precedent makes plain that only a court, and not an arbitration panel, can decide the threshold issue of whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties agreed to have that question decided by the arbitrators," the company wrote.  "There is nothing here to suggest that the parties ever discussed, let alone agreed to, the ACAB deciding the specific issue of arbitrability."

Largan alleges in the litigation that the firm has already gotten $4.5 million in "fixed fee" payments.  It's now seeking an additional $5.6 million in success fees — despite the fact that Largan agreed to settle the litigation in Texas due to the outcome of parallel litigation in Taiwan that Fisch Sigler had not worked on, according to the brief.  The underlying dispute for which Largan engaged Fisch Sigler involved another Taiwanese company called Ability Opto-Electronics Technology Co. Ltd., which Largan accused of misappropriating its trade secrets in 2013.

While litigation was ongoing in Taiwan, Largan hired Fisch Sigler to file a patent infringement lawsuit in the U.S. against Ability Opto-Electronics Technology and two other entities in Texas.  Largan alleges that while the lawsuit was ongoing, Fisch Sigler charged a fixed fee despite not doing all the work that was supposed to be included under that fee.  That included depositions and a hearing in mid-2020 that Largan says never took place.

Largan won some $50 million in the Taiwanese litigation in early 2021, and it subsequently approached Fisch Sigler about settling the Texas litigation.  The company claims that the litigation had gone poorly, and that there was no reason to continue with it at that point.  It was then that the firm attempted to collect the success fee "based on the resolution of a litigation in Taiwan in which it had no role — and despite achieving nothing resembling success from the meandering, inconclusive, yet very expensive litigation it had pursued for Largan against [Ability Opto-Electronics Technology] and others in Texas and, later, California," according to the suit.

NFL Player Must Cover Attorney Fees in Poaching Suit

May 13, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Max Jaeger, “Sanctioned NFL Player Must Cover Atty Fees in Poaching Suit” reports that New York Giants wide receiver Kenny Golladay must cover more than $15,000 in attorney fees for his former agency after flouting a subpoena in litigation over whether he was poached by a rival, a Michigan judge said.  In an order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony P. Patti overruled Golladay and approved $14,929 in attorney fees to cover Honigman LLP's representation of the wideout's former agents at Clarity Sports International LLC.  The judge refused to award fees for work by Dowd Bennett LLP, finding them "excessive and redundant" of work by Honigman's lawyers.

Clarity said it cost them a little over $20,000 to get Golladay to comply with a third-party subpoena for his deposition and document production.  The agency says in a separate suit that sports memorabilia sellers helped non-party Creative Arts Agency steal Golladay from them.  The wide receiver is not a party to that suit, but he ignored a 2020 subpoena, so Clarity sued to compel.  The court hit him with sanctions for his "cavalier and reckless attitude" and ordered him to pay Clarity's legal bills for giving them the "run-around."

Golladay opposed most of the Honigman fees, arguing that partner Jeff Lamb's four hours at $580 per hour merely duplicated 19.75 hours of work that partner Andrew Clark did at $455 per hour.  But the court disagreed.  "Although much of attorney Lamb's relevant work appears to have involved review and conference with other attorneys, the court considers such collaboration between partners and associates typical and substantive, as opposed to duplicative and redundant," Judge Patti wrote.

That was "especially true" given Clark was out on leave for two months, the judge said.  He also approved 11 hours that associate Nicholas Burandt contributed at $350 an hour.  Some work was duplicative, however, and the judge denied $5,400 to Dowd Bennett for the roughly 7.5 hours each contributed by Dowd Bennett partner John D. Comerford and associate James B. Martin, who charged $420 an hour and $300 an hour respectively.

Golladay argued he shouldn't have to pay their fees because Clarity retained them on a contingency basis in the underlying tortious interference case against CAA that's separately playing out in Pennsylvania federal court.  Because it is ongoing, Clarity had not "incurred" any fees yet, he argued.  "The court, however, struggles to find the logic in this latter argument, as it would imply that parties (or non-parties) would be shielded from sanctions for poor behavior whenever the opposing side has a contingency-fee relationship," Judge Patti said in his order.

Instead, the judge said Dowd Bennett LLP's contribution amounted to sending emails to Honigman counsel and editing filings, and awarding fees would be excessive.  "Although Respondent's behavior throughout this matter has undoubtedly been unacceptable and necessitated additional work by Petitioners, that work was frustrating more so than complicated," Judge Patti said.