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Category: Fees & Judicial Discretion

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.

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.

Second Circuit: Bankruptcy Court Can Award Attorney Fees

May 18, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Clarice Silber, “2nd Circ, Rules Bankruptcy Court Can Award Attorney Fees” reports that a Second Circuit panel has overturned a district court's decision and sent a suit filing for Chapter 7 back to bankruptcy court, finding that a bankruptcy judge has the authority to award damages and attorney fees.  The three-judge panel said that because bankruptcy judges have the power to impose contempt sanctions, they also have the jurisdiction to award those other fees.

"Bankruptcy court has the power to impose contempt sanctions, which traditionally includes the authority to award damages and attorneys' fees," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan wrote for the panel in the ruling.  "This authority carries with it the ability to award appellate attorneys' fees."

The judges vacated the district court's judgment and remanded the case to the bankruptcy court to consider whether appellate fees should be awarded.  The decision stems from a case in which the appellant, the Law Offices of Francis J. O'Reilly Esq., had challenged the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York's order affirming a bankruptcy court's denial of the law firm's request for appellate attorney fees from the appellee, Selene Finance LP.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District had originally denied O'Reilly's request for appellate fees because it decided that it lacked the authority to award them.  Carlos Cuevas, an attorney representing O'Reilly, told Law360, "It's a very important decision for the bankruptcy bar because it has ensured that if a party is in contempt, that an attorney who successfully dissents that contempt order on appeal has the opportunity to be compensated for his or her services."

"And that's especially important if you're representing a debtor, because debtors most of the time lack the resources to fund an appeal, to pay for the printing of an appellate brief, an appendix and the attorney's services that are involved," Cuevas added.  The debtor, Bret DiBattista, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in July 2009, and won an order from the bankruptcy court preventing creditors from trying to collect on debts.  Despite this, Selene, the servicer of DiBattista's mortgage, made dozens of phone calls trying to collect on his delinquent mortgage payments, behavior the court called "absolutely egregious."  In 2019, DiBattista filed a motion for contempt sanctions against Selene, which the court granted.

Judge Sullivan wrote that DiBattista, who was represented by O'Reilly in 2019, had racked up appellate fees because of Selene's contempt.  "Indeed the record reflects that the appellate fees were more than $28,000, dwarfing the $17,000 in compensatory damages the bankruptcy court awarded to DiBattista," Judge Sullivan wrote.

Judge Calls Out Hourly Rate Gender Disparity in Fee Award

April 25, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Judge Calls Out Atty Gender Pay Gap in $760K Fee Award reports that Console Mattiacci Law LLC will collect almost $765,000 in fees for winning a $2.3 million age-bias suit against AT&T Mobility Services, after a Pennsylvania federal judge slightly trimmed the firm's requested hours and rates but noted that a less-experienced female shareholder deserved the same hourly rate as her older male co-counsel.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice noted the legal industry's gender pay gap in his opinion awarding Laura Mattiacci and Susan Saint-Antoine the same $700-per-hour rate as firm founder Stephen Console for their work in securing a jury verdict for Alison Ray, saying they hadn't shown why the court should have awarded Console the requested $900 per hour and the others $730 per hour.

"Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci are entitled to the same rate as fellow shareholder, Console, who served solely as a consultant on the case.  Historically, women in law earn less than their male counterparts, a discrepancy that may reflect hidden bias.  Saint-Antoine's experience and expertise on several of the pre-trial motions was critical in allowing the case to move to trial and Mattiacci's courtroom skills were pivotal to Ray's successful verdict," Judge Rice wrote.  "Attorneys of comparable skill and ability merit equal compensation without regard to gender or age."

The court's order trimmed Ray's request for $847,945 in fees to $764,825 by cutting the lead attorneys' hourly rates to the top level recommended by Community Legal Services, and also by cutting out hours spent on unsuccessful motions and work representing Ray in another plaintiff's age-discrimination case against AT&T.  The court awarded nearly $39,000 for costs, which AT&T did not contest.  Ray, a former sales director at AT&T Mobility Services, won $2.3 million in December 2021 after a jury found the company's "Workplace 2020" restructuring plan targeted older employees as "surplus," cut their positions and forced them to apply for different jobs if they wanted to keep working. Ray was 49 when she was laid off.

AT&T challenged many of the hours that Console Mattiacci said it had put into the case, but the judge generally supported charging for most of the work the attorneys had put in.  Factual distinctions between Ray's case and those of other AT&T employees that the firm represented in other cases meant that attorneys didn't get to reuse parts of the other employees' complaints, or recycle arguments and hours spent on their motion for summary judgment, Judge Rice said.  The attorneys' work on "mock trial" versions of the opening and closing arguments were also justified, Judge Rice said, even if the practice versions were done by another attorney on the case and had come before motions for summary judgment that could have precluded the need for trial.

"Mock trial preparation is an indispensable part of litigation.  Sharpening advocacy skills in advance of trial is as important as effective legal research and writing.  One cannot exist without the other in a courtroom. ... This is often overlooked or underestimated in fee litigation," Judge Rice wrote.  Although Ray's team took a risk in conducting the mock trial that early, he wrote, it worked in their favor because they ultimately prevailed over AT&T's motion for summary judgment, making the trial preparation necessary.

He did cut out an hour spent by a fifth attorney at the mock arguments, and cut down Console's time charged for the arguments down to an hour and a half to be consistent with the other attorneys on the case. He made other cuts for time spent on motions for protective orders or class treatment that were unsuccessful.  The attorneys' requested hourly rates were higher than what was recommended by CLS for typical Philadelphia-area lawyers with their experience, and the affidavits they submitted to support their higher request didn't convince Judge Rice, he said.

"Although Ray contends that the rates requested by Console, Mattiacci, and Saint-Antoine are the same or less than the regular rates charged for their services in non-contingent matters, she fails to present any evidence showing that any client has willingly agreed to pay such rates," the judge wrote.  And although both Console and Saint-Antoine would be worth up to $700 per hour on the CLS' recommended scale, Judge Rice praised Mattiacci's work on the case and said she'd earned more than what her experience alone would indicate.

"Although Mattiacci has been practicing law for fewer years than Console and Saint-Antoine and would warrant a rate of $530.00 based on her experience according to the CLS fee schedule, she is entitled to the same $700.00 rate as her fellow shareholder and partner given her expertise and skill as a trial lawyer," he wrote.  "Her exceptional advocacy skills helped to persuade the jury to award a significant verdict for Ray in a complex case. ... Even though the CLS 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."

Hagens Berman $31M Fee Objection Heads to Ninth Circuit

April 19, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Hagens Berman Must Forfeit $31M Fee Win, 9th Circuit Told” reports that an objector's counsel urged the Ninth Circuit to force Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP to forfeit or reduce a revised $31 million fee award for securing deals worth $205 million in multidistrict litigation over optical disk drive price-fixing, arguing that the law firm violated multiple professional rules of ethics.  During a hearing before a three-judge panel, objector Connor Erwin's counsel, Robert Clore of Bandas Law Firm PC, argued that Hagens Berman violated multiple California Rules of Professional Conduct in securing its eight-figure fee award before a trial court, including by never placing the disputed funds into a client trust account, despite class members' objections and appeals pending.

But U.S. Circuit Court Judges Morgan Christen and Carlos T. Bea asked how class members have been harmed by the firm's failure to hold the funds in a client trust account.  "What harm, what foul?" Judge Bea asked.  Clore replied that as a result, the class has been denied up to $600,000 in interest that would have been collected on the disputed money.  At least a portion of that interest should have gone back to the class when a Ninth Circuit panel vacated Hagens Berman's previous $52.8 million fee and expense award, the attorney said.

"Why should they be entitled to interest on fees that don't belong to them?" Clore asked the panel.  The trip to the Ninth Circuit is the latest chapter in a decade-old multidistrict litigation claiming that Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Toshiba Corp. and other disk drive makers participated in an industry-wide conspiracy to fix optical disk drive prices.

Hagens Berman beat out other firms for lead class counsel in 2010, and the firm later struck multimillion-dollar deals to resolve the disputes.  After U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg took over the case from U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, Judge Seeborg awarded the law firm $47.8 million in attorney fees for securing the settlements.  But in May 2020, a pair of Ninth Circuit panels vacated the fee awards after Clore argued before the appellate court that Judge Seeborg erred by keeping Hagens Berman's initial proposal for lead class counsel under seal and not properly taking it into account in awarding fees, among other objections.

On remand, in July, Judge Seeborg awarded Hagens Berman a revised $31 million fee, finding that the firm was entitled to a 20% premium on top of the $25.9 million it would be allotted under the firm's interpretation of the fee grid in its initial class counsel proposal.  Judge Seeborg also awarded Erwin's counsel $1.5 million in fees in September for their work helping to convince the Ninth Circuit to throw out the initial fee award.

But Erwin again challenged the fee award, with Clore arguing before the appellate court that Hagens Berman took too long to return the fees after the previous panel vacated the award, and did not place the funds in a client trust account, as required by professional rules of conduct.  Clore added that the trial court also erred in miscalculating the "starting point" for setting reasonable attorney fees on remand by using a flat rate instead of the sliding scale specified in the firm's initial proposal, resulting in an adjusted $25.9 million for the firm.  That amount should be $22.2 million, he said.

In light of the alleged violations, Clore asked the Ninth Circuit to send a message that class counsel are not immune to the California state bar's professional rules, and require the law firm to either forfeit its fees, or at the very least reduce the fees to keep in line with the firm's initial $22.2 million fee proposal.  As support, Clore cited the Ninth Circuit's 2012 decision in Rodriguez v. Disner, which held that a court has "broad equitable powers to … require an attorney to disgorge fees already received" for a serious ethical violation.

But class counsel Shana E. Scarlett, of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, argued that $31 million in fees is justified given the length of litigation and how fiercely the litigation was fought.  She also argued that the judge properly awarded additional fees on top of the initial $25.9 million proposal based on his discretion and understanding of the case.

But Judge Bea asked why the trial judge used a flat rate instead of the sliding scale methodology specified in the firm's initial bid proposal.  "Why isn't Judge Seeborg wrong in using a flat basis rather than a sliding scale basis based on the schedule we have before us?" the judge asked the attorney.  Scarlett replied that the firm's initial bid proposal was just one part of what informed the trial judge's decision. But Judge Bea appeared skeptical.

"You're talking about extrinsic evidence that was used by Judge Seeborg to interpret the writing, which we have before us?" Judge Bea asked.  "What factual evidence was there?  Are you saying that the written document is ambiguous and requires factual findings interpreted?"  Scarlett replied that the initial proposal was clear that the fees should use a flat rate, and not a sliding scale, but Judge Seeborg "went further and made the finding that we intended to be flat rate structure."