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Third Circuit Bars Attorney Fees For ‘Limited Success’

June 12, 2021 | Posted in : Billing Record / Entries, Expenses / Costs, Fee Award Factors, Fee Denial, Fee Entitlement / Recoverability, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Request, Fee Shifting, Fee Statute, Fees more than Damages, Hourly Rates, Prevailing Party Issues, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Law 360 story by Mike LaSusa, “3rd Circ. Bars Atty Fees For ‘Limited Success’ in NJ Wage Suit,” reports that the attorneys who won an unpaid wage suit on behalf of a pair of cooks in New Jersey can't recover nearly $120,000 in attorney fees after their "limited success" in the six-year case netted their clients less than $7,000, the Third Circuit ruled.  Attorneys from Troy Law PLLC had sought more than $118,000 for their work on behalf of Weigang Wang and Hailong Yu in their suit against fast-food chain company Chapei LLC, which does business as Wok Empire.  But the three-judge appeals panel said in a nonprecedential opinion that a lower court was right to block the plaintiff lawyers from shifting the burden of paying attorney fees to Wok Empire.

The lower court shot down Wang and Yu's claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires fee-shifting when plaintiffs win.  And although Wang and Yu won their claims under a New Jersey state wage and hour law, that statute only allows for but doesn't require fee shifting, the appeals panel said.  "Fee-shifting statutes can be abused by attorneys who over-litigate a case once they have confidence that their client will receive an award — no matter how small," the judges said. "Here, where the result was very limited success for the clients, and where the deficiencies identified by the district court compromised a meaningful review of the claimed fees under the lodestar method, it was not an abuse of discretion to deny fees altogether."

Wang and Yu brought the case in New Jersey federal court in 2015, seeking more than $180,000 in damages.  A bench trial eventually resulted in the dismissal of the workers' FLSA claims and their victory on claims brought under the New Jersey law.  The lower court awarded the workers about $6,600 in back wages and around $3,000 in costs, but declined to award any attorney fees, sparking the appeal to the Third Circuit.

The panel, however, said the lower court was "fully within its discretion" to block the attorneys' six-figure fee request, noting it amounted to about 18 times more money than their clients received.  "The declaration that accompanied the fee petition referred more to the plaintiff in [a] prior default judgment case than to the actual plaintiffs in this case.  Moreover, one of the attorneys had misstated his $350 hourly rate as $3550," the judges said.  "Most troubling was that one of the attorneys failed to provide a detailed bill for his time."

Heng Wang of Wang Gao & Associates, who represented Wok Empire, said he was excited by the ruling.  "The Third Circuit's ruling is a wakeup call to the plaintiff's bar," he said.  "There is no silver bullet for the plaintiff's lawyers to always obtain significant attorney's fees in wage-and-hour litigation."