Tag Archives: Attorney’s Fees

2d. Cir.: Contested Attorney’s Fee Petition Must Be Accompanied By Contemporaneous Time Records

Scott v. City of New York

After prevailing at trial, the Plaintiff in this Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) case, moved for an award of attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to 216(b).  The Defendant opposed the amount of attorney’s fees sought by Plaintiff’s attorney.  The trial court awarded plaintiffs’ attorney partial attorney fees, based on the fees asserted.  The Defendant appealed the award, asserting that the fee award was improper, inasmuch as the Plaintiff’s attorney had not submitted contemporaneous time records in support of his fee application.  Plaintiff’s attorney cross-appealed from denial of certain of those fees.  On appeal, the Second Circuit held that a contested attorney’s fee petition must be accompanied by contemporaneous time records.  Therefore, they remanded the case back to the trial court in order to make a detailed finding regarding appropriate fees to be awarded (or in the alternative to state the basis for an exemption from such requirements).

Click Scott v. City of New York to read the entire opinion.

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11th Cir.: Rehearing En Banc Denied On Refusal To Award Prevailing FLSA Plaintiff Attorney’s Fees; Strong Dissents

Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L.

In a decision discussed here previously, the 11th Circuit had affirmed the trial court’s decision to award no attorneys fees or costs, in a case where they reasoned that attorney civility towards one another trumped the mandatory fee provisions of the FLSA.  The case was again before the 11th Circuit, this time on Plaintiff’s Motion for a Rehearing En Banc.  Although the Court denied the Motion for Rehearing, significantly, there was very strong dissent, perhaps signaling that the case may be ripe for review at the United States Supreme Court, who just this week signaled they will begin hearing more cases than they have in recent years.

Citing legal principle, but little statutory authority for the Court’s position, in a concurring opinion, one Judge explained, in part:

“About this case, I have a few observations to make. Lawyers, as members of the Courts’ Bars (that is, as officers of the Courts) are often, and in a variety of ways, treated by the Courts better or worse than nonlawyers. I stress that I do not see the Courts’ inherent powers to supervise the members of their Bars as “overriding” (that is, cancelling) the FLSA statute’s treatment of fees. The statute is law, general law tied to the outcome of FLSA suits.

I see the Courts’ inherent powers over Bar members as a separate and pre-existing font of law and legal authority that specifically governs the conduct of lawyers as lawyers, regardless of the outcome of the case: the law of inherent powers supplements the FLSA statute to make up the whole of the applicable law in this case. Therefore, I see the whole applicable law to run this way: When the outcome favors the plaintiff, fees shall be awarded unless the District Court, in the reasonable exercise of its power to supervise lawyers in their practice in cases before the Court, determines that an award of fees (given the specific circumstances of a particular case) is not right-not right directly because of lawyer conduct related to the specific case. Thus, fees nearly always are to be awarded; but never are the Courts altogether stripped of the power to supervise lawyer conduct through the grant or withholding of fees.

That Courts have the inherent and main-if not exclusive-authority (along with the duty and responsibility) to supervise their Bar members is, I believe, no innovative idea. And that Courts can use the control of attorney fees as a means of exercising the inherent power to supervise lawyer conduct in particular cases seems uninnovative too. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 111 S.Ct. 2123, 2133 (1991) (court may per inherent power assess attorneys fees when a party has acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive purposes); Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 100 S.Ct. 2455, 2463 (1980) (federal courts have inherent powers to assess attorneys fees against counsel).”

With separate strongly worded dissents, Circuit Court Judges Barkett and Wilson, sternly warned that the Eleventh Circuit had exceeded their authority by attempting to ignore the FLSA, a federal statute, without any basis.

BARKETT, Circuit Judge, dissenting:

“En banc review is warranted in this case because district courts do not have the power, inherent or otherwise, to directly contravene a federal statute. The panel decision, holding that the district court could deny attorneys’ fees mandated by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), is contrary to settled United States Supreme Court precedent providing that the use of a district court’s inherent supervisory powers is invalid when it conflicts with a statutory command. See, e.g. Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254 (1988); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 148 (1985). As Judge Wilson notes in his dissent, there is no dispute that the language of the statute is mandatory, see29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”), and has been previously so construed by our court. Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1223 n.12 (11th Cir.2007).

The panel characterizes the denial of attorneys’ fees as an informal sanction of Sahyers’ lawyer for suing fellow lawyers without first attempting to resolve the dispute through informal means. In his concurrence to the denial of rehearing, Judge Edmondson stresses that the district court based its decision on local litigation customs and practices, but the district court opinion references no such customs or practices. The district court simply says that, in its view, it is “reasonable” to call another lawyer prior to filing suit. That is not enough to give notice to Sahyers’ attorney. District courts do not have the authority to sanction lawyers for conduct not proscribed by law or rule-which is the case here-without first providing them with notice that their conduct may warrant sanctions. Fed.R.Civ.P. 83(b) (“No sanction or other disadvantage may be imposed for noncompliance with any requirement not in federal law, federal rules, or the local rules unless the alleged violator has been furnished in the particular case with actual notice of the requirement.”). Because Sahyers’ attorney was given no actual notice, the district court had no authority to sanction him for failing to contact the defendants or their lawyers before filing suit. See In re Mroz, 65 F.3d 1567, 1575 (11th Cir.1995) (“Due process requires that the attorney (or party) be given fair notice that his conduct may warrant sanctions and the reasons why.” (citation omitted)). Accordingly, there is no authority for disregarding the mandatory language of FLSA on this basis.

The panel’s only supporting authority for its contention that a court may deny an award of litigation expenses to which a client is otherwise entitled by law is Litton Syss., Inc. v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 700 F.2d 785 (2d Cir.1983). However, that decision does not permit a district court to simply disregard the express language of a statute that mandates attorneys’ fees and costs. Rather, it affirms a sanction imposed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 for “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” by the plaintiff’s lawyers. Id. at 826-28. The failure to notify an opposing lawyer prior to suit in the absence of any known requirement to do so can hardly qualify as negligence or willful misconduct.

Because the panel opinion disregards the express mandate of Congress, this case warrants en banc review.”

WILSON, Circuit Judge, dissenting:

“The Court affirms a decision by a district court that denies a prevailing plaintiff’s lawyer his entitlement to an attorney’s fee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) on account of his failure to give the defendant, a lawyer, advance notice of the lawsuit. I am concerned about the precedent this case sets. First, an award of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party is mandatory under the FLSA. Second, I have found no authority that requires plaintiff’s counsel to provide pre-suit notice when another lawyer is the defendant. Although well-intentioned, I doubt that the federal courts have the inherent authority to ignore and override a statutory mandate in the interest of promoting a professional courtesy. I also do not believe that Congress intended to single out lawyers for exclusive treatment under the FLSA. Since it is now within the inherent authority and discretion of the district courts in our Circuit to hold that no attorney’s fee is a reasonable fee when no pre-suit notice is extended to defendants who are lawyers, I would consider this case en banc before permitting this new Circuit precedent to stand.

The facts are these. Plaintiff Christine Sahyers worked as a paralegal for the defendant law firm Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L. On January 9, 2007, Sahyers filed a lawsuit against her former employer and its three owners and principals, Timothy F. Prugh, James W. Holliday, II, and Theodore Karatinos (collectively the “defendants”), pursuant to the FLSA to recover unpaid overtime compensation. The defendants filed an answer, denying liability. The case proceeded to discovery, and less than one month after a failed court-ordered mediation, the plaintiff accepted an offer of judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The next day, the district court entered final judgment against the defendants in the amount of $3,500.

Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for attorneys’ fees and expenses, in which she sought $15,640.70, comprised of $13,800 in attorneys’ fees and $1,840.70 in costs. The district court determined that the plaintiff was a prevailing party under the FLSA. However, recognizing that the FLSA provides for a mandatory award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, the district court was persuaded to conclude that this case presented “special circumstances” and decided that “a reasonable fee is no fee.” Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., No. 8:07-cv-52-T-30MAP, slip op. at 3 (M.D.Fla. Feb. 1, 2008) (“District Court Order”).

The district court found that the plaintiff subjected the defendants to “unnecessary litigation” and refused to reward such behavior because at no time prior to filing the lawsuit did the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney make a written demand for payment of the overtime compensation. Id. at 3-5. Further, the district court stressed that the plaintiff’s attorney should have notified the defendant law firm, because prior to filing suit in the Middle District of Florida, “it is still reasonable to pick up the phone and call another lawyer so it won’t be necessary to file suit.” Id. at 4. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s counsel’s claim that his client did not want him to make a pre-suit demand, “remind[ing] [plaintiff’s counsel] that the lawyer is the officer of the Court, not the client.” Id. at 5. The plaintiff appealed the denial of attorneys’ fees and costs, and defendant Karatinos cross-appealed the district court’s determination that the plaintiff was a prevailing party.

With the benefit of oral argument, the Sahyers opinion affirmed. The Sahyers opinion framed the issue in this way: “This appeal is about the power of a district court to supervise the work of the lawyers who practice before it.” Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., 560 F.3d 1241, 1243 (11th Cir.2009). The Sahyers opinion construed the District Court Order as creating an “exception” to the FLSA’s mandatory fee statute based on the district court’s “inherent powers to supervise the conduct of the lawyers who come before it and to keep in proper condition the legal community of which the courts are a leading part.” Id. at 1244. It explained that “at least in the absence of very clear words from Congress, we do not presume that a statute supersedes the customary powers of a court to govern the practice of lawyers in litigation before it.” Id. at 1245 n.6. I disagree-well-settled Supreme Court precedent rejects the Sahyers opinion’s “very clear words” standard.

“In the exercise of its supervisory authority, a federal court ‘may, within limits, formulate procedural rules not specifically required by the Constitution or the Congress.’ ” Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254 (1988) (quoting United States v. Hasting, 461 U.S. 499, 505 (1983)) (emphasis added). One of those limits on a federal court is when Congress has spoken: “[e]ven a sensible and efficient use of [a court’s] supervisory power, however, is invalid if it conflicts with constitutional or statutory provisions.” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 148 (1985). “A contrary result ‘would confer on the judiciary discretionary power to disregard the considered limitations of the law it is charged with enforcing.’ ” Id. (quoting United States v. Payner, 447 U.S. 727, 737 (1980)). Applied here, the Sahyers opinion’s denial of attorneys’ fees and costs as an exercise of its supervisory authority over the practice of lawyers conflicts with the plain language of the FLSA.

The FLSA is a mandatory fee statute, and we have not recognized any exception to it. “The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court, our Circuit, and our sister circuits have consistently interpreted § 216(b) as mandatory. FN1 We have gone so far as to declare expressly that “[p]revailing plaintiffs are automatically entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1223 n.12 (11th Cir.2007) (emphasis added).

FN1. See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415 & n.5 (1978) (referring to § 216(b) of the FLSA as one of the “statutes [that] make fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs”); Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 829 n.10 (5th Cir.2003) (“The FLSA requires an employer who violates the statute to pay attorney’s fees.”); Uphoff v. Elegant Bath, Ltd., 176 F.3d 399, 406 (7th Cir.1999) (“While the award of fees [under the FLSA] is mandatory, the district court has ‘wide latitude’ in determining the amount of the fee.”) (citation omitted); Fegley v. Higgins, 19 F.3d 1126, 1134 (6th Cir.1994) (“An award of attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff under § 16(b) of the FLSA is mandatory, but the amount of the award is within the discretion of the judge.”) (citation omitted); Shelton v. Ervin, 830 F.2d 182, 184 (11th Cir.1987) (“Section 216 provides for an award of attorney’s fees, as opposed to granting the court discretion in awarding such fees, to the prevailing plaintiff in FLSA cases.”) (emphasis added); Kreager v. Solomon & Flanagan, P.A., 775 F.2d 1541, 1542 (11th Cir.1985) (“Section 216(b) of the Act makes fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs.”); Burnley v. Short, 730 F.2d 136, 141 (4th Cir.1984) (“The payment of attorney’s fees to employees prevailing in FLSA cases is mandatory. The amount of the attorney’s fees, however, is within the sound discretion of the trial court.”) (internal citation omitted); Graham v. Henegar, 640 F.2d 732, 736 n.8 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar. 1981) (“[A]n award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing plaintiff in an FLSA suit is mandatory.”); Wright v. Carrigg, 275 F.2d 448, 449 (4th Cir.1960) (“With respect to the counsel fee [pursuant to § 216(b) ], the court had no discretion to deny it; the law’s requirement of an award is mandatory and unconditional.”); Murray v. Playmaker Servs., LLC, 548 F.Supp.2d 1378, 1381 (S.D.Fla.2008) (Ryskamp, J.) (providing that the FLSA “directs district courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to a plaintiff, in addition to any judgment received”) (emphasis added).

In a perfect world, a lawyer who files a lawsuit against another lawyer would first attempt to resolve the matter outside the courthouse. Such a practice is both sensible and efficient. However, a procedural rule that in effect mandates pre-suit notice is invalid if it conflicts with a statutory provision. The Court’s opinion in effect reads a requirement of pre-suit notice into § 216(b) of the FLSA, at least where a law firm or lawyer is a defendant, thereby “confer[ring] on [itself] discretionary power to disregard the considered limitations of the law it is charged with enforcing.” Arn, 474 U.S. at 148 (quoting Payner, 447 U.S. at 737). Although a legislature can make pre-suit notice mandatory when it chooses, that circumstance does not apply here. See, e.g.,Fla. Stat. § 766.106(2)(a) (providing that “prior to filing a complaint for medical negligence, a claimant shall notify each prospective defendant”). While it is desirable to encourage lawyer collegiality and to discourage unnecessary litigation, I do not believe that we can rewrite a statute to conform with certain policy preferences. See Reeves v. Astrue, 526 F.3d 732, 738 (11th Cir.2008) (“The Supreme Court has advised that whatever merits … policy arguments may have, it is not the province of this Court to rewrite the statute to accommodate them.”) (quotation marks, alteration, and citation omitted). The Sahyers opinion provides binding precedent for a district court to ignore a clear Congressional mandate from a federal statute based on its “inherent powers.” Such precedent oversteps the boundaries of our proper duty as neutral arbiters and obviates the role of Congress. My discussion could end here, as the plaintiff was the prevailing party, and the FLSA’s plain language is controlling.

Moreover, I also disagree with the Court’s statement that “a lawyer’s duties as a member of the bar-an officer of the court-are generally greater than a lawyer’s duties to the client.” Sahyers, 560 F.3d at 1245 n.7. It bears repeating that the Sahyers opinion failed to cite any statute, rule, local rule, or case from this Circuit, the Middle District of Florida, or elsewhere that even arguably imposes a duty on an attorney to contact prospective opposing counsel where that counsel represents a law firm or a lawyer. I can find no rule of professional responsibility that would place Sahyers’ lawyer on notice that it is a breach of professional or ethical responsibility to file a lawsuit against a fellow lawyer without the courtesy of advance notice. Honorable though it may be, providing a lawyer-defendant with pre-suit notice in FLSA cases is neither a requirement, nor a breach of a lawyer’s ethical responsibility.

I recognize that the appropriate balance between duty to a client and duty of candor to the court is certainly a difficult one to strike. In certain circumstances, a lawyer’s duty to the court is “greater” than his or her duty to a client. However, while counsel owes a duty to the court, context matters. The plaintiff did not instruct her counsel to commit a crime, to perpetrate a fraud upon the court, or to file a frivolous lawsuit. Rather, the plaintiff merely instructed her counsel to file a lawsuit, which-considering the fact that defendants filed an answer as opposed to a motion to dismiss and ultimately offered judgment-appeared to have, at least, some merit. In fact, the Model Code of Professional Responsibility appears to require exactly what the plaintiff’s counsel did-follow his client’s instructions: “[T]he lawyer should always remember that the decision whether to forego legally available objectives or methods because of non-legal factors is ultimately for the client and not for himself.” Model Code of Prof’l Responsibility EC 7-8 (1983); see also id. at EC 7-7 (providing that, except in areas of legal representation not affecting the merits of the cause or substantially prejudicing the rights of a client, “the authority to make decisions is exclusively that of the client and, if made within the framework of the law, such decisions are binding on his lawyer”) (emphasis added). Hence, not only is there no rule requiring plaintiff’s counsel to give pre-suit notice to his fellow lawyers, plaintiff’s counsel had an ethical duty to follow his client’s instructions. In applying the Sahyers opinion’s reasoning, however, a plaintiff’s lawyer must ignore a client’s explicit instruction to file an arguably meritorious lawsuit and must first give “word” by way of a phone call, e-mail, or letter before “su[ing] his fellow lawyers.” This rule should not be the law.

The Sahyers opinion equated the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel to bad faith: “the conscious indifference to lawyer-to-lawyer collegiality and civility exhibited by Plaintiff’s lawyer (per his client’s request) amounted to harassing Defendants’ lawyers by causing them unnecessary trouble and expense and satisfied the bad-faith standard.” 560 F.3d at 1246 n.9. It relies on Litton Systems, Inc. v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 700 F.2d 785 (2d Cir.1983), stating that “[a] court … may deny an award of litigation expenses to which a client is otherwise entitled.” Sahyers, 560 F.3d at 1245. As a threshold matter, Litton Systems, a Second Circuit opinion, is not binding precedent in this Circuit; it is merely persuasive authority. Additionally, Litton Systems does not stand for that broad proposition, and, even if it did, the facts of Litton Systems are so far removed from Sahyers that the former sheds no light on the latter. The Litton court merely affirmed a sanction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 finding “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct.” Here, the district court did not impose any sanction and did not invoke Rule 37. Instead, it carved out a “special circumstances” exception to the FLSA. See District Court Order at 3. The only reason relied upon by the district court to award Sahyers “nothing” as an attorney’s fee was the failure to extend the professional courtesy of pre-suit notice to a law firm. This conduct does not amount to bad faith.

Finally, I am troubled by the implication that lawyers are entitled to exclusive treatment under the FLSA. Although the Sahyers opinion states that it does not intend to create a new rule of pre-suit notice in FLSA cases where the defendant is a law firm or a lawyer, such language will surely fall on deaf ears in this Circuit (as it should) in light of the fact that Sahyers is a published opinion, which makes it binding precedent in this Circuit. See I.O.P. 2 to Fed. R.App. P. 36 (“Under the law of this circuit, published opinions are binding precedent.”). Section 216(b) pays no attention to the occupation of the defendants. Neither should we. The Sahyers opinion has unintentionally created a new rule that a plaintiff’s failure to give pre-suit notice to a lawyer-defendant in an FLSA case may forfeit the plaintiff’s otherwise statutory right to attorneys’ fees and costs. Courts within this Circuit will rely on Sahyers and will interpret it as creating a discretionary exception to a mandatory fee statute. In point of fact, courts both within this Circuit and outside of this Circuit have already followed suit, recognizing, but not yet applying, the proposition that no fee can be a reasonable fee under the FLSA when a plaintiff fails to give pre-suit notice to a lawyer-defendant. See Roldan v. Pure Air Solutions, Inc., S.D. Fla.2010.

Moreover, there is no indication in the record that plaintiff’s counsel filed this lawsuit in an attempt to “shake down” the defendants for attorneys’ fees and costs. The case settled after discovery ended, and the defendants made an offer of judgment only after they had the opportunity to look at the evidence. Any determination that the case would have settled if plaintiff’s counsel sent a pre-suit notice to the defendants (based on the record as it appears before us) is pure speculation. In other words, pre-suit notice may not have made a difference. Moreover, at the motion hearing before the district court, Sahyers’ counsel asserted that (1) Sahyers herself made a demand on the law firm prior to litigation, and (2) he lacked the records necessary to make a pre-suit demand before filing the lawsuit. Tr. of Jan. 24, 2008 Mot. Hr’g at 21:19-23 (arguing that had the defendants deposed Sahyers, “she would have testified that she did ask for her money”); id. at 22:12-18 (arguing that “[plaintiff’s counsel] did not have access to [Sahyers’] time records”).

While counsel’s arguments are not evidence, an evidentiary hearing would prove or disprove these assertions. The district court made no specific factual findings based on any evidence regarding, for example, bad faith on behalf of the plaintiff or the necessity of the litigation. The Sahyers opinion relied solely on plaintiff’s counsel’s failure to give pre-suit notice. Since we have held that “an inquiry into a party’s bad faith is best conducted by the district court,” Turlington v. Atlanta Gas Light Co., 135 F.3d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir.1998), I would at least have remanded this case back to the district court for an evidentiary hearing with instructions to engage in the lodestar analysis.

A district court retains the discretion to determine or to set a reasonable attorney’s fee under the FLSA, but the district courts, in my view, lack the discretion to deny all fees and costs by way of a “special circumstances” exception to promote collegiality. I agree completely with the efforts of the distinguished district judge to seek to promote professionalism and civility in the practice of law. It is an important component of judicial administration. I also agree that this Court was well-intentioned in deferring to the district court’s discretion; however, I fear that we went too far. My primary concern is with the precedent this case now creates: It is now within the discretion of district courts in our Circuit to deny attorney’s fees to lawyers who fail to extend professional courtesies to lawyer-defendants in FLSA and (presumably other) civil rights cases. This new law will undoubtedly discourage public interest lawyers from taking these cases. Although the plaintiff prevailed in her FLSA claim, her lawyer was unable to recover any fees or his client’s costs as mandated by Congress. I would prefer that the full Court consider this appeal before creating this new precedent.”

Many legal scholars have already voiced their opinion that this case is likely headed to the United States Supreme Court for ultimate decision.  Stay tuned, because this one is likely not done yet.

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D.Or.: FLSA Supports Award Of Attorney Fees For Post-Judgment Collection Efforts

Van Dyke v. BTS Container Service, Inc.

After plaintiff prevailed in this FLSA case, Judgment was entered for $4,724.29 and a Supplemental Judgment for $35,248.10 in attorney fees and costs.  Due to financial difficulties, Defendants failed to satisfy the judgment, necessitating Plaintiff to garnish certain monies from Defendants to satisfy the judgment.  Before the court was Plaintiff’s Supplemental Motion for Attorney Fees for Post-Judgment Collection.  The Court granted the Motion.

The Court explained, “[u]nder Oregon law, attorney fees to enforce a judgment are “legal services related to the prosecution or defense of an action” which the court may consider when it awards attorney fees. Johnson v. Jeppe, 77 Or.App. 685, 688, 713 P.2d 1090 (1986) (quoting ORCP 68).

The Ninth Circuit has not determined if the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) supports the court awarding attorney fees for post-judgment collection efforts. But cf. Jones v. Giles, 741 F .2d 245, 250 (9th Cir.1984) (finding no abuse of discretion in the size of the trial court’s $2,500 award for post-judgment attorney fees in an FLSA case without addressing whether such fees were available under the statute). Federal courts have awarded attorney fees for post-judgment collection efforts in other contexts. See Shaw v. AAA Eng’g & Drafting, Inc., 213 F.3d 538, 544-45 (False Claims Act case); Free v. Briody, 793 F.2d 807, 808-09 (7th Cir.1986) (ERISA case). I conclude that the FLSA also allows me to award post-judgment collection fees. Without such an award, a judgment is a hollow victory for a plaintiff who was improperly paid.”

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S.D.N.Y.: Notwithstanding Defendants’ Disclaimer Of Liability, FLSA Plaintiffs That Accepted OJ Are “Prevailing Party”; Entitled To Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees And Costs

Kahlil v. Original Old Homestead Restaurant, Inc.

Plaintiffs moved for attorneys’ fees and costs following their acceptance of Defendants’ offer of judgment.  The Defendants argued there was no fee entitlement, because their offer contained a disclaimer of liability.  Rejecting this argument, the Court awarded Plaintiffs’ attorneys reasonable attorneys fees and costs.

The Court highlighted the following procedural history:

“Plaintiffs Sayed Kahlil, Wayne Walker, Mohamed Elmahdy and Brian Lahoff were employed as waiters at defendant The Original Old Homestead Restaurant. On January 30, 2007, plaintiffs filed a complaint to resolve wage and hour disputes arising under section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) and section 198 of the New York State Labor Law (“NYLL”). 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2008); N.Y. Lab. Law § 198 (McKinney 2009). Plaintiffs were represented in this matter by Louis Pechman, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman LLP (“BWP”), and Jaime Duguay, an associate at the same firm. On April 29, 2008, mid-way through the discovery process, defendants submitted an offer of judgment in the amount of $36,000, exclusive of attorneys’ fees, pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs accepted the offer of judgment on May 8, 2008, and judgment was entered by the Clerk on May 30, 2008. On June 13, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs, pursuant to FLSA § 216(b) and NYLL § 198. Plaintiffs seek $119,737.15 to compensate Pechman and Duguay for labor and costs incurred up to the filing of the motion. Defendants oppose the award of attorneys’ fees and costs on the grounds that plaintiffs did not prevail in the foregoing litigation. In the alternative, defendants contend that the requested fee award should be reduced in light of Pechman’s excessively high hourly rate, the limited nature of plaintiffs’ success, the vagueness of BWP’s time entries, BWP’s small size, excessive hours, billing of clerical tasks at attorney rates, and billing of work completed prior to the filing of the complaint.”

The Court then determined that Plaintiffs were the “prevailing party” as defined by the FLSA:

In an action pursuant to the FLSA, a “prevailing party” must be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs: “The Court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Likewise, the NYLL requires that “[i]n any action … in which the employee prevails, the court shall allow such employee reasonable attorney’s fees ….“ § 198(1-a) (emphasis added).

Plaintiffs are the prevailing party for the purposes of the FLSA and NYLL “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir.1978)). Likewise, to qualify as a prevailing party, a plaintiff must demonstrate a change in the legal relationship between itself and the defendant arising from the resolution of the lawsuit. Texas State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989).

The judgment in this case suffices to establish plaintiffs as the prevailing party under the FLSA and NYLL. Where, as here, plaintiffs obtained a favorable settlement, they are entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees: “[t]he fact that [plaintiff] prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken [plaintiff’s] claim to fees.” Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980). Defendants contend that the settlement is insufficient to render plaintiffs the prevailing party because the complaint sought monetary, declaratory, and equitable relief, while the offer of judgment provided only monetary relief. The Court finds defendants’ argument unpersuasive. Plaintiffs surely obtained some of the relief sought, and no court in this circuit has indicated that relief obtained in settlement must exactly match relief sought in the complaint. See Lyte v. Sara Lee Corp., 950 F.2d. 101, 104 (2d Cir.1991) (holding that a plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party if the relief obtained through settlement is of the “same general type” as relief requested in the complaint); Koster v. Perales, 903 F.2d 131, 134 (2d Cir.1990) (“A plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party even though the relief ultimately obtained is not identical to the relief demanded in the complaint”); Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 791-92 (indicating that a plaintiff’s receipt of some of the benefit sought is enough to “cross the threshold to a fee award of some kind”).

The Court also finds unpersuasive defendants’ argument that the disclaimer of liability in the offer of judgment indicates that the settlement did not change the legal relationship between the parties, and therefore that plaintiffs are not the prevailing party. It is not necessary for a defendant to admit liability in order for a plaintiff to be designated as the prevailing party. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court indicated that a consent judgment without an admission of liability by the defendant “[is] nonetheless … a court-ordered ‘chang[e][in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.’ “ 532 U.S. at 604, citing Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 792. Further, the Supreme Court in Maher v. Gagne upheld an award of attorneys’ fees based on a settlement agreement containing a disclaimer of liability similar to the one in defendants’ offer of judgment. See 448 U.S. at 126 n. 8. The Court therefore finds that plaintiffs are the prevailing party, and that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA and NYLL.”

Thus, the Court calculated a reasonable attorneys fee and costs and awarded same to Plaintiffs’ counsel.

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S.D.Fla.: Defendant’s Generalized Affirmative Defenses Struck; FLSA Plaintiff Entitled To Attorneys’ Fees If Prevails

Romero v. Southern Waste Systems, LLC

This case was before the Court pursuant to Plaintiffs Motion to Strike Defendant’s Affirmative Defenses to Plaintiff’s Complaint. Plaintiff moved to strike several affirmative defenses, including a generalized reference to all “white collar” exemptions, a generalized exemption that the Plaintiff was paid pursuant to the parties’ “agreement,” set-off (alleging no facts to support same), and a claim that Plaintiff was not entitled to prevailing attorneys’ fees under the FLSA. Additionally, the Answer had a request for Defendant’s attorney fees without basis. The Court struck all the affirmative defenses, which were the subject of the opinion, some with leave to re-plead and other without.

Addressing each of the Defendant’s disputed affirmative defenses, the Court stated, “Defendant’s Third Affirmative Defense claims that Plaintiff was exempt from overtime compensation pursuant to the 29 U.S.C. § 213(a) (1) exemption to the FLSA. Plaintiff complains that this affirmative defense fails to allege any facts that would put Plaintiff on notice of the basis of Defendant’s claim. This provision encompasses the executive exemption, the administrative exemption, the outside sales exception, the learned professional exemption and the creative professional exemption. Defendant has agreed to amend his defense to state that Plaintiff was exempt pursuant to the executive and/or administrative exemption pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Leave to amend is granted.

The Court notes that 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) prescribes damages under the FLSA and is unrelated to the exemptions to the FLSA. When Defendant amends this affirmative defense, the Court instructs Defendant to be clear regarding the provision of the FLSA that forms the basis for the claimed exemption(s).”

The Seventh Affirmative Defense alleges that Defendant paid Plaintiff “all monies owed per the agreement between them.”Plaintiff takes this defense to be a restatement of the defense of accord and satisfaction. This defense is not appropriate under the FLSA because an individual cannot waive entitlement to FLSA benefits. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 902 (1945) (“No one can doubt but that to allow waiver of statutory wages by agreement would nullify the purposes of the [FLSA].”). Defendant clarifies that the agreement to which the Seventh Affirmative Defense refers is the agreement that Plaintiff would be paid a salary. The Court requests that Defendant clarify this affirmative defense to make it clear that the “agreement” to which it refers is merely the “agreement” that Plaintiff would receive a salary.

The Tenth Affirmative Defense states that “Defendant is entitled to a credit/set-off for any compensation paid to Plaintiff to which he was not otherwise entitled to the extent such credits/set-off are permissible under the FLSA.”Plaintiff claims that this defense is conclusory in that it fails to allege any facts in support of any sort of set-off. Certain set-off defenses are allowable under the FLSA. Brennan v. Heard, 491 F.2d 1, 4 (5th Cir.1974), for instance, permits district courts to apply a set-off where the set-off would not reduce a plaintiff’s wages to an amount below the statutory minimum. Not all set-offs are permissible, however. This Court has previously ruled that “amounts loaned by an employer to an employee””cannot be applied to offset unpaid wages [under the FLSA].” Morrison, 434 F.Supp.2d at 1322 (citing Donovan v. Pointon, 717 F.2d 1320, 1323 (10th Cir.1983)).See also Hutton v. Grumpie’s Pizza & Subs, Inc., Case No. 07-81228-CIV-MIDDLEBROOKS, 2008 WL 1995091, *4 (S.D.Fla. May 7, 2008) (holding that a set-off defense for money employee allegedly stole from employer was inappropriate in FLSA). The Tenth Affirmative Defense does not state what, if any, compensation Plaintiff received to which he was not otherwise entitled, much less the nature of this compensation. The Tenth Affirmative Defense is stricken, but Defendant shall have leave to amend same.

The Sixteenth Affirmative Defense states that “[t]he Complaint fails to state a claim against [Defendant] upon which attorneys’ fees or costs can be awarded.”The FLSA provides that the Court “shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Sixteenth Affirmative Defense is stricken without leave to amend.

Defendant also requests attorneys’ fees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927, which provides for awards of attorney’s fees where

[a]ny attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.

There is no allegation of such conduct in the Answer. Accordingly, the request for fees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927 is stricken, but with leave to amend.”

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N.D.Ill.: Offer Of Judgment, Silent On Its Face As To Attorneys Fees And Costs, Read To Allow For Attorneys Fees And Costs

Garcia v. Oasis Legal Finance Operating Co.

Plaintiff filed a one-count Complaint against Defendant in which she asserted violations of the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C, § 206 et seq., and requested, inter alia, the following relief; an Order awarding her the difference between wages paid to her and those paid to similarly situated male employees, liquidated damages, and statutory attorneys’ fees and costs. Defendant answered the Complaint, denying the material allegations. This Motion concerned Plaintiff’s acceptance of Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as more fully detailed below.

On November 20, 2008, Defendant’s attorney mailed a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment to Garcia’s counsel. Defendant’s attorney also faxed a copy of this Offer to Plaintiff’s counsel on that same date. This Offer read in its entirety:

As you know our firm represents Oasis Legal Finance, LLC, and Oasis Legal Finance Operating, LLC in reference to the above captioned matter. This letter is being written to you pursuant to F .R.C.P. 68, “Offer of Judgment”. Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00. Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68, your client has ten (10) days to accept the offer in judgment as set forth herein. If you have any questions, please contact me. Thank you,

On December 8, 2008, Plaintiff’s attorney submitted a letter to Oasis’ counsel accepting the Offer. This letter read in its entirety:

This letter is in response to Defendant’s offer of judgment which was served via U.S. mail on November 20, 2008. Your letter provided only that “defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00″ in connection with Ms. Garcia’s cause of action under the Equal Pay Act in the above referenced federal case. Because the offer of judgment is for an amount in excess of the value of Plaintiff’s Equal Pay Act claim, Plaintiff hereby accepts the offer of judgment as stated for her currently pending federal action. Since Defendant’s offer made no reference to costs or attorney’s fees, Plaintiff will proceed with a petition for fees and costs as to this cause of action upon entry of the judgment. Plaintiff’s claims under Title VII and the Illinois Human Rights Act remain under investigation at the EEOC/IDHR and cannot be resolved through the offer of judgment. If you wish to discuss those claims as the investigation moves forward, please feel free to call me.

Defndant then filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiff’s Purported Acceptance of Offer of Judgment, asserting Plaintiff’s purported acceptance was not in fact an acceptance, but was rather a rejection and a counter-offer, which is impermissible under Rule 68, Plaintiff cross-motioned for judgment in her favor. On January 26, 2009, the Court granted Plaintiff’s Motion, denied Defendant’s Motion, and directed the Clerk to enter judgment for Plaintiff. The Clerk entered judgment on January 27, 2009. The Court, in its January 26, 2009 Opinion and Order, granted Plaintiff leave to file a motion for attorneys’ fees if it was appropriate to do so. Plaintiff filed her Motion for Attorneys’ Fees on February 17, 2009.

The Court discussed, at length, the issue of whether Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as made, was inclusive or exclusive of attorneys fees:

“Oasis correctly asserts that its Rule 68 Offer covered the sole Count of Garcia’s complaint, and that Garcia’s claim sought attorneys’ fees as part of the requested relief. The Court must therefore first determine, as a threshold matter, whether Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment precludes her from seeking a further award of attorneys’ fees.

Oasis contends that Nordby controls. In that case, defendants made a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment “in the amount of $56,003.00 plus $1,000 in costs as one total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint.” Nordby, 199 F.3d at 391. Plaintiff accepted the Offer, and moved the district court for a statutory award of attorneys’ fees. Id. The court denied the motion, reasoning that the Offer as accepted included fees. Id. On the specific set of facts before it, the Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the Offer unambiguously included fees. ” ‘One total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint’ can only mean one amount encompassing all the relief sought in the counts. One of those counts specified attorneys’ fees as part of the relief sought. That relief was covered by the offer.” Id. at 392.

Garcia, on the other hand, asserts that Oasis’ Offer of Judgment is more like the one made by defendants in Webb. In that case, defendants’ Offer read in its entirety; “The Defendants, Dick James and Dick James Ford, Inc., by their attorneys, Steven C. Wolf and Victoria A. Barnes, hereby make an offer of judgment in the above-captioned matter in the amount of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68.” Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The district court granted plaintiff’s separate motion for fees, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit first noted that, “[o]n its face, the offer did not address costs or fees,” id., and later observed that it would have been a simple matter for defendants to “have drafted the offer to signal Webb that it was inclusive of attorney’s fees.” Id. at 623, Because a Rule 68 Offer puts plaintiffs at risk whether or not they accept it, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, “the defendant must make clear whether the offer is inclusive of fees when the underlying statute provides fees for the prevailing party … [T]he plaintiff should not be left in the position of guessing what a court will later hold the offer means.” Id. The Seventh Circuit found that the defendants should therefore “bear the burden of the ambiguity created by their silence on fees,” and held that the district court could “award an additional amount to cover costs and fees.” Id.

In this case, although it is a close call, the Court determines that the Offer of Judgment made by Oasis is more like the one in Webb than the one in Nordby. Here, the Offer of Judgment states in part, “Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00.” The Offer is silent as to attorneys’ fees and costs, and does not include, like the Offer in Nordby, language to the effect that the Offer is “one total sum” as to the entirety of Garcia’s requested relief Moreover, there is no question that it would have been a simple matter for Oasis to clearly indicate in its Offer whether fees were included. A standard Rule 68 Offer of Judgment form published by Bender’s Federal Practice includes specific language defendants can use to indicate that costs and fees are included in an Offer of Judgment. 11-68 Bender’s Federal Practice Forms No. 68:3; see also 11-68 Bender’s Federal practice Forms, Comment on Rule 68, ¶ 6 (“it is well established that when an offer is silent about whether the sum specified includes costs and attorney’s fees, the silence means that the court will add costs and attorney’s fees to the amount stated. An argument that the lump sum was meant to include all costs and attorney’s fees will be unavailing.”). Because Oasis failed to take the simple step of indicating whether the Offer included fees and costs, Oasis must “bear the burden of [its] ambiguity created by [its] silence on fees.” See Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The Court therefore determines that Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment does not preclude her from pursuing an award of fees and costs.”

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M.D.Fla.: Magistrate Judge Overruled; Plaintiff’s Attorney Need Not Wait Until Plaintiff Paid All Proceeds Of Settlement To Receive Fees And Costs

Maya v. Green Thumb Landscaping, Inc.

As the economy has worsened, everyone across the board has felt the pinch. As a result, many smaller employers wishing to settle FLSA cases seeking unpaid wages and/or unpaid overtime, have sought to enter into settlement agreements, whereby they payout the agreed upon settlement proceeds in installment payments. In this case, the Magistrate Judge attempted to modify such an agreement, to prevent Plaintiff’s attorney from receiving any attorneys’ fees or costs, until Plaintiff had received his entire settlement proceeds. Although the settlement agreement stated that Plaintiff and his counsel were to receive proportional payments from the installments, the Magistrate issued a Report and Recommendation attempting to modify the settlement agreement’s terms, so that Plaintiff would receive his entire settlement proceeds prior to his attorney receiving any fees or costs.

In a matter of first impression, the Judge, reviewing the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate, agreed with Objections filed by Plaintiff’s counsel, and found that the Court lacked the power to modify the terms of the settlement agreement at the fairness determination stage. Specifically, the Judge noted, “[a]s best as the Court can determine, whether attorneys’ fees and costs must be paid only after an FLSA plaintiff has been paid all of his settlement proceeds is a question of first impression… the Court concludes that the FLSA does not require counsel to subordinate the payment of his fees and costs to his client’s recovery where the Court has determined that the overall recovery provided to the plaintiff is fair and the amount of fees and costs awarded to the plaintiff’s counsel is reasonable.”

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