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11th Cir.: Plaintiff Not Entitled To Prevailing Attorneys’ Fees, Although She Prevailed, Because Plaintiff’s Attorney Owed A Greater Duty To The Defendant, Who Violated The FLSA, Than His Own Client

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

In a decision, which is widely being questioned in legal and scholarly circles, the 11th Circuit affirmed the lower Court’s decision that Plaintiff’s attorney was not entitled to any attorney’s fee, despite the fact that Plaintiff was the prevailing party in this FLSA case.

The Court stated: “The district court’s inherent powers support its decision here. Defendants are lawyers and their law firm. And the lawyer for Plaintiff made absolutely no effort-no phone call; no email; no letter-to inform them of Plaintiff’s impending claim much less to resolve this dispute before filing suit. Plaintiff’s lawyer slavishly followed his client’s instructions and-without a word to Defendants in advance-just sued his fellow lawyers. As the district court saw it, this conscious disregard for lawyer-to-lawyer collegiality and civility caused (among other things) the judiciary to waste significant time and resources on unnecessary litigation and stood in stark contrast to the behavior expected of an officer of the court. The district court refused to reward-and thereby to encourage-uncivil conduct by awarding Plaintiff attorney’s fees or costs. Given the district court’s power of oversight for the bar, we cannot say that this decision was outside of the bounds of the district court’s discretion.”

Perhaps recognizing that its decision held starkly against black letter law and over 70 years of nationwide jurisprudence, the Court limited its decision by stating, “[w]e strongly caution against inferring too much from our decision today. These kinds of decisions are fact-intensive. We put aside cases in which lawyers are not parties. We do not say that pre-suit notice is usually required or even often required under the FLSA to receive an award of attorney’s fees or costs. Nor do we now recommend that courts use their inherent powers to deny prevailing parties attorney’s fees or costs. We declare no judicial duty. We create no presumptions. We conclude only that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to award some attorney’s fees and costs based on the facts of this case.”

While it remains to be seen what, if any, precedential value this decision will have, given the language clearly limiting the scope of the decision, it is clear that the 11th Circuit thinks that attorney Defendants should be treated differently from other Defendants in FLSA cases. In fact, the Court went to great lengths to make it clear that it believes an attorney owes a greater duty to a fellow member of the bar, than to his or her own client. Interestingly, while recognizing that the FLSA does not require a pre-suit notice letter, apparently the Court has created such a requirement if the Defendant is an attorney.