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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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
Estrella v. P.R. Painting Corp.
The E.D.N.Y. joined Courts from around the Country, (see, e.g. Prater v. Commerce Equities Management Co., Inc., 2008 WL 5140045 (S.D.Tex. 2008)), and found that where, as here, the Plaintiffs recovered their full unpaid overtime compensation, the prevailing Plaintiff’s attorney’s fees were not subject to reduction, based on a low opt-in rate to Plaintiff’s Court-approved Notice. Additionally, the Court reiterated that an attorney’s travel time is compensible at 50% their normal rate.