11th Circuit Upholds Denial of Attorney's Fees Where Attorney Failed to Provide Pre-Litigation Notice of Claim Before Suing Other Attorneys Under FLSA.
Hat Tip to Benjamin G. Shatz of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, for bringing Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, L.P. (11th Cir. No. 08-10848, March 3, 2009) (published) to our attention. We do not usually report on non-9th Circuit federal cases, but we think you will agree that this one was just too good to pass up. The case reminded co-contributor Marc Alexander of his high school English teacher Ms. Betty Bivins who reprimanded students with the withering words, "you are rude, crude, and socially unattractive."
After she left her law firm, Christine Sahyers, a paralegal, sued her former employer, and its name partners, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for failing to pay her overtime. Her (mercifully unnamed) attorney filed suit, without notifying the law firm of his client's claims or attempting to collect the money due. Ms. Sahyers "had instructed her lawyer just to file suit, which he did."
Ensuing settlement discussions were fruitless. Sometime after discovery closed, defendants made a settlement offer for $3,500, which was accepted. The court entered a judgment in favor of Ms. Sahyers, and set a hearing to determine fees and costs. Ms. Sahyers asked for $13,800 in fees and $1,840.70 in costs. The district court concluded that plaintiff won the case, but that, "there are some cases in which a reasonable fee is no fee," and found that this was such a case.
"This appeal," wrote Chief Judge Edmondson, "is about the power of a district court to supervise the work of the lawyers who practice before it." So what did the Court of Appeals do?
The Court of Appeals upheld the District Court's ruling:
"The district court's inherent powers support its decision here. 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 this district court saw it, this conscious disregard for lawyer-to-lawyer collegiality and civility caused (among other things) the judiciary to lose 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 award -- 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 court's discretion."
The Court of Appeals was not impressed by plaintiff attorney's "just following orders" explanation for his conduct. In a footnote, the Court explained, "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."
What lesson is one to draw from this case? That pre-suit notice is usually or always required in an FLSA lawsuit? That such requirements apply only when one (for shame) sues other lawyers? That courts should use their inherent powers to deny attorney's fees and costs? Dictum, all dictum.
The case, suggestive as it is, comes with a built-in limiting disclaimer. "We strongly caution against inferring too much from our decision today. These kinds of decisions are fact-intensive. . . . We declare no judicial duty. We declare no presumptions. We declare 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." Helpful, no?