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July 31, 2019 Articles

Fourth Circuit Chops, Slices and Dices Attorney Fees

While many may “win” an award, the wise attorney shall first determine if the amount of the work justifies what could be a meager award.

By John Austin

In the unpublished opinion of Randolph v. PowerComm Construction, Inc., the Fourth Circuit directed the lower court, for a second time, to reduce attorney fees for the prevailing plaintiffs’ counsel. In a proposed class action suit filed in Maryland under the Fair Labor Standards Act, plaintiffs had originally sought $1.75 million in damages. That amount was later reduced to $790,000, and the plaintiffs eventually settled for a mere $100,000.

District Court Judge George J. Hazel had originally awarded $183,764 of the $227,577 sought by counsel. However, the Fourth Circuit remanded the award in 2016. In June 2018, Hazel awarded $177,756.50. Again, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the award on appeal. While the panel did not dispute the calculation of the original award or find an abuse of discretion in the $6,000 reduction, the court again remanded the award for further reduction, citing that “the district court wholly failed to account for both the utterly unsuccessful plaintiffs and the meager victories.” Prior decisions, cited by the court in this opinion, require that the court compare the amount awarded in damages to the attorney fees sought.

In damning if not outright embarrassing language to plaintiffs’ counsel, the court wrote, “where, Appellees were categorically unsuccessful in their recovery,” citing their failure to obtain liquidated damages or a violation of the FLSA.

To practitioners in the Fourth Circuit, while many may “win” an award, the wise attorney shall first determine if the amount of the work justifies what could be a meager award.

John Austin is with Austin Law Firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also serves as a cochair of the Section of Litigation's Trial Practice Committee.

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