Posts tagged ‘attorney fees’

Awesome!

I haven't written for a while about lawsuits, in part because our company was in the process of being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in two cases for a) allowing a customer to get a splinter in his/her foot from walking barefoot on a wooden deck and b) allowing a guy who just had a knee operation and jumped from a height of six feet to hurt his knee.   I really didn't want to throw any more fuel on the discovery fire.

Anyway, that is all behind me, and just in time to post on a funny story via Overlawyered.  I have written a number of times about lawyers whose clients get coupons while they harvest millions in fees from a class action.  As I wrote here:

It used to be that clients would suffer some sort of injury and seek redress in the courts.  To do so, they would hire an attorney to help them.  The attorney was the hired help, compensated either hourly or via a percentage of any awards.

Today, the situation is often reversed.  It is the attorney who is identifying lawsuit targets for class actions and shareholder suits, and then seeking out clients who can maximize his chances of success.  Clients, who typically make orders of magnitude less than the attorney in class actions (think 50-cent coupons and $8 million attorney fees) are selected because they are sympathetic, or give access to a particularly plaintiff-attractive jurisdiction, or, in cases such as ADA suits in California, because they have effectively become partners with the attorney in serial torts.

So I had to laugh when I saw this story in Overlawyered yesterday:

The client class members were to receive only gift cards, not cash, in the settlement with Windsor Fashions, a clothing retailer, so Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brett Klein thought it only fair to provide that Yorba Linda attorney Neil B. Fineman be paid his fee with "12,500 ten-dollar Windsor Fashions gift cards."

Who's In Charge Here, Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about the changing relationship between attorney and client:

It used to be that clients would suffer some sort of injury and seek
redress in the courts.  To do so, they would hire an attorney to help
them.  The attorney was the hired help, compensated either hourly or
via a percentage of any awards.

Today, the situation is often reversed.  It is the attorney who is
identifying lawsuit targets for class actions and shareholder suits,
and then seeking out clients who can maximize his chances of success.
Clients, who typically make orders of magnitude less than the attorney
in class actions (think 50-cent coupons and $8 million attorney fees)
are selected because they are sympathetic, or give access to a
particularly plaintiff-attractive jurisdiction, or, in cases such as
ADA suits in California, because they have effectively become partners
with the attorney in serial torts.

At that time, the issue was Bill Lerach suing his clients for dropping him as attorney (Because, after all, it was really his lawsuit and not theirs).  This time, the issue is in a class action against Microsoft (emphasis added, via Overlawyered)

Judge Scott Rosenberg ruled Friday that Microsoft attorneys could
not ask the named plaintiffs about their relationship with attorney
Roxanne Conlin. The company's lawyers wanted to question the
plaintiffs, arguing that Conlin had referred to them during jury
selection as "just regular people who bought software" and who
volunteered to step forward to sue Microsoft.

The lawsuit was brought by Joe Comes, a Des Moines businessman who
owns a chain of pizza restaurants, and Patricia Anne Larsen, a retiree
from northwest Iowa, and two business _ Riley Paint Inc. of Burlington
and Skeffington's Formal Wear of Iowa Inc. of Des Moines.

Microsoft attorney David Tulchin said Larsen has been a friend of
Conlin's since 1982, when Larsen held fundraisers for Conlin's failed
run for governor. In 1999, Conlin represented Larsen in an employment
discrimination case against Larsen's former employer, Eaton Corp.

Tulchin said Comes has been Conlin's son's best friend since high school.

Microsoft attorneys claimed Conlin recruited these friends to act as
plaintiffs in the case so she could sue the company
and that her
comments during jury selection opened the door for Microsoft to
challenge the plaintiffs' motivation in filing the lawsuit.

Who would even imagine such a thing?  In this class action, as in many, the class members will probably get coupons while Conlin makes millions.  Or, as Microsoft observes:

Tulchin claimed that Conlin and her co-counsel, Richard
Hagstrom of Minneapolis, have the most to gain in the lawsuit

Attorneys like Conlin know they are vulnerable on this

Conlin said Microsoft wants the jury to believe that class-action
lawsuits are attorney-driven cases brought for money when in reality
they are a way for individuals with small claims to come together to
take on large, powerful companies.

"Businesses like Microsoft have poisoned the public view of these
forms for seeking redress by spending billions of dollars to spread
propaganda. Now they seek to collect on their investment by improperly
suggesting to the jury that the plaintiffs are not real plaintiffs,"
she said.

You think?

The State of Litigation

Overlawyered today provides a link to this article in Roger Parloff's blog at Fortune

The nation's leading class-action lawyer, Bill Lerach, is currently in
an ugly scrape in federal court in Dallas, where the sole lead
plaintiff in a high-profile shareholder suit against Halliburton (HAL)
no longer wants Lerach or his firm to act as its co-lead counsel. (I've
posted about it before here and here.)
To recap, the fund has said that it is concerned about all the
distractions and the sleaze factor now surrounding Lerach and his prior
firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach (which Lerach co-ran)...

The squeamish plaintiff, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Supporting Fund, has asked that Lerach Coughlin be replaced by David
Boies and his firm, Boies Schiller & Flexner, which firm has
indicated that it is ready, willing, and able to assume the role.

Needless to say, Lerach is fighting the uppity plaintiff to keep control of the case.

Parloff goes on to question some of Lerach's statements in the case.  However, I want to make a different point.  This points out fairly clearly that Lerach and other top litigators have adopted a whole new theory of litigation and of the relationship between lawyer and client.

It used to be that clients would suffer some sort of injury and seek redress in the courts.  To do so, they would hire an attorney to help them.  The attorney was the hired help, compensated either hourly or via a percentage of any awards.

Today, the situation is often reversed.  It is the attorney who is identifying lawsuit targets for class actions and shareholder suits, and then seeking out clients who can maximize his chances of success.  Clients, who typically make orders of magnitude less than the attorney in class actions (think 50-cent coupons and $8 million attorney fees) are selected because they are sympathetic, or give access to a particularly plaintiff-attractive jurisdiction, or, in cases such as ADA suits in California, because they have effectively become partners with the attorney in serial torts.

So if you wonder why Lerach is suing his client for not using his services, and if that makes you wonder who is working for whom, now you know.

Update: By the way, this reversal of the relationship between attorney and client is one of the recurring themes in my novel BMOC.

Reason #1643 Why I Hate Workers Comp. in Florida

The workers compensation program in Florida is broken. In a previous post, I discussed why, almost no matter how broken it is, workers comp is still better than an alternate world without it. Sometimes, though, Florida tests me on this.

If you don't know, Florida is one of a couple of states (California and New York are others) that national carriers of workers comp insurance avoid because it is such a mess. Fraud is high, costs are high, benefits are low.

I found a new reason to dislike Florida workers comp today. Apparently, there are lawyers out there in Florida advertising that a worker will never get their fair shake out of the insurer unless they hire a lawyer. We have an ex-employee who was injured in a vehicle accident while at work. A claim was filed, and the workers comp system is processing the claim (though a bit delayed due to 4, count them 4 hurricanes to hit Florida in one month). So, for some reason, the employee has hired a lawyer. I do not know what he will get with the lawyer, but this is an awful trend, because the only redeeming feature of the workers comp system is that it keeps lawyers and their costs out of it. I have no idea how the lawyer gets compensated, but I am sure at some point, I will be paying his fees one way or the other. If the employee is paying for him directly, I really feel bad for the employee, because I don't know what value he is getting for his money.

So, the lawyer, putting in a good 15 seconds of work (which he probably bills an hour or two for) pulls a xeroxed set of discovery questions and sends them to me. There are thirty four questions, all with things I have to look up or xerox and send to him. None of them are tailored to this case, so most will end up being irrelevent and all my info gathering a waste of time. So, not only is there the cost of the attorney's fees adding to the process, but the externalities of the cost of my and my employees' time to feed him with data. All to probably get the same recovery for the patient the system would have given him without intervention.

This is what I really dislike about the law profession nowadays. They are the only people except for the government who can arbitrarily demand a ton of my time calling up data that no one will ever look at. Other people try this - for example, some vendors have sent me huge credit applications that would take weeks to complete - but in their case I can say "no" and tell them if they insist, they don't get my business. Lawyers and the government, though, can demand arbitrarily intrusive and time-consuming document collection and there is not a thing I can do about it.

Is the Department of Labor "Fair"? Part 1 of a series

Note that this is part 1 of a three-part series. Here are part 2 and part3.

Over the past several years, we have been audited a couple of times by the Department of Labor (DOL). One of the audits was standard procedure (as a concessionaire to the US Forest Service, audits are sometimes required on certain contracts) and one was based on employee complaints. It never ceases to amaze me that some folks never even bother to call our HQ to complain and try to get it paycheck mistakes fixed -- they go straight to the government rather than our labor department if something looks wrong on their check.

Many times I have heard other small business owners say that the DOL is not "fair". If you were to ask me if I think they are fair, I would answer "yes" and "no". If you want to know if DOL employees are generally honest, well-intentioned, and law-abiding, my experience is that they are. However, if you expect, as a business owner, that the DOL will act as some kind of neutral court of law, in which you and your workers have equal status and equal rules of evidence, then you are in for a surprise. The DOL is not on the employers side and doesn't really pretend to be.

This should not come as a surprise to you. Young lawyers out of school generally don't seek out lower government pay scales with a vision of helping businesses manage their cost structures. They join the DOL because they are interested in defending downtrodden workers against rapacious capitalists who seek to exploit them (etc. etc.) The main mission of the DOL is to enforce labor laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, overlaying this mission is a strong institutional culture that mission 1A is to defend workers against employers. This culture will have a number of implications in any dealings you, as an owner or employer, have with the DOL:

1. Workers claims will almost always be believed by the DOL, and the DOL will generally not require much documentary evidence to back up workers claims. The flip side of this is that employers claims that contradict workers will always require extensive documentary evidence. For example, we had several weeks of time sheets burn up in an office fire. In cases like this, the DOL will generally always side with the worker's recollection of time worked rather than the employers, even if the time claimed is completely inconsistent with hours worked in all other documented weeks. The burden of proof, in almost any dispute, will be on the employer.

2. The DOL's first answer to any employer's claims of an exemption under FLSA or other labor laws will be "NO". Congress has granted a number of exemptions to labor laws for certain business situations. For example, one that applies to our business in some cases is the FLSA has relaxed standards for overtime for "seasonal recreation businesses". From my experience, the DOL hates to admit that these exceptions apply to your particular situation. Back to the fairness point, they CAN be convinced, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to do so. In part 2 and part 3 of this series, I will give more specific examples of how to do this.

3. The DOL will never point out to you an exemption or saving that you are missing. I know that many people get frustrated with the IRS, but I have actually had experiences where the IRS found a mistake where I had overpaid. I have never had this experience with the DOL. The DOL does not really have very good staff or tools to help employers comply with the law in the most efficient manner. They have LOTS of tools and people dedicated to making sure workers get every bit of what the law guarantees them.

If you recognize this culture and context, and put any frustration that you might have as a tax-paying citizen and business owner aside, you can get a fair shake from the DOL. You just have to be prepared in advance to argue your case and bring lots of evidence to bear. And, if worst comes to worse, and you are willing to pay the attorney fees, you can always refuse the DOL's finding and take the case to a court of law, where there are much more neutral evidence standards.

The next part of this series will discuss further some examples and lessons learned in making your case to the DOL. Part 3 of the series will include a specific example.

Note: These are my observations as a business owner and are not specific recommendations. I am not a lawyer, and, even if I were, I am not your lawyer.