Verdicts, Orders & Settlements

September

Court Grants Equitable Relief to MPD Officers

Frazier Caudle et al. v. District of Columbia, No. 08- 00205 (HHK) (D.D.C. Sept. 1, 2011).

Following a jury verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs, who are Metropolitan Police Department Officers, for unlawful retaliation under Title VII, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted equitable relief to the Plaintiffs in the form of back pay and an injunction against further retaliation. The Court denied the Plaintiffs’ requests for transfers.

– submitted by Jennifer Klar

September

EEOC Awards Melehy $299,000 in Attorney’s Fees

Lois King v. Leon Panetta, Sec’y Dep’t of Defense, EEOC No. 570-2008-00899X (EEOC WFO Sept. 28, 2011).

I am happy to announce an award of attorney's by EEOC Administrative Judge Cynthia McKnight in the amount of $299,000 in a discrimination case against the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Judge ordered, inter alia, that the Complainant be reinstated and awarded back pay, that her record be expunged, that the Agency pay $75,000 in nonpecuniary damages, and that the responsible management officials attend 16 hours of EEO training.

– submitted by Omar Vincent Melehy

September

Friolo Decision on Fees

Friolo v. Frankel, et al., No. 825, Sept. 2010 Term (Md. App. Sept. 7, 2011).

In Friolo IV, released September 7, 2011, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals Panel (Judge Matricciani) reversed Judge Dugan on the Circuit Court’s major points, agreeing with plaintiff Friolo that it was impermissible to peg the fee award to a standard of whether a fee paying client would ever choose to pay more than the damages she could expect to recover for representation. The Panel was persuaded to erase the erroneous circuit court idea that the fee agreement controlled what could be awarded in fee shifting, and held that there was no Rule 1.5 issue inherent in Plaintiff’s counsel attempting to recover attorneys’ fees even after the damages judgment was paid. In one key passage, the Court held: “[l]imits on a client’s liability, whether fixed or contingent, do not make fee award demands exceeding that limit “unreasonable” under the feeshifting statutes in question, and the court erred as a matter of law when it held otherwise[,]” such that it was not a violation of Rule 1.5 for counsel to continue pursuing the case, that considerations of what a hypothetical client would pay for the services was antithetical to legislative intent, and that Friolo would have been entitled to a fully compensatory fee had her success been complete.

There are some wonderful quotes in the opinion: “[I]t would be contrary to legislative intent—as exhaustively set forth in Friolo I and Friolo III—to deny recovery of fees that are reasonably necessary to prosecute successful claims under the Labor and Employment Article.” Slip Op. at 37. if a plaintiff could have recovered only a onethousand dollar verdict by virtue of one-hundredthousand dollars worth of legal work, full compensation requires that those fees be shifted, regardless of their magnitude relative to the verdict. Slip Op. at 38.

For these reasons, limits on a client’s liability, whether fixed or contingent, do not make fee award demands exceeding that limit “unreasonable” under the fee-shifting statutes in question, and the court erred as a matter of law when it held otherwise. Slip Op. at 41.

The Panel also vindicated Friolo’s decade-long argument that Defendant’s failure to plead existence of a bona fide dispute constitutes waiver of that argument, and supported Friolo in finding that that Judge Dugan erred in refusing to follow the parties’ stipulation as to hourly rates.

Having dispensed with virtually all of Judge Dugan’s wisdom, the Panel concludes that the sole issue left for it to determine is: what degree of success did Friolo achieve?

The Panel held that: “[t]he circuit court’s attempts to reconcile her fees and success were improper in light of the legislative intent underlying LE §§ 3-427(d) and 3-507.1(b).” Instead, those statutes require us to balance the parties’ incentives and account for each side’s relative contribution to causing unnecessary litigation. Had Friolo sought only what she deserved, there may have been no need for litigation at all, and had she recovered all she claimed, she would have been entitled to whatever amount of fees that required.” I do not know where this “unnecessary litigation” standard came from.

The Court cited no supportive authority for its novel approach, that since Plaintiff sought $ 79,000 “at trial” stage and won $11,000 in damages, and the record reflects that Defendants offered $3,000.00 as a settlement (even in the absence of a Rule 68 in Maryland) at the time of the pretrial statement, Friolo is 88 percent responsible for the litigation continuing and therefore collects 12% of her fees. Putting aside the novelty of the calculation method, the Court was completely wrong as to the facts of what happened at trial. In fact, out of approximately $17,000 in unpaid wages and overtime ever even mentioned by Friolo or her counsel, the jury awarded $11,778.85.00, which is indicated in the closing argument, referencing two tabular exhibits we submitted, and which is exactly what Friolo asked the jury to award, a fact that we noted in appellate briefing years ago without contravention. I haven’t been able so far to figure out where the $79,000 figure came from. As far as Defendants’ settlement offer, we offered to settle the case for $36,000.00 in a letter which I never thought of putting in the record; I will now try to supplement with it as I move for reconsideration. In any event, even using the Court’s suspect methodology and applying it to the appellate work (see below), the final award would have to be several times greater than the $45,335.28 awarded once the facts are straightened out.

The Court addressed the appellate fees with a quick application of the above analysis, stating:

“In Friolo I, appellant claimed she was entitled to $69,637.50 in fees, while appellees maintained that she should not be awarded any fees at all. Neither of these figures reflected the proper award, which we determined above, of $8,356.50. Thus, the appeal itself was another partial success, and while Friolo demanded $85,745.58 in her petitions for appellate fees, her relative contribution to prolonging these proceedings only entitles her to a portion of that amount. Thus, we again apply our formula to Friolo’s appellate fee petitions and arrive at a proper award of $10,289.47 for fees incurred in connection with Friolo I. Finally, we can iterate our analysis and apply it again to both Friolo II and Friolo III. In those proceedings, Friolo sought a total of $163,353.83 in fees for prior work, whereas the results of that work justified only $18,645.97 in attorney’s fees. Friolo now seeks $219,963.34 for her counsel’s work in Friolo II, Friolo III (and the most recent remand), but her relative contribution to—and limited success in—those proceedings justifies only twelve percent of that amount, $26,395.60.”

The Panel’s logic is weak. For instance, it fails to take into account that there is no way that the drafters of the statute ever intended that a plaintiff should have to accept a mere 30% of her wages or face penalty forever more for seeking the rest, no matter what Stalingrad defense or judicial errors compel her to appeal. This methodology would chill Plaintiffs from seeking what they are really entitled to, and essentially render them losers even when they win significant victories. Julie Martin-Korb has already observed that a settlement offer is not an Offer of Judgment. Furthermore, Rule 68 only results in a diminution in the fee award if the Plaintiff fails to obtain a judgment in excess of the offer. Here, that standard was easily met, but the Court held Friolo to a standard far more strict; she begins to lose her fees merely for not obtaining as much as she “sought” aspirationally, not just what the Defendants were offering.

Furthermore, the Court fails to account for the attorneys’ fees that were already incurred at the point at which the $3,000.00 (or $2,500.00) was offered. Of course the Court made no inquiry into what Plaintiff had demanded in settlement—a more elegant way of applying its approach would have been to consider what Defendant admitted it owed at trial– zero, in contrast to what Plaintiff demanded at that time (here, what she was awarded by the jury and as a judgment), and/or only consider Defendant’s’ pretrial settlement offer in relation to Plaintiff’s pretrial settlement offer (here, $36,000.00, reflected in a letter not previously entered into the record). Alternatively, the Pretrial Statement states that Plaintiffs seek $65,000 and Defendants offer $2,500.00. Critically, the Court excluded fees incurred to date in its calculations. For instance, if Plaintiff’s counsel had performed $30,000.00 worth of work before the trial (or any other number), shouldn’t that amount be considered part of the recovery that Defendants’ offer would be expected to cover? If so, then Plaintiff was that much closer to the actual value the Court claims to be calculating, and Defendants are much further. Thus, if fees incurred to date at any given point had been factored into the Panel’s analysis, that would have changed the ratio and the final result.

Regarding appeals, it is simply untenable for the Court to disregard the public benefits, as well as the private advancement of Friolo’s litigation through the many appeals here. The Court of Appeals already held in Friolo III that it is “the degree of success on appeal” that should control the award for appellate work, something which Master Rowan accepted, leading him to recommend a $225,000.00 fee award. In an unhappy irony, the CSA has ordered plaintiff to pay nearly all of Judge Rowan’s master’s fee for creating the “unnecessary litigation,” even though he would have given plaintiff a far more satisfactory result.

The bottom line seems to be that the Panel came up with an ill-advised formula that I do not believe will be supportable in the Court of Appeals. It also erred glaringly as to the facts regarding who demanded what when, a consideration that should not be significant, but is, if the CSA formula is to be applied. In the coming days, I am sure I won’t be the only one working to take this logic down peg by peg. I am confident that this can be improved upon through reconsideration, and/or once the certiorari petition is, hopefully, granted. One postscript: at oral argument, Defendants’ counsel was asked if he would affirm the $5,000.00 fee award of the Circuit Court and he answered in the affirmative. The the award is now almost ten times that amount, but the CSA would punish Friolo for having brought the appeal that corrected that error, by diminishing her fee award based on her failure to accept a $2,500.00 settlement offer ten years ago at trial. Obviously, this formula is need of some serious revision, and I have a lot of work to do.

The decision is available at http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2011/825s10.pdf.

– submitted by Leizer Z. Goldsmith

September

Hampden Lane Loses Petition for Review of Commission’s Award

On August 25, 2011, I had the oral argument on Hampden Lane's petition for review of the County Commission's decision in our favor on Hampden Lane's ugly retaliatory lawsuit against Anissa Harris. Judge Craven presided. He had read all the pertinent materials, as colleagues predicted, and, though the approached things differently from how we would do it, he did honor the following principle:

“The test for determining whether the [agency's] findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence is whether reasoning minds could reach the same conclusion from the facts relied upon by the [agency].” Dept. of Labor, Licensing and Regulation v. Hider, 349 Md. 71, 78, 706 A.2d 1073 (1998). “If the agency's determination is reasonably supported by the evidence in the record, [the court] must uphold the agency's determination although [it] may have come to a different result.” Mayberry v. Board of Education of Anne Arundel County, 131 Md. App. 686, 750 A.2d 677, 685 (2000). See also Marzullo v. Kahl, 366 Md. 158, 171, 783 A.2d 169 (2001); Montgomery County v. Jamsa, 153 Md. App. 346, 836 A. 2d 745, 749 (2003).

Bottom line: He affirmed the finding that the suit was illegal retaliation and he upheld all the remedies awarded by the Commission.

– submitted by Alan Banov

September

Jury Awards $650,00 for Constructive Discharge Claim

I am pleased to report that on September 26, 2011, a Montgomery County jury has returned a verdict in5 MWELA MONTHLY Sept./October 2011 the amount of $650,000 for Donna Jackson in her Montgomery Country Code constructive discharge claim against her former employer, Edgewood Management Corporation, after a 5 day trial. Ms. Jackson was represented at trial by MWELA's own Scott Oswald and Nick Woodfield.

– submitted by David Scher

September

Section 12-309 Does Not Bar Negligence Claim for Liquidated Damages

In Lindsey v. District of Columbia, No. 07-1939 (RBW) (D.D.C. Sept. 15, 2011), Donna Williams Rucker recently received a great Order from Judge Walton on an age discrimination and negligence claim against the District (D.C. Fire and EMS). The Order (attached) is a fun read all around since he roasts the District a bit. However, what is particularly exciting and the reason for posting is that Judge Walton agreed with Plaintiff's 12-309 argument that asserted the negligence claim should not be dismissed in total for not having a 12-309 notice provided to the District. Plaintiff argued that although unliquidated damages may not be available, he was still entitled to liquidated damages (e.g., back pay, front pay, etc), equitable relief and attorney fees (though this is not technically damages but even J. Walton included them in his Order). To sum it up, both our claims survived, and we potentially get attorney fees where we would not otherwise get them on just the age claim.

This is a significant win in the 12-309 battle.

– submitted by Mackenzie Coy

September

Verdict Against WSSC

My partner Tim Maloney, with our associate Joe Creed, won another jury verdict this week against WSSC in Circuit Court for Prince George's County. The Jury awarded our client $637,000.00 ($137,000.00 lost wages, and $500,000.00 compensatory) in this race discrimination case. Here is the link to the Gazette article: http://www.gazette.net/article/20110923/NEWS/709239670/1029 /former-ssc-employee-wins-reverse-discrimination-judgment&template=gazette. This is Tim's second jury verdict against WSSC this year. In June, he obtained a jury verdict of $1,650,000.00 against WSSC, on behalf of an African-American manager in a race discrimination case.

– submitted by Jay P. Holland

September