More than a year after a jury gave mixed verdicts in a lawsuit over a fake federal agent, a federal judge resolved a debate over how much the result was worth in plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.
Defense attorneys said the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fee request of more than $561,000 was disproportionate compared to the total of $42,000 awarded to 13 of 22 plaintiffs; nine plaintiffs got no award at all. But plaintiffs’ attorney Bob Herman said the verdicts were a “complete win” on constitutional rights violations.
In an April 19 order, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey split the difference on the defendants’ side and awarded $206,000, or 60 percent less than the fees requested.
The plaintiffs sued over the role of Bill Jakob, a man who posed as a federal drug agent, in leading local police on raids and arrests in 2008 in the small Franklin County city of Gerald. In addition to Jakob, former police chief Ryan McCrary and former lieutenant Scott Ramsey were defendants. A fourth defendant, former police officer Shannon Kestermont, had no damages awarded against her, and Autrey dismissed the city as a defendant during the nearly three-week trial.
The “mixed results” of the case called for the reduction, Autrey said in his order.
“The court cannot ignore that the jury found in favor of defendants on several claims, it awarded nominal damages on several claims and awarded very low damages on the remaining compensatory damages, even though Plaintiffs sought tens of thousands of dollars,” Autrey wrote.
The judge also couldn’t “reasonably conclude” that the plaintiffs’ attorneys should recover fees for clients who didn’t win a verdict, Autrey wrote.
The finality of the verdict was on hold until the decision on attorneys’ fees, and his clients haven’t decided whether to appeal, Herman said.
Herman said he uncovered a plot to violate citizens’ constitutional rights at the very highest level in Gerald, and the fact that he was able to prove the intentional violation of rights should have been recognized as a “complete win.”
“The saying is, ‘You can’t judge a case by the value of the money it returns,’” said Herman, of Schwartz, Herman and Davidson. “You can’t judge attorneys’ fees by the amount awarded, which is essentially what happened here.”
The attorneys’ fee award still is large, considering how small the average verdicts were and how many claims were resolved for the defendants, said Peter Dunne, a Pitzer Snodgrass attorney who represents McCrary, Ramsey and Kestermont.
“It’s a compromise that – in jest – this is something guaranteed to make everyone unhappy,” Dunne said of the ruling.
Dunne said he had been in touch with Herman to figure out if there is “something to agree to coming out of this.”
While Autrey said a fee reduction was called for because of the results of the case, he agreed to the expertise of Herman and fellow plaintiffs’ attorney Roger Goldman qualified them for the $450 an hour value Herman set on their time.
Autrey cited affidavits and Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s 2012 Billing Rates issue, which features a sampling of about 100 hourly billing rates of Missouri attorneys culled from court documents.
Herman’s hourly rate is almost four times as much as the defendants were paying partners working on their cases, according to court documents. Autrey had ordered defense attorneys to provide the information in the throes of the battle over the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fee request. Mark Zoole and principals at Pitzer Snodgrass, including Dunne, were charging $120 an hour.
While it’s true that defense hourly rates are lower, defense attorneys “get to bill every hour they work on the case,” Herman said.
As an older defense attorney once told him, Herman said, “You can set the rate as long as I count my hours.”
There’s no question the defense side’s hourly rates were considerably lower than what the court decided Herman’s time was worth, Dunne said.
“Having said that, I get paid for almost all the time I put down. I would say on balance there’s much more of an equivalency there than would seem to meet the eye,” Dunne said.
This story is courtesy of Missouri Lawyers Weekly.