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A Little Rock law firm won a partial victory this month in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals over attorney fees awarded by a U.S. District Court judge, the latest skirmish in a dispute long standing between the judge and the labor law firm.
The 8th Circuit referred the case back to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson to determine how much compensation the Sanford PLLC law firm in Little Rock should receive for work performed by the firm for its client, a driver- delivery man for Nilkanth Pizza Inc. of Little Rock. .
The law firm had asked the 8th Circuit to reassign the case to another judge. But the three-judge panel rejected the request in its decision.
“I would be happy if Justice Wilson stopped abusing his discretion and awarded reasonable fees,” Josh Sanford told Arkansas Business. “We have never submitted a bill to him that contains more time than what we actually worked on the case. And we will never give him such an invoice.
“His speculation that our hours are inflated is not based on any evidence,” Sanford said.
The fee dispute stems from a 2019 lawsuit in the United States District Court. In it, the Sanford client alleged that Nilkanth Pizza and an appointed executive failed to pay him the wages required under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act.
Nilkanth Pizza has offered to settle the case in 2020 for $ 5,000 plus reasonable attorney fees, according to 8th Circuit court documents.
“That same day, the SLF told opposing counsel that ‘we can settle costs for $ 11,000,’” Justice Wilson wrote in his order. Instead, the defendants offered $ 3,500 for costs and expenses and Sanford lowered its amount to $ 9,900, according to Wilson’s order.
“The problem is, SLF had done just over $ 7,000 of work, and that amount included the higher billing rates and Mr. Sanford’s unnecessary monitoring hours. Yet once again the SLF demanded fees that were not earned and were not expected to be.
“This is unacceptable,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson made several deductions and awarded the firm $ 2,952 for attorney fees.
The Sanford firm appealed.
In its order, the 8th Circuit maintained some of the deductions, but said Wilson’s decision to reduce other billable hours “lacks a factual basis and constitutes an abuse of discretion.”
One of the three judges on the panel, James B. Loken, disagreed with the finding that Wilson abused his discretion. Loken said the finding is contrary to the US Supreme Court’s “categorical rule that the” discretion of the district court to determine the amount of fees … which are essentially questions of fact.
As of Wednesday morning, Wilson had not ruled on legal fees.
This is not the first time that Wilson has castigated the SLF and reduced its demand for attorney fees. In June 2020, Wilson found that the company deserved a single dollar for its work for clients in a 2018 case against Welspun Pipes Inc. to collect unpaid overtime under the FLSA.
The SLF appealed this decision and the 8th Circuit ruled that the $ 1 fee was unreasonable. He referred the matter back to Wilson to recalculate the charges. In September, Wilson awarded the company $ 500.
The SLF appealed against this order and this case is pending.
And a few years ago, Sanford said another case involving Wilson’s award of attorneys’ fees to the SLF was quashed during the 8th Circuit.
Sanford told Arkansas Business that the SLF has other pending appeal cases similar to its case against Nilkanth Pizza. Sanford said he was not asking “for large numbers by any stretch of the imagination. And, nonetheless, [Wilson] granted only small percentages of what we asked for.
In the meantime, the firm has asked Wilson to go out of business.
“At any time, he can start following the law and awarding a reasonable fee,” Sanford said. “And I’m really surprised that a judge can be overthrown three times” on the abuse of discretion standard. “It’s very surprising to me.”