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May 18, 2009
Should Courts Control Lawyers?
A Florida paralegal working for a law firm resigned, and then hired her own lawyer to launch a wage-and-hour suit against her former employer. She maintained she’d often or always worked more than 40 hours a week but hadn’t been paid time-and-a-half for her overtime. The firm determined a satisfactory amount to pay her, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

What happened. “Sawyer” never told her employer—Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos—while she was working there or after she left that she felt underpaid. When she hired her lawyer to sue, he, too, never contacted Prugh to tell the firm about her suit. The first Prugh heard of it was when it was served with legal papers.

Once in court, Prugh asked Sawyer how much back pay she was seeking, and for documentation of her figures. She provided neither. Prugh began settlement talks, but Sawyer asked for monetary damages of $25,000 or $35,000 (the parties disagreed about the amount she demanded). Prugh offered $3,500 under federal rules of civil procedure along with a denial of liability. It also agreed to pay any attorney’s fees and costs to which the district court determined Sawyer might be entitled. Sawyer accepted that amount and the denial of liability and sought $13,800 in attorney’s fees and $1,841 in costs.

But that’s where the problems began: The district court judge apparently felt that, by simply following his client’s order to file suit, without contacting Prugh to seek the back pay she wanted, Sawyer’s lawyer hadn’t done a good job. So the judge decided that what the lawyer had done deserved a fee of nothing, and he denied attorney’s fees and costs. He said, “There are some cases in which a reasonable fee is no fee.” Sawyer appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit, arguing that the district judge had abused his powers.

What the court said. Appellate judges noted that a plaintiff in a suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act is generally entitled to some reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. However, they said, the district court “based this exception on its inherent powers to supervise the conduct of lawyers who come before it and to keep in proper condition the legal community of which the courts are a leading part.” They went on to discuss the role of lawyers as officers of the court, so that they are part of the mechanism whose primary purpose is to maintain a bar that promotes civility and collegiality. So courts do indeed have the right to control lawyers. Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 08-10848 (2009).

Point to remember:It’s apparent that the law firm didn’t maintain records of hours worked by its paralegals, which is a big mistake.

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