• February 29, 2012

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist started a dissent in 1986 saying, “I write only to add that it would be difficult to find a better example of legal nonsense than the fixing of attorney’s fees by a judge at $245,456.25 for the recovery of $33,350 damages.”

The expression “squaring the circle” is sometimes used as a metaphor for doing something logically or intuitively impossible and it sometimes seems that plaintiffs’ lawyers with clients that have small damages claims are, in a sense, tasked with the impossibility of vindicating their clients rights while, at the same time, not losing their shirts.  The trick is that a statute providing for attorneys’ fees is often calibrated to balance a plaintiff’s claimed damages but the costs in terms of attorney time to take a case to trial will undoubtedly dwarf relatively low damages.

It seems like Halunen & Associates lawyers, Michelle Dye Neumann and Phillip M. Kitzer have pulled it off (for now, at least (time will tell if defendant U.S. Steel appeals the trial court’s award)).  

St. Louis County Judge Shaun R. Floerke allowed for an attorneys’ fee award of over $203,000 on a $15,000 damages claim in the case of Schmitz v. United States Steel Corporation.  Note: he gave plaintiff’s counsel a $100,000 haircut on their claimed fees.  On the other hand, Judge Floerke plainly recognized that lawyers simply cannot prepare for and try a case — regardless of the fact that a client may have a “mere $15,000 claim” (my quotes, not the court’s) — without significant work by lawyers and incurring substantial cost.  And that is a risk that should be borne by defendants found liable in employment cases under fee-shifting statutes rather than by plaintiffs’ lawyer who, after all, have won a case for a disadvantaged client with a meritorious claim.

The claim was based on the alleged threat of retaliation if employee Schmitz sought workers compensation for a work-related injury.

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