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.
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.