A Little Rock law firm received a partial victory this month at the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals over attorneys’ fees awarded by a U.S. District Court judge, the latest skirmish in a long-running dispute between the judge and the employment law firm.
The 8th Circuit sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson to determine the amount of pay Sanford Law Firm PLLC of Little Rock should receive for the work the firm did for its client, a delivery driver for Nilkanth Pizza Inc. of Little Rock.
The law firm had asked the 8th Circuit to reassign the case to a different judge. But the three-judge panel denied the request in its decision.
“I would be pleased if Judge Wilson would stop abusing his discretion and award a reasonable fee,” Josh Sanford told Arkansas Business. “We have never submitted him a bill that contains more time than what we actually worked on the case. And we never will give him such a bill.
“His speculation that our hours are inflated is not based on any evidence whatsoever,” Sanford said.
The fee dispute stems from a 2019 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. In it, Sanford’s client alleged that Nilkanth Pizza and a named corporate officer didn’t pay her required wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act.
Nilkanth Pizza offered to settle the case in 2020 for $5,000 plus a reasonable attorney’s fee, according to court documents at the 8th Circuit.
“That same day, SLF told opposing counsel that ‘we can put the fees to bed for $11k,’” Judge Wilson wrote in his order. The defendants instead offered $3,500 for fees and costs and Sanford lowered its amount to $9,900, Wilson’s order said.
“The problem is that SLF had performed just over $7,000 worth of work, and that amount included the higher billing rates and Mr. Sanford’s hours of unnecessary oversight. Yet, once again, SLF demanded fees that were not earned and were not anticipated to be earned.
“This is unacceptable,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson made several deductions and awarded the firm $2,952 for attorneys’ fees.
The Sanford firm appealed.
In its order, the 8th Circuit let some of the deductions stand but said Wilson’s decision to reduce other billable hours “lacks factual support and is an abuse of discretion.”
One of the three judges on the panel, James B. Loken, dissented with the finding that Wilson abused his discretion. Loken said the finding is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “emphatic rule that the district court’s ‘discretion in determining the amount of a fee award … is appropriate in view of the district court’s superior understanding of the litigation and the desirability of avoiding frequent appellate review of what essentially are factual matters.’”
As of Wednesday morning, Wilson hadn’t ruled on the attorneys’ fees.
This isn’t the first time that Wilson has blasted SLF and reduced its request for attorneys’ fees. In June 2020, Wilson found that the firm deserved a single dollar for its work for clients in a 2018 case against Welspun Pipes Inc. to collect unpaid overtime wages under the FLSA.
The SLF appealed that decision and the 8th Circuit ruled the $1 fee was unreasonable. It sent the case back to Wilson to recalculate the fees. In September, Wilson awarded the firm $500.
The SLF has appealed that order, and that case is pending.
And a few years ago, Sanford said another case involving Wilson’s award of attorneys’ fees to the SLF was reversed at the 8th Circuit.
Sanford told Arkansas Business that SLF has additional cases pending appeal that are similar to its case against Nilkanth Pizza. Sanford said it was not asking for “large numbers by any stretch of the imagination. And, nevertheless, [Wilson] awarded only small percentages of what we requested.”
In the meantime, the firm has asked Wilson to recuse from its cases.
“At any time, he can start following the law and award reasonable fees,” Sanford said. “And I'm really surprised that one judge could be reversed on three separate occasions” on the abuse of discretion standard. “It's very surprising to me.”