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Fee Feud Continues Between Judge, Sanford Law Firm

3 min read

After his award of a single dollar in legal fees to a Little Rock law firm was set aside on appeal, U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson multiplied the amount by 500, and attorney Josh Sanford still feels mistreated.

Sanford, of the Sanford Law Firm PLLC of Little Rock, told Arkansas Business last week that he’s also appealing the $500 award, which Wilson imposed after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his $1 ruling as unreasonable. It was the latest salvo in a running feud between the judge and the employment law firm over its fees.

“No other judges treat us like Judge Wilson does with respect to fee requests,” Sanford said.

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 Fair Labor Standards Act. A settlement delivered about $270,000 for about 250 underpaid employees, and called for $96,000 in attorneys’ fees to the Sanford firm.

U.S. District Court judges have reviewed FLSA settlements to make sure employees are treated fairly and that FLSA rules have been applied. Those rules allow for “reasonable” attorneys’ fees. Wilson found that the Sanford firm was seeking pay for work it didn’t do, and billing its actual work at inflated rates. The judge also faulted the number of hours Sanford said had been devoted to the case, calling them excessive.

The firm appealed, and in August two out of three judges on an 8th Circuit panel found that Wilson had failed to calculate a reasonable fee by determining a proper hourly number and multiplying it by prevailing hourly rates. The panel vacated the $1 order, stating that based on the record, “it is unlikely that a $1.00 attorneys’ fee is reasonable.” If misconduct by a law firm is to be considered, the panel found, that consideration must come after calculating a fee.

But one of the Appeals Court judges agreed with Wilson.

U.S. Circuit Judge Steven M. Colloton said the majority’s concern over the rate being calculated correctly was misplaced. He said Wilson’s point was that the fee amount was immaterial because the attorneys’ “egregious conduct” warranted a minor amount, if any fee at all.

The court sent the case back to Wilson, who then found that the firm was entitled to $500.

A 32-Page Order

In a 32-page order, Wilson wrote that from the time Welspun handed over a payroll summary, “this case has been about how much money SLF could squeeze from Defendants in lawyers’ fees.”

He quoted an email from the Sanford firm to Welspun that said, “While I understand the reticence on your client’s part regarding the attorneys’ fees number, I think focusing on the global offer should give them some comfort that they are getting a substantial discount on total liability + fees (which is upwards of $450K) that they could face should this go to trial … .”

Sanford told Arkansas Business that his firm tries to manage its cases as efficiently as possible.

“And all of our financial incentives as a business align with the efficient resolution of our cases,” he said. “And there’s no trick or magic bullet to make the careful and professional management of a lawsuit not take a substantial number of hours.”

In the meantime, the firm has asked Wilson to recuse from cases involving its attorneys. In a June motion in another FLSA case before the judge, the Sanford firm said Wilson’s orders are “laden with such apparent anger or disgust directed toward SLF and attorney Josh Sanford as to cause a reasonable person to question the Court’s impartiality.”

SLF said that Wilson “has consistently disparaged” the firm and Sanford, has refused to approve otherwise valid settlements without being presented with the firm’s billing record and has decided to award either punitively nominal fees or unreasonable fees. The firm also said that Wilson “has speculated that SLF has engaged in unethical behavior and even extortion.”

Wilson declined to recuse from the case in June. In July, Wilson awarded $1 in attorney fees to SLF.

That case is on appeal.

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