Separating Claim Recovery and Lawsuit Fees: 2nd Circuit Paves Way for Better Negotiations in FLSA Claims

In Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuits, recovering damages for claims is typically only one part of the discussion when negotiating settlements. Employers engaged in FLSA lawsuits and settlement negotiations with employees and their representative counsel, can quickly become aware that lawsuit costs and plaintiff’s attorney fees are a factor in the overall bargaining process. On February 4, 2020, the Second Circuit, in Fisher v. SD Protection Inc., 2020 WL 550470 (2d Cir. 2020) held that attorneys’ fee awards in FLSA claim settlements are not limited by the principle of “proportionality” in that such fees are not limited or subject to a 1/3 cap based on the amount of the overall settlement.

In the Second Circuit, settlements in FLSA lawsuits were typically subject to strict court scrutiny court review to ensure that the agreed upon terms, including the amount of attorneys’ fees, were fair and reasonable. Thus, many of the district courts within the Second Circuit applied the rule of “proportionality” and refused to approve fee amounts greater than an amount 1/3 of the total settlement.

In Fisher, however, the Second Circuit held that such a rule is at odds with the purpose of the FLSA and has the potential to discourage competent lawyers from taking on cases for low-wage workers due to such limitations on collecting attorneys’ fees. The issue in Fisher arose from a wage dispute brought by an hourly employee, which is a normal cause of action under FLSA lawsuits. The employee sued under the FLSA based on the employer’s alleged failure to pay overtime and provide mandatory accurate wage statements.

The parties reached a settlement before a class was certified, with the total settlement amount at $25,000, including fees and costs. In submitting approval for the settlement from the district court, the parties disclosed that the plaintiff would be paid only $2,000 of that amount, with the remaining $23,000 going to the employee’s attorney. The district court judge disagreed with the terms and reduced the attorneys’ fee to only $8,250, or 1/3 of the total settlement amount as a matter of general policy.

The plaintiff appealed the district judge’s actions to the Second Circuit, and in a detailed decision, the Court reversed and remanded, disapproving of the district court’s requirement of “proportionality” between the amount of the settlement and the size of the fee award. The Second Circuit held that such a rule is not mandated by either the text or the purpose of the FLSA statute. While acknowledging that the proposed split of $23,000 to the plaintiff’s attorney and $2,000 to the plaintiff “understandably gave the district court pause,” the Court rejected an “explicit percentage cap” on fee awards. The Second Circuit justified this decision as in most FLSA wage dispute cases, the plaintiffs are generally hourly workers, and favorable settlement outcomes result in limited recovery. Limiting attorney fees can dissuade competent attorneys from taking on FLSA cases when fee recovery would be proportional to only 1/3 of total recovery. The Second Circuit also criticized the district court judge for rewriting the settlement agreement instead of just simply rejecting the agreement and having the parties revise it. The Second Circuit concluded that in rewriting the agreement, the district court judge exceeded his authority.

The ruling in Fisher is good news for employers in the negotiation process of FLSA lawsuits. In practice it should allow for more free negotiating of settlements, without limitations imposed on fee awards. This ruling will hopefully foster settlements and drive down costs for all parties involved.

VW Contributor: Ryan J. Coufal
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