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News | Nov 15, 2012

Some Cases Addressing the Importance of the FLSA’s Fee Recovery Provision

Pennsylvania overtime lawyers and wage lawyers should keep the following cases in mind when they think about filing cases involving the overtime rights of employees:  The FLSA explicitly provides that “[t]he court in [an FLSA] action shall . . . allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”  29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis supplied); see also 43 P.S. § 333.113 (a prevailing party under PMWA shall recover “reasonable attorney’s fees as may be allowed by the court”).  The FLSA’s language mandates that prevailing parties under the FLSA recover attorney’s fees and costs.  See Fegley v. Higgins, 19 F.3d 1126, 1134 (6th Cir. 1994); Albers v. Tri-State Implement, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23450, *67 (D.S.D. Mar. 12, 2010).  In fact, “attorney fees are an integral part of the merits of FLSA cases,” Shelton v. M.P. Ervin, 830 F.2d 182, 184 (11th Cir. 1987), and, as courts repeatedly explain, the ability of FLSA claimants to recover a reasonable attorney’s fee is crucial to the statute’s enforcement scheme, see, e.g., Fegley, 19 F.3d at 1134-35 (the “purpose of the FLSA attorney fees provision is ‘to ensure effective access to the judicial process by providing attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs with wage and hour grievances,’” and, furthermore, “an award of attorney fees here ‘encourages the vindication of congressionally identified policies and rights’”); United Slate, Local 307 v. G & M Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., 732 F.2d 495, 502 (6th Cir. 1984) (FLSA attorney’s fee analysis “must reflect the obvious congressional intent that the policies enunciated in FLSA Section 2 be vindicated, at least in part, through private lawsuits charging a violation of the substantive provisions of the wage act”); Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275-76 (4th Cir. 1946) (“Obviously Congress intended that the wronged employee should receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.”); Estrella v. P.R. Painting Corp., 596 F. Supp. 2d 723, 727 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) (FLSA fee-recovery provision is “designed in part to secure legal representation for plaintiffs whose wage and hour grievances were too small, in terms of expected recovery, to create a financial incentive for qualified counsel to take such cases under conventional fee arrangements”); Mezger v. Price CPAs, PLLC, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55311, *12-13 (M.D. Tenn. Jul. 21, 2008) (same as Fegley); see also Heder v. City of Two Rivers, 255 F.Supp.2d 947, 952 (E.D. Wis. 2003) (FLSA’s fee-recovery provision “exists to enable plaintiffs to employ reasonably competent lawyers without cost to themselves if they prevail and, thereby, to help ensure enforcement of the substantive provisions of the FLSA”).  Consistent with the above principles, it is commonplace (and entirely consistent with the FLSA’s legislative purpose) for FLSA attorney’s fee awards to far exceed the amount of the plaintiff’s recovered unpaid wages.  See Howe v. Hoffman-Curtis Partners Ltd. 215 Fed. Appx. 341, 342 (5th Cir. Jan. 30, 2007) (“Given the nature of claims under the FLSA, it is not uncommon that attorney fee requests can exceed the amount of judgment in the case by many multiples.”).  For example, after one recent FLSA trial handled by our co-counsel at the Winebrake & Santillo firm, the federal court awarded $73,195.00 in attorney’s fees even though the plaintiffs recovered only $18,495 in unpaid wages.  See Gonzalez v. Bustleton Servs., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85153 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 10, 2010).  Similar outcomes abound.  See, e.g., Fegley, 19 F.3d at 1134-35 (upholding award of $40,000 in fees even though Plaintiff recovered only $7,680 in damages); Cox v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 919 F.2d 354, 358 (5th Cir. 1990) (upholding award of $9,250 in attorney’s fees even though Plaintiff recovered only $1,698.00); Bonnette v. Cal. Health & Welfare, 704 F.2d 1465, 1473 (9th Cir. 1983) (affirming award of $100,000 in attorney’s fees for a recovery of $20,000); Albers, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23450, at *66-86 (awarding $43,797 in fees even though plaintiffs’ combined damages totaled only $2,137.97);King v. My Online Neighborhood, Inc., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16135 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 20, 2007) (approving a settlement for $4,500 in unpaid wages and $10,500 in attorney’s fees); Heder, 255 F. Supp. 2d 947, 962 (E.D. Wis. 2003) (awarding $36,204.88 in fees even though plaintiff’s damages totaled only $3,540.00); Griffin v. Leaseway Deliveries, Inc., 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20203 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 31, 1992) (awarding attorney’s fees of $33,631.00 for a plaintiff’s award of $17,467.20); Holyfield v. F.P. Quinn & Co., 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5293 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 22, 1991) (awarding $6,922.25 in attorney’s fees for a judgment in the amount of $921.50); see also Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 829 (5th Cir. 2003) (affirming fee award despite the fact that plaintiffs recovered less than 4% of the damages sought).  

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