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Second Circuit Upholds Judge's Slashing of Attorney Fees in Fair Credit Law Settlement

In the underlying suit, the plaintiff claimed Godiva printed out a receipt for a credit card transaction with more than the last five digits of the card numbers allowed under FACTA. (Photo: JB Reed/ Bloomberg News)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Wednesday affirmed a Manhattan federal judge’s order to cut down a fee request in a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawsuit, finding she had properly exercised her discretion, over arguments to the contrary from the plaintiff’s attorneys.

The Second Circuit ruling upheld a decision entered last May in which U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York refused to allow attorneys to collect approximately $83,000 in fees in their Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act case.

The plaintiff in the underlying matter, Joan Pasini, had brought two other suits in Manhattan federal court under the exact same premises. In the Godiva suit, she ultimately secured a $5,500 settlement with the chocolate maker, after opting out of a class action settlement that would have awarded her up to $80.

As Caproni noted in her order, the Godiva action involved “no motion practice, no discovery, no contested hearings, a single status conference, which lasted less than 30 minutes, two telephone conferences, which also lasted about 15 to 30 minutes each, and one mediation session.”

The district court found there was “nothing reasonable” about the $83,000 figure submitted by Glendale, California, attorney Chant Yedalian and local counsel, attorney Sameer Birring. Rather, the litigators were using FACTA as a “cudgel to attempt to extract an unreasonable fee.”

“Attorneys who take on consumer protection lawsuits are sometimes pursuing a public good—the individual damages are generally quite modest but there is a public interest in ensuring compliance with federal consumer protection laws,” the district court wrote. “Counsel is entitled to recover reasonable fees, but this court will not aid and abet extortion.”

Neither Yedalian nor Birring immediately responded to requests for comment.

The 10-page complaint in the underlying suit replicates claims similar to the other FACTA suits brought by Pasini. She claimed the chocolatier printed out a receipt for a credit card transaction that included the first six digits and the last four digits of the card number. Under FACTA, no more than the last five digits of the card number are allowed to be on a receipt provided to the cardholder.

After opting out of the settlement and an initial figure from the chocolatier of the statutory settlement maximum of $1,000, Pasini demanded a $75,000 payment from Godiva, according to court papers.

The suit was filed March 10, 2017. On Sept. 29, the parties alerted the court that the settlement amount for the plaintiff had been agreed to for the far smaller sum of $5,500, but Godiva stated to the court that attorney fees remained an issue. Attorneys for Godiva argued in opposition to the fees that counsels’ “aim throughout this case has been to generate the maximum amount of attorneys’ fees possible.”

Caproni agreed, finding the hourly rates proposed by opposing counsel in the “exceedingly straightforward case” exorbitant. She cut Yedalian’s requested fee range of $550 to $650 an hour down to a “generous” $350 an hour, while bringing Birring’s $350 an hour requested rate down to $275.

Similarly, Yedalian’s 152 hours of billable work was “so out of proportion to the tasks he purportedly undertook” that Caproni said she had to “question the accuracy of the bills.” All but five hours of the claimed time “was spent on low-level work that could have been accomplished by an associate or paralegal; tasks any competent attorney (much less one with 15 years of experience practicing in an area of the law that is neither sophisticated nor intellectually challenging) could have accomplished far more quickly.”

Caproni ultimately cut Yedalian’s hours billable at the new rate by 90 percent, leaving him with an entitled fee of $5,325.83, while Birring was, at a reduction of 65 percent to his hours, granted $1,020.25 in fees. With the reduced costs of $620 provided to the plaintiff, Caproni’s order amounted to less than 10 percent of what Pasini sought.

On appeal, the panel of Circuit Judges John Walker Jr., José Cabranes and Robert Sack said Caproni was within her right to the substantial reduction “in light of the pervasive errors and exaggerations in the fee application.” The panel went on to likewise support the district court’s gutting of travel fees for Yedalian, as “there was no reason local counsel could not attend the initial status conference instead of lead counsel from California.”

Barnes & Thornburg partner Brian Melendez represented Godiva on appeal. He did not respond to a request for comment.