The amount of money at issue in a litigated case must now be taken into account in determining awards of attorney’s fees. A recent ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Green v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2013 WL 513241 (Minn. 2013), reversed a fee award that was close to $230,000. The supreme court indicated the amount at issue in the case was a “relevant consideration” in determining the propriety of a fee award. It also reaffirmed the primacy of the lodestar analysis in determining fee awards: the reasonable hourly rate of the participants multiplied by the reasonable amount of time expended in the litigation.
The decision is likely to be applied to attorney fee awards in general, particularly those arising under fee-shifting statutes, such as employment cases involving the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the Whistleblower statute, and other measures that allow prevailing parties to recover attorney’s fees. While the decision does not adopt a straight rule of proportionality in limiting awards, it probably will deflate awards in cases involving smaller disputes and perhaps will discourage attorneys from taking on such cases if the client is unable to afford legal counsel.
Advocates seeking attorney’s fee awards should emphasize the difficulty that clients have in finding capable counsel for cases of small value, show that the amount of work performed was reasonable, and where appropriate, cite to the amount of work required to be done. They also should point to the intangible value of the case in bringing about changes in policy or benefiting the general public.
Parties defending against fee awards should note any duplicative or redundant legal services and point to the impracticality of private counsel taking on cases of minimal value. Both sides may submit expert affidavits in support of their arguments but, ultimately, the trial court has broad discretion in making fee awards as long as it takes into account all of the pertinent considerations.
Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC