Florida appellate court says no!
We’ve chronicled in these pages one of the factors involved in weakening Florida’s property insurance market: attorney fees, especially the misuse of the contingency fee multiplier by plaintiff attorneys. Another example has come to light in a recent opinion by Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. This should be a must-read for defense counsel.
A disputed water damage claim ended in a $25,000 settlement by the insurance company with the homeowner. The only thing left to settle was attorney fees. A Miami-Dade Circuit court had agreed with the homeowners attorney’s figuring and awarded a lodestar amount (billable hours x reasonable hourly rate) of $209,300 in attorney and paralegal fees. The court then applied a fee multiplier of 2, added another $12,500 in costs and $13,800 for the plaintiff’s expert, for a total award of just under $442,000.
The insurance company had objected, saying in part that the number of billable hours should be reduced from 469 to 101, given it was a settlement without trial and with minimal discovery and depositions. The Third District Court of Appeal (DCA) agreed and in its opinion, Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company vs. Raghunath Deshpande, reversed the trial court’s decision, calling the fees “excessive and unsupported by the evidence.” It sent the case back to circuit court for a rework.
“We do not… affirm the lodestar amount because the record does not contain competent, substantial evidence that 469 hours were reasonably expended in this case,” the opinion stated. The DCA referenced “notorious ‘billable hours’ syndrome, with its multiple evils of exaggeration, duplication, and invention.” It also reversed the trial court’s application of the fee multiplier, stating “the record is devoid of any evidence that the relevant market required a contingency fee multiplier to obtain competent counsel.”
This case is one of several we’ve seen recently in Florida with inappropriate attorney fee awards (see our backgrounder How a $41,000 Plumbing Leak Turned Into a $1.2 Million Attorney Fee.) This DCA opinion is worth reading for the loosey-goosey way some requests for attorney fees are put together and for the relevant case law it so aptly references, including past abuses.
We believe that the 3rd DCA used reasonableness and common sense to reverse the trial court’s attorney fee award. In our opinion, there are three reasons to file a motion with the court – to educate, advocate, or capitulate. This order underscores that the appeals court judges have been educated!
LMA Newsletter of 11-30-20