Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jury awards Elizabeth school custodian a $25,000 verdict. Judge awards his attorneys $178,522.80 in costs and fees.

The headline seems outrageous and suggests an unjust result.  Why would the lawyers make more than seven times the amount the plaintiff received?

In his lawsuit, Jaime Davila, a former school custodian employed by the Elizabeth Board of Education, sued the Board, Superintendent Pablo Munoz and Human Resources Director Karen A. Murray claiming that his discharge violated both New Jersey's Civil Rights Act and Law Against Discrimination.

Both the Law Against Discrimination and Civil Rights statutes contain "fee-shifting provisions" that allow a court to make defendants, if they lose the case, pay the plaintiffs' attorney fees.  This is a departure from the "American Rule" which calls for each party to pay its own legal costs.

The purpose of fee-shifting is to give individuals of modest means a fighting chance when suing government agencies or large corporations.  Without fee-shifting, only the wealthy could afford to bring a lawsuit because their opponents have virtually inexhaustible financial resources.  Fee-shifting allows plaintiffs whose rights have been violated to attract competent legal counsel even if the amount of damages is relatively small.

Davila, who made $55,000 a year as a custodian, received a letter on March 17, 2011 telling him that he would be fired on May 30, 2011.  Davila claimed that the Board illegally refused to provide him with a statutorily required "written statement of reasons" for his firing.

In his lawsuit, Davila claimed that his firing was retaliatory and sought to punish him for having previously filed workers compensation claims.  He also claimed that Board officials retaliated against him for refusing to volunteering for Board candidates' political campaigns.  Davila said that he was told that volunteering "would be a good career move."  He claimed that by coercing him to support political campaigns, the Board violated his free speech rights secured under both the state and federal constitutions.

On November 30, 2015, a jury found in favor of Davila and awarded him $25,000.  Davila's lawyers, relying on the fee-shifting provisions, asked Judge Mark P. Ciarrocca to make the school board pay for Davila's attorneys fee and costs of suit.

In a February 29, 2016 order, accompanied by a 35-page written decision, Judge Ciarrocca ordered the Board to pay Davila's four attorneys, Matthew T. Rinaldo, Mildred V. Spiller, David H. Kaplan and Tiana C. Gimbrone fees in the amounts of $29,112.50, $24,810, $59,440 and $8,125, respectively, for a total of $121,478.50.

Judge Ciarrocca then ruled that each lawyer's fee would be "enhanced" by 45% "to reflect the risk of nonpayment" in case the plaintiff doesn't win.  The enhancement of $54,669.38 together with costs of $2,435.93 made the total award $178,522.80.