Judge reduces $135K fee award request to $50,000

David Hassett
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
January 10, 2013

“Unreasonable,” “excessive” and “inflated.” When a judge uses those three words in the same breath as “attorneys’ fees,” the lawyer seeking the award knows he’s in trouble.

Such was the case for a trio of attorneys from Salem whose request for counsel fees was recently slashed by Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders.

Worcester defense attorney David F. Hassett says he sensed from the get-go that the fees in Diminico v. National Grange Mutual Insurance Company would be a bone of contention, so he reserved the right to request an evidentiary hearing.

Though the class action settled for $14,000 in less than a month, plaintiff’s lawyer John R. Yasi of Yasi & Yasi and two co-counsel submitted bills for more than $135,000.

Yasi could not be reached for comment.

In reducing the award to $50,000, Sanders wrote that the requested fee was unreasonably high, largely because the claims were nearly identical to those brought by the same attorneys in another case, Meaney v. OneBeacon Insurance Group. The difference, she said, was that the defendant in Diminico wrote a settlement check in less than three weeks after the case was filed, while the parties in Meaney spent years slugging it out in court.

Yasi, one of his first-year associates and Kevin J. McCullough of Mazow & McCullough argued that the work they put into Diminico was complicated, according to Hassett, who defended the case with his colleague John A. Girouard.

But Sanders was not swayed. Noting that the fee request was significantly higher than the settlement itself, the judge said the number of hours billed in the case and the $300 hourly rate charged by the first-year associate were both excessive.

Boston plaintiffs’ attorney Robert T. Naumes of Thornton & Naumes, who recently was involved in a fee challenge of his own in federal court, says the willingness and ability of the defendant in Diminico to resolve the matter as quickly as it did likely worked against the plaintiff’s lawyers.

“The law firm probably had a very contentious fight the first time around [in Meaney], and the judge thought they had been compensated enough,” Naumes suggests.

Sanders’ ruling reflects a growing trend in the courts, Naumes adds. “Courts are taking a closer looks at fee petitions.”

To read Judge Sanders’ decision in its entirety, click here:  Diminico v. National Grange Mutual Insurance Company.