Three courts have sharply reduced fee requests by plaintiffs' attorneys who won lemon law suits for their clients.
In New York, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court upheld a trial judge who allowed only $2,000 in fees to a lawyer who asked for $31,564.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia strongly criticized a law firm that handles many lemon law cases and let stand a $4,096 award for fees and court costs - well below the $12,750 requested.
And a federal judge in Philadelphia awarded that same firm $7,488, down from the $10,661 it sought.
The results indicate that defense lawyers for dealers and manufacturers, as well as judges, are carefully scrutinizing fee petitions by plaintiffs' lawyers.
$2,000, NOT $31,564
The New York decision involved a suit by Randy Hinman, who contended the used Oldsmobile he bought from Jay's Village Chevrolet in Fayetteville was defective and inoperable. That state's lemon law covers some used vehicles.
A jury returned a $3,514 verdict against the dealership. Hinman's lawyer, Justin Murphy of Oneida, then asked for $31,564 in attorney fees, but the trial judge awarded only $2,000 - about 6 percent of that amount.
Murphy said he had submitted an affidavit to justify the request.
On May 15, the Appellate Division in Albany upheld the $2,000 fee. It said: 'The case involved a rather routine lemon law claim; counsel was a relatively inexperienced trial attorney; counsel spent an extraordinary amount of time researching and reviewing the file; other less expensive alternatives for settling the claim were available; and the property that was the subject of the dispute was valued at only $3,500.'
The dealership's lawyer, Frank Ventre Jr. of Syracuse, called the original fee request 'outrageous' and noted that Jay's Chevrolet had offered to settle the case before trial for about the same amount the jury later awarded in damages.
LAW FIRM SOCKED
In the 3rd Circuit case decided May 5, a three-judge panel rapped the Ambler, Pa., firm of Kimmel & Silverman for its fee request, its lack of supporting records and an inadequate billing system.
The firm's clients, Patrick and Elaine Hilferty, won a $20,421 lemon law arbitration award against General Motors for problems with their Chevrolet Lumina. The trial judge allowed $4,095 in attorney fees and costs, less than half the total requested.
Appellate Judge Richard Nygaard cited testimony from GM's billing expert that the law firm lacked a centralized billing system to track work done on the case, making it impossible to determine how much time was spent on any task.
As a penalty for a frivolous appeal, the court ordered Kimmel & Silverman to pay double GM's costs of fighting the appeal.
TOO MUCH TIME
In the other Kimmel & Silverman case, William Holland initially won an arbitration award against Chrysler Corp., entitling him to a refund of the purchase price of his Plymouth Neon. The two sides then negotiated a confidential settlement, said Richard Franklin, the Philadelphia attorney who represented Chrysler.
Chrysler also agreed to pay Holland's reasonable attorney fees. Kimmel & Silverman asked for $10,661, but U.S. District Judge Raymond Broderick reduced it to $7,488.
Broderick said the lawyers, who were experienced in lemon law cases, didn't need to spend as much time as they claimed on preparing routine documents, preparing for the arbitration trial and conducting technical research. He also said some of the work could have been done by paralegals at $60 an hour rather than $150 an hour for a lawyer's time.
Craig Thor Kimmel, one of Holland's lawyers, said the judge 'didn't necessarily know all the work' that went into the case.