More than three years after a California judge approved a $70 million settlement resolving claims of age discrimination against television writers, the D.C. Court of Appeals today upheld an arbitrator's decision dividing up attorney fees in the case.
At stake were more than $23 million in fees. The three-judge panel, noting the court exercised "extremely limited" review of arbitration awards, found the arbitrator in this case didn't exceed his authority.
Two former class counsel, Daniel Wolf and Maia Caplan, argued the arbitrator was wrong to rely on representations made to the California judge related to fees, since the plaintiffs lawyers had privately agreed that what they filed with the court wouldn't be binding in arbitration. The court found the arbitrator appropriately rejected that argument based on his reading of the co-counsel agreements.
Lead counsel for Wolf, William Stein of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, said they were "obviously disappointed by the decision" and were "in the process of studying it now to determine what our next steps could be." Wolf and Caplan, who represented herself on appeal and declined to comment on today's decision, could ask the full court to review the decision.
The dispute pitted Wolf and Caplan against their former co-counsel in the age discrimination litigation: Sprenger + Lang and Kator, Parks & Weiser, both in Washington; Sprenger + Lang co-founders Paul Sprenger and Jane Lang, who are of counsel to that firm and also run a separate practice; and Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers in Los Angeles.
Seyfarth Shaw partner Gerald Maatman Jr., who represented Sprenger + Lang and argued for the appellees before the appeals court, said via email that his client was pleased with today's ruling.
"The Court of Appeal appropriately applied the law and affirmed the arbitration award, which found that our client was entitled to the fee award that recognized its central role and contribution to the class action settlement," he said.
Daniel Edelman of Katz, Marshall & Banks, who represented Sprenger and Lang individually on appeal and also argued before the appeals court, said his client would be "gratified" by the decision. "This has been a very long and expensive ordeal in the courts," he said, adding that Wolf and Caplan's motions to vacate the arbitrator's decision "largely defeats the intended purpose of arbitration: to provide a quick and relatively inexpensive resolution."
Litigation over alleged discrimination against older television writers lasted more than a decade. As the parties neared a settlement, class counsel agreed to resolve any disputes over fees in mediation or arbitration, for fear that a public fee fight would jeopardize the settlement, according to Wolf's brief.
As the lawyers prepared for arbitration, they agreed to present a united front to the court when it came to filing a fee petition. According to briefs, the lawyers exchanged emails agreeing they could make different representations about their rates and hours before the court versus the arbitrator.
The court approved approximately $23 million in fees. In late 2010, the arbitrator issued a decision on how to divide the fees, rejecting arguments that information on rates and hours filed with the court shouldn't affect his decision.
In March 2011, Wolf and Caplan filed separate motions in District of Columbia Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator's decision. A trial judge affirmed the arbitral award in August of that year. On appeal, Wolf and Caplan argued the lawyers had agreed they would reserve challenges to each other's fee requests for arbitration, so the arbitrator was wrong to base his decision on information included in the fee petition filed with the court. Wolf and Caplan, according to briefs, disputed the amount of fees claimed by some of their co-counsel.
Senior Judge Inez Smith Reid, writing for the court, found that contrary to Wolf and Caplan's arguments, the arbitrator based his decision to consider the fee petition on an interpretation of an agreement among class counsel, which is what he had authority to do.
Chief Judge Eric Washington and Judge Stephen Glickman also heard the case.