Dec 112013
 

Just over a week ago a Florida court upheld a $4.2 million award of legal fees in the Broward County citrus canker class action.  The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was unable to convince the Fourth District Court of Appeal “to reverse or reduce the award to plaintiffs’ attorneys.”

Broward residents sued the state of Florida for the “mass removal of citrus trees within 1,900 feet of diseased trees.”  The state took significant action to eliminate the bacterial disease before abandoning the mission once hurricanes spread it across the region.

In 2008, the plaintiffs were initially awarded $11.5 million; however the trial judge reduced it to $4.3 million because of “compensation already paid by the state.”  The court allowed the $4.2 million dollar attorneys’ fees award, despite reducing the plaintiffs’ award, to compensate the attorneys for all of the work done in the case.

The Agriculture Department appealed the legal fees, arguing that the fees “should be measured on a sliding scale based on the condemning authority’s last written offer.”  It felt the application for compensation presented to the attorneys should qualify as a written offer, but the court disagreed with that interpretation.

Instead, the court found this was not a written offer “within the meaning of the condemnation statute, which requires detailed pre-suit negotiations.” Judge Martha Warner said, “It is abundantly clear from the history of this case and the evidence presented that the department never intended these to be ‘offers’ until it sought to use them to reduce attorneys fees.”

Judge Warner also said, “The department adamantly and for two decades claimed that it had not taken property for which compensation was required.  Deputy Commissioner [Craig] Meyer testified that the compensation was simply a token allowed by the Legislature as a showing of respect to homeowners who lost trees.”

The department would have preferred a “sliding-scale cap on fees in accordance with ethics rules that would have limited legal fees to about 30 percent of the $4.3 million final judgment.”  Wesley Parsons, the lead attorney for the Department thought that the ethical rules should have been applied.

Parsons was thankful that the Fourth District found that the department was not responsible for two of the expert witnesses used by the plaintiffs.  One was eliminated since the expert did not represent the class.  The other testified about the reasonableness of fees, “a cost the department’s insurer is not liable for . . . .”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys were glad the court “affirmed the overwhelming majority of the fee award, representing more than 10 years of [their] work in this case.”