Trials & Litigation

Judge slashes fee request to about $3K for lawyer who filed suit for client after his firing

  • Print.

money and gavel

Image from

A federal judge in New York City has informed a Florida lawyer that he should consider himself lucky to get about $3,000 out of about $22,000 in requested fees and expenses after filing suit for a client who had fired him.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York awarded the fees to lawyer James Zonas of Naples, Florida, in an April 13 opinion, report Bloomberg Law and Law360.

Zonas was fired in August 2017 by client Jordon Rothermel but filed a lawsuit on his behalf against General Motors. The suit was removed to state court and transferred into multidistrict litigation over faulty ignition switches.

General Motors announced a $120 million settlement in the multidistrict litigation last year.

Rothermel had first hired Zonas to represent him in a personal injury suit against the driver in a single-vehicle crash. The case settled. Zonas received contingency fees and withheld part of Rothermel’s recovery to pay for experts in a possible claim against General Motors, Rothermel had testified.

After receiving few updates, Rothermel fired Zonas and hired a new lawyer, T. Patton Youngblood, the opinion said. The new lawyer told Zonas that he was representing Rothermel in the General Motors case.

Despite his firing, Zonas sued General Motors in the state case that became part of the multidistrict litigation. It’s unclear when Rothermel or Youngblood first became aware of the suit, but they must have learned about it when Youngblood spoke with a General Motors lawyer in October 2017, Furman said.

“Bewilderingly, neither Rothermel nor Youngblood ever alerted the court to the fact that an attorney who no longer represented Rothermel had filed the claims on his behalf,” Furman wrote. “Nor did they take issue with the fact that Zonas was listed as attorney of record on the docket. In fact, following transfer of the case to this court, neither Youngblood nor Zonas filed much of anything at all.”

Zonas filed a charging lien before the case settled. Youngblood filed an application to appear pro hac vice in the multidistrict litigation in June 2019 and submitted the stipulation of dismissal. Zonas then sought to reopen the case and enforce his charging lien.

In a previous opinion last July, the court said Zonas could collect only for work performed before his August 2017 firing. Zonas then filed a “motion to determine reasonableness of attorney’s fees and expenses.” He sought attorney fees of more than $17,200 and expenses of more than $4,600, totaling about $22,000.

Furman said Zonas was entitled to compensation for only 14.7 in attorney hours and 12 law clerk hours, which would yield a lodestar amount of about $6,100. He wasn’t entitled to any expenses because he has already been paid for them out of the single-vehicle crash settlement, according to Furman.

“The court concludes that Zonas should be awarded only a small fraction of what he seeks because he has already been reimbursed for his expenses, because he seeks fees for work that was not reasonably done (or done at all) or for which he has already received payment, and because he did little to aid his client’s cause,” Furman said.

But Zonas did provide “some benefit” to Rothermel by providing some relevant documents and information and by locating and retaining experts whose reports Zonas provided to Rothermel, Furman said. As a result, Furman agreed to grant Zonas about $3,050 in attorney fees, which is half of the lodestar amount.

“The court acknowledges that that is a significant reduction from what Zonas sought,” Furman wrote. “But given the totality of the circumstances, Zonas should consider himself lucky to get anything.”

Zonas did not immediately respond to an ABA Journal email seeking comment.

Youngblood told the ABA Journal in an email that Rothermel was very happy with his representation and with the result of his claims.

“The legal counsel I provided to my client was not at issue, and the court never called upon me to chronicle my efforts that were undertaken outside of the court file,” Youngblood says. “I was able to obtain a great result for my client without having to burden the court with motion practice, discovery disputes or other matters impertinent to the productive litigation of the claims—all of which the courts encourage.”

Updated April 16 at 7 a.m. to include Youngblood’s comments.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.