Trials & Litigation

Lawyer says dispute over $300 in unpaid wages cost him about $100,000

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A Southern California lawyer says he’s giving up the fight after a dispute regarding a former employee’s claim for about $300 in unpaid wages cost him about $100,000.

The lawyer, Thomas Beck, told the Recorder that he won’t seek further review after an appeals court decision last week requiring him to pay about $57,000 in appellate attorney fees.

The court “rejected all my arguments and made new law,” Beck told the Recorder. “I’m sorry about the anxiety this has cost me, and the financial cost is overwhelming.”

Beck’s problems began in November 2013, when his payroll service shorted a departing employee about $300, and the employee filed a claim with the California agency that enforces state labor laws, according to the decision published Jan. 2. The labor commissioner awarded the employee the $300 plus more than $5,700 in damages, interest and statutory penalties, bringing the total award to about $6,000.

A trial court awarded the employee about $6,700 in a de novo review and ordered Beck to pay about $31,000 for the employee’s legal fees. A California appeals court affirmed and said the parties should “bear their own costs of appeal.”

Beck said the order meant he did not have to pay appellate attorney fees; the employee disagreed and sought appellate attorney fees in the trial court. The employee was awarded $57,000 in appellate fees plus an additional $9,000 in fees incurred when Beck filed a motion to reconsider the ruling.

The California Court of Appeal’s Second District affirmed in its latest decision. “This case began as a dispute over approximately $300 in unpaid wages,” the court said. “It has since transmogrified into a dispute concerning attorney fees totaling nearly 200 times that amount.”

The Recorder said Beck made “a crucial mistake” when he first appealed the labor commissioner’s decision but failed to file a cover sheet indicating the case was a limited civil case, with an amount in controversy less than $25,000.

Beck had argued in his first appeal that the case was limited, which meant the employee’s motion for attorney fees was filed after applicable 30-day deadline. The appeals court had disagreed in its first opinion, finding a 60-day deadline in unlimited cases applies.

Beck pointed to a different error. “I made the mistake of representing myself,” he told the Recorder.

The case is Stratton v. Beck.

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