Cruise Lawyer Hits Rough Seas in High Court

     WASHINGTON (CN) - The lawyer for an Italian cruise operator came under fire Wednesday in the Supreme Court over his claim that an injured passenger's failure to sue the right company was not a mistake. "I make mistakes ... and so do you and so does everybody else," Justice Stephen Breyer said.
     Leaning forward in his seat, Breyer led the attack on attorney Robert Glazier's claim that passenger Wanda Krupski's lawsuit should not be revived because it named the wrong defendant.
     "What possible reason is there that somebody who is hurt on a ship ... would deliberately sue the wrong person?" Breyer asked Glazier. "If you were representing this person, would you want to sue the company that could give you some money if they are liable? Or would you rather sue the Bank of America that has nothing to do with it?"
     The question prompted laughter in the courtroom and a silent chuckle from Justice Samuel Alito on the other end of the bench.
     Alito and Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked their own versions of Breyer's question, pressing Glazier for evidence that the error was more than a mistake. Glazier, who appeared flustered and defensive at times, had trouble answering to the justices' satisfaction.
     He argued that the injured passenger's attorney knew or should have known that the correct company to sue was the Italian carrier Costa Crociere S.p.A., not the Florida-based Costa Cruise Lines. The companies have similar names, but Costa Cruise is a sales agent for Costa Crociere.
     Glazier urged the high court to uphold the 11th Circuit's dismissal of the lawsuit, because Krupski did not sue his client within the one-year deadline. Mark Bendure, Krupski's attorney on appeal, said the claims should be reinstated under procedural rules allowing plaintiffs to correct a misidentified defendant.
     Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out, repeatedly, that Costa Crociere "conveniently" waited for the one-year statute of limitations to expire before notifying Krupski that she had sued the wrong party.
     Glazier didn't help his cause by mixing up the English and Italian company names at one point, lending credence to the claim that the confusingly similar names contributed to the error.
     "Now which is it? Is that a Freudian slip?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked, quipping, "Just a mistake." And Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that "the ticket itself confuses the two companies." He asked, "Is that a mistake, incidentally?"
     Glazier appeared to gain a small amount of sympathy from Justice Antonin Scalia, who said Krupski's trial lawyer should have read the contract carefully before filing suit.
     But Breyer insisted that the case boiled down to a basic mistake.
     "Have you ever driven a car where your wife has said turn left and you have turned right?" he asked Glazier. "Did you do it by mistake? Yes, of course you did. It's happened to every human being."
     Scalia interrupted, "I think your wife made a mistake. I don't think you made a mistake."
     "No, my wife does not make mistakes," Breyer replied, to laughter.
     The high court is expected to rule in Krupski v. Costa Crociere, no. 09-337, early this summer.

Ignorance Still No Defense, Court Says

     (CN) - Attorneys cannot hide behind an honest mistake should they violate federal debt-collection laws when chasing down debt, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
     The ruling comes after the law firm of Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich filed suit in Ohio state court in 2006 on behalf of Countrywide Home Loans to foreclose on the mortgage for property owned by Karen Jerman.
     The lawsuit included a notice that the mortgage debt would be assumed valid unless Jerman disputed it in writing. Jerman's attorney sent a letter disputing the debt, and Countrywide confirmed that the debt had been paid in full.
     The law firm withdrew its foreclosure lawsuit.
     Jerman fired back with a lawsuit, seeking class certification and damages for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. She contended that the firm broke the law by stating that her debt would be assumed valid unless she disputed it in writing.
     The district court found that the woman's rights had been violated, but concluded that the law firm was shielded from liability because the violation was not intentional and "resulted from a bona fide error.
     The 6th Circuit found that the fair-debt law extends to "mistakes of the law."
     In writing the decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court declines "to adopt the expansive reading" of the law. "We have long recognized the 'common maximum, familiar to all minds, that ignorance of the law will not excuse any persons, either civilly or criminally.'"
     In his dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the decision "aligns the judicial system with those who would use litigation to enrich themselves at the expense of attorneys who strictly follow and adhere to professional and ethical standards."
     He continued: "When the law is used to punish good-faith mistakes... the court, by failing to adopt a reasonable interpretation to counter these excesses, risks compromising its own institutional responsibility to ensure a workable and just litigation system."

Justices Ax Enhanced Award for Attorney's Fees

     (CN) - A split Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned an enhanced award of $4.5 million in attorney's fees stemming from a successful class action suit against Georgia's foster care system.
     Under federal fee-shifting statutes, judges can award enhanced attorneys' fees above the so-called "lodestar" amount, Justice Samuel Alito wrote. However, the court in the Georgia case did not provide "proper justification" for the large enhancement..
     "This figure appears to have been essentially arbitrary," Alito wrote. "Unjustified enhancements that serve only to enrich attorneys are not consistent with the statute's aim."
     "A prevailing party in certain civil rights actions may recover a 'reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs,'" Alito wrote. "Unfortunately, the statute does not explain what Congress meant by a 'reasonable' fee, and therefore the task of identifying an appropriate methodology for determining a 'reasonable' fee was left for the courts."
     The underlying case stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of 3,000 children who sued Georgia, claiming deficiencies in the foster care system. They requested more than $14 million in attorney's fees.
     Half was based on the calculation of the lodestar - about 30,000 hours multiplied by the hourly rates of $200 to $495 for attorneys and $75 to $150 for non-attorneys.
     They also sought a fee enhancement for superior work, but the state complained that the requested hourly rates were too high.
     The district court awarded fees of $10.5 million, finding that the hourly rates were fair, but that some of the billing sheets were vague and that many of the billing hours were excessive.
     The court cut the non-travel hours by 15 percent and halved the hourly rate for travel hours, resulting in a lodestar calculation of $6 million.
     The court then enhanced the award by 75 percent, finding that the lodestar calculation did not take into account "the fact that the class counsel were required to advance case expenses of $1.7 million over a three-year period.
     The 11th Circuit affirmed, finding that the court did not abuse its discretion by failing to make a proper reduction in the number of hours.