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Call Guinness!

January 28, 2019

Somebody call Guinness! We may have a world record for appellate ruling captions.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

Somebody call Guinness! We may have a world record for appellate ruling captions.

I refer you to a decision issued last week by the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit that I won’t try to name for you because you have to go through 35 pages just to get to the summary of the ruling. It’s pretty impressive. The summary is then followed by a long list of lawyers and their firms who argued for the appellants. There’s only one law firm on the opposite side. Guess who won.

Yep. The mob does not rule. That lone law firm must be feeling pretty smug right now.

In case you’re wondering, the case is about the division of $175 million in attorney fees after a $10 billion settlement more than two years ago of a case against Volkswagen over emissions test defeat devices. The fees went to the pretty large group of lawyers who got to be class counsel. The court then got 244 fee applications from lawyers not in that group.

Dealing with 244 applications would normally be a daunting task – unless all of them were denied at once. That’s what happened here and the appellate court, which almost certainly didn’t want to be bothered with this either, upheld the mass denial. The out group of lawyers didn’t do enough to benefit the class as a whole so they were going to have to bill their own clients (which you’d think they would have done anyway).

I think the moral here is that if there are enough millions or billions of dollars to be divvied up, people will want some of it.

And now for a trivia question answered in this ruling: what did Robert Mueller do before he got his current gig? The answer is on page 44.

Small amounts of money, of course, will also generate litigation. It’s usually litigation that costs a lot more than the amount being argued over. We had yet another example of this in a ruling by a federal judge in Alabama last week that hinged on the difference or non-difference between speeding and reckless driving. The reckless-driving charge came with a penalty of $392 in fees and costs that eventually got overturned. This did not prevent further litigation.

It seems, according to the ruling, that Alabama has an odd law (although not described as odd in the opinion) that says local police can’t enforce speed laws on interstate highways if they’re from towns with less than 19,000 people. If you’ve got 19,001, you’re a legitimate metropolis.

Small-town cops then ignore this by pulling over people for reckless driving instead. Legislators should wonder why they bother passing laws.

Math disability. I hate to be a snob. I am a snob, but I do hate to be it. Sometimes feeling superior just can’t be helped when reading about litigation.

Last week a federal judge in Minnesota got to consider a case in which a woman bought a puppy for $1,381.89. That seems insane enough, but it gets significantly worse.

After agreeing to pay this hefty sum (or pocket change if you’re one of those rich lawyers types reading this), she then agreed to financing. All she had to do was pay $138.28 a month plus fees – for 24 months.

Not 10 months. 24 months. I may be wrong but I think a lot of us would have noticed the problem there. The plaintiff, however, did not.

Eight months after agreeing to this deal, the dog owner (or leaseholder, depending on whom you believe) decided to sue. The ruling doesn’t say whether the math finally dawned on her or whether someone, feeling superior, pointed it out.

The cost of federal litigation was not pointed out to her. 

This is the sort of story that makes Congress more understandable.

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