A lawsuit filed against US WEST in 1990 by disgruntled ratepayers appears to finally be over, as the Utah Supreme Court ordered US WEST Tuesday to pay $1.2 million in attorneys fees to the lawyers that filed the suit.
"This is it," said Robert A. Peterson, who represented Salt Lake attorneys James L. Barker Jr. and John J. Flynn who sued US WEST. "There could be a petition to the Supreme Court for a rehearing, but absent that, it's over."Barker and Flynn argued that the state's Public Service Commission had allowed US WEST to receive unreasonable income from its ratepayers.
In 1994 the Utah Supreme Court ordered a $3.7 million refund for US WEST ratepayers and ordered the phone company to pay Barker and Flynn's attorneys fees.
In December 1995, the PSC slashed the hours for which Barker and Flynn should be paid by 25 percent, cut the paralegal compensation in half, denied compensation for secretarial work and rejected a multiplier which would have more than doubled their fees based on their performance.
The attorneys asked the commission to reconsider, but the PSC refused, prompting the appeal to the state's high court.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated all of Flynn's 16071/4 hours and all but 91/2 hours of Barker's 4601/2 hours claimed, for a total of $480,737.
The court also agreed that, because of the quality of the work performed, the fact that the case was taken on a contingency basis and the risk that the attorneys may not receive any money for their work they were entitled to performance multiplier, totaling 21/2 times their earnings.
That brought the total fees awarded to Barker and Flynn to more than $1.2 million.
"You essentially risk your time and often your money and you may get absolutely nothing," said Peterson. "But when you do get a good result, you get quite a bit more than you would be paid simply by the hour because of the uncertainty and the risk and the result."
The court did not restore the entire amount of billed paralegal fees, reasoning that since the amount the attorneys received would include paralegal fees.
Flynn compared the suit he and Barker filed to the suits filed against tobacco companies and said it could affect how attorneys filing those suits could be compensated.
"I'm pleased about the result, and the opinion recognizes that when lawyers take risk and receive good to extraordinary results, they should be compensated," Peterson said.
Despite Peterson's results, the court refused to force US WEST to pay his attorney fees.
"The fees we award petitioners today compensate for the benefits they achieved on behalf of the ratepayers," wrote Justice Christine Durham for the court's majority. "Their litigation of the attorney fee issue benefits only themselves; thus we conclude that they should bear the burden of that expense."
Associate Chief Justice Richard Howe and Chief Justice Zimmerman dissented.
"I would leave them with their handsome fee determined without a multiplier and would not shower them with a windfall," Howe wrote.