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A New York attorney who handled substantial discovery work on a sexual harassment case before being terminated by her clients may enforce a lien for her fees, but her fee request will be reduced by more than $600,000, a Southern District of New York magistrate judge has ruled. Attorney Lai Lee Chan fought back an attempt by former client Kimberly Caspar and two other women to pay her nothing for work done on a sexual discrimination case against Long Island, N.Y., brokerage firm Lew Lieberman & Co. But Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis, in Caspar v. Lieberman, 97 Civ. 3016, rejected Chan’s request for $786,862 in attorney’s fees as excessive, and ruled that she is entitled to a fee of $131,655. Chan persuaded her then-employer, attorney Richard Missan, in 1995 to take on the case of Caspar and her co-workers, who alleged that several members of Lew Lieberman subjected them to sexually explicit comments and inappropriate contact during their employment at the brokerage house. Caspar and her co-plaintiffs signed retainer agreements with Missan that, while holding the plaintiffs responsible for expenses, provided for a one-third contingency fee on any recovery in the case. Magistrate Judge Ellis said Chan, “who had no experience with employment discrimination cases, spent the next 18 months familiarizing herself with that area of the law,” and filed a complaint in 1997. “The case was hotly contested, but the parties engaged in settlement discussions before this court and before an outside mediator during the first half of 1988,” he said. “Sometime during this period, however, the relationship between Chan and plaintiffs soured and plaintiffs asked Ms. Chan to take no further action on their behalf.” Chan was granted leave to withdraw from the case and in 1999, was granted a charging lien for the work she had already performed. The plaintiffs’ new counsel went on to reach a $431,501 settlement. When Chan submitted her fee request to the court, the plaintiffs asked the court to reconsider its earlier finding that Chan was not dismissed for cause, and to rule that the attorney was entitled to no compensation for her work. In the alternative, they argued that Chan’s fee request was excessive. They also made a series of allegations that Chan was not competent to handle the case, and spent too much time researching, reviewing and preparing pleadings and other matters. In addition, they said Chan asserted unsubstantiated claims and intended to bill the plaintiffs for work done for other clients. ETHICS CHARGES REJECTED After calling these allegations “meritless,” Magistrate Judge Ellis rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that Chan violated four separate disciplinary rules. “The deficiencies enumerated by plaintiffs do not appear to match up with these alleged rule violations and plaintiffs do not indicate exactly what behavior by Chan violated which rules,” he said. “Furthermore, plaintiffs do little more than list the rules.” Ellis then turned to the fee request, which Chan based on a hourly rate of $350 per hour. “The court notes that the bulk of her hours were expended in 1997 … when she was two to three years admitted to the bar,” he said. “She had no experience in the area of employment discrimination and did not distinguish herself as the case progressed.” Ellis added that Chan was “clearly subordinate and deferential to Missan.” “In sum, she behaved very much like a new recruit,” he said. “Based on her skill and experience reflected in this case, the court finds that a reasonable rate for Chan is $120 per hour.” After reducing the hourly rate, Magistrate Judge Ellis found that “notwithstanding the investment of time necessitated by discovery, the magnitude of Chan’s excess, combined with her failure to adequately detail all of her activities, warrant a significant reduction of 50 percent of her hours.” Chan applied for fees based on 2,256.75 hours worked. The court rejected outright 62.5 of those hours for “hours expended on behalf of persons other than plaintiffs,” leaving 2,194.25, which he then cut by 50 percent, leaving about 1,097 hours. The magistrate judge also rejected Chan’s contention that the defendants had offered her $750,000 to settle the case, which would have strengthened her fee request argument. “The excessive research, the many hours getting up to speed, the unfamiliarity with the case law, were but symptoms of a far greater problem: Chan did not know how to close the case,” he said. “This was a case that cried out for settlement from the beginning.” Chan represented herself. Paul F. Millus of New York’s Snitow Kanfer Holtzer & Millus represented the plaintiffs.

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