MIAMI — Facing sanctions from federal judges, a lawyer at one of the two law firms handling the majority of overtime violation lawsuits in Florida has promised to scale down the practice, while the other big firm is beefing up, opening offices throughout the country.

The two law firms — the Pantas Law Firm and Morgan & Morgan, both of Orlando, Fla. — face sanctions from the entire Middle District of Florida federal bench for allegedly filing hundreds of wage-and-hour cases and frequently missing scheduling deadlines.

They could be barred from filing any more overtime cases in the district, which could make it harder for a worker to secure representation in that region.

During a hearing on Aug. 6, attorney Richard Celler, who heads the wage-and-hour division of Morgan & Morgan, told Magistrate Judge Gregory J. Kelly that he feels compelled to take such cases in light of a recent audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found that the U.S. Department of Labor has, in recent years, sharply reduced the number of overtime cases it has brought.

The audit showed that the number of wage-and-hour complaints brought by the department nationally declined from a high of 51,643 in 1998 to 29,584 in 2007.

Growing ‘by need’

Many of the firm’s clients are poor, unskilled workers earning the minimum wage who believe that their employers have shorted their pay.

“The bottom line is . . . we are a growing department, not necessarily by desire, but by need,” Celler said during the hearing, adding that the audit showed that the Labor Department “is not doing their job. They dropped the ball. When people call to complain about wage-and-hour violations, they’re sitting on them.”

Department of Labor spokesman Michael Biddle, in an e-mail response to a request for comment, said the figures reflected a decline in the number of worker complaints, from 37,025 in 1997 to 24,950 in 2007. Individual recoveries for back wages actually are up, he said.

During the past few years, privately brought wage-and-hour lawsuits have become the most common form of employment suit, increasing 228% from 2001 to 2007, according to the Federal Judicial Center. Judges have complained that the suits — brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) — are clogging the federal courts, particularly in Florida, which leads the nation in this type of suit.

The judges in the Middle District of Florida, deciding that they’d had enough of missed deadlines by the Pantas and Morgan firms, issued a joint order on April 29 directing nine lawyers from the two firms to show cause as to why they should not be sanctioned.

Between March 2007 and March 2008, judges in the district issued 120 “show cause” orders — essentially strong admonishments — to the nine lawyers for allegedly missing scheduling deadlines.

During court hearings and in documents, Konstantine Pantas, who heads the five-lawyer Pantas Law Firm, and Celler took different positions with Kelly, who was assigned to oversee the action. Pantas asked the judge not to bar him from filing future FLSA cases.

“The case load of each attorney and paralegal will be gradually reduced over the next few weeks,” he said in a written response to the court. “As the cases we currently have filed are settled or closed through other disposition, the reduced caseload will be the par. It is the undersigned’s belief, and the belief of the other attorneys and management at the firm, that our focus should be on quality instead of quantity.”

Celler, while apologizing for missing deadlines and opting for “quantity over quality” in recent months, defended the need for his practice. He said to Kelly, “there’s no secret that the federal bench is not enamored with these cases.”

Kelly fired back, denying that the bench disdains wage-and-hour cases.

“I take great offense at that,” Kelly said. “I’m a public servant and I have responsibility to address every type of case that comes in front of me and to address each case evenhandedly.”

Kelly has not yet ruled on whether the lawyers will be sanctioned or barred from filing cases within the district.

What’s drawn the bench’s ire is a failure by plaintiffs’ attorneys to comply with a scheduling order that requires them to file a statement of damages sought within 30 days of filing an overtime suit. The Middle District of Florida apparently is the only federal judicial district to have issued such an order.

Celler said the demand just sets up the cases for failure, since it is impossible to speculate as to damages before employers turn over his clients’ pay files.