(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.)
ELYRIA — Oberlin College’s potential multimillion-dollar liability could increase with a judge’s ruling on whether it has to pay the attorney fees for Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family who successfully sued the college in court last month.
No ruling was issued following a three-hour hearing in his courtroom Wednesday, but Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi gave attorneys for the college and the Gibsons until the end of the day Friday to submit additional briefs and arguments in writing.
Attorneys for David and Allyn Gibson and Gibson’s Bakery have asked Miraldi to award them somewhere between $9 million and $14.5 million in attorney fees in addition to compensatory and punitive damages.
A jury of eight awarded the Gibsons a total of $44.2 million in damages on June 13, which is the largest monetary award in Ohio history for any libel or slander case, according to the plaintiffs and an expert witness in attorney fees whom they put on the stand Wednesday.
Jurors determined after six weeks of testimony that Oberlin College and its vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, defamed the Gibsons, intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them and interfered with their business during and after a series of student protests against Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin in November 2016.
Miraldi later reduced the jury’s award to a total of $25 million, citing Ohio laws that cap punitive damage awards.
Whether or not to award the fees and how much to award is now up to Miraldi. An expert for Oberlin College testified Wednesday that Miraldi should award the Gibsons’ attorneys no more than $2.25 million, if the judge awards any attorney fees at all.
According to Wednesday’s testimony, defense attorneys billed Oberlin College for more than 15,600 hours totaling $4,932,200 along with nearly $294,000 in expenses. Some of those billable hours were at a reduced rate, Oberlin College attorney Ronald Holman noted.
Attorneys for the Gibsons billed their clients for more than 14,400 hours, totaling nearly $4,856,000, plus more than $400,000 in expenses including expert witnesses.
Holman called the plaintiff’s application for payment of fees and expenses “excessive and unreasonable” and asked Miraldi to use his discretion to deny those fees. He also told Miraldi the college plans to appeal the punitive damage findings.
“We believe the plaintiffs have been adequately compensated by the awardance of compensatory damages,” Holman said.
A request for more than $9 million and up to $14.5 million in attorney fees is both “reasonable and appropriate” under the Ohio Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, attorney Dennis Lansdowne of the Cleveland-based law firm Spangenberg Shibley & Liber, testified Wednesday.
Lansdowne — who recently won a $70.5 million wrongful death lawsuit for a client in Lorain County — said attorney fees are judged reasonable or not based on the time, work and legal skill required, their novelty and difficulty, whether they preclude the attorneys involved from taking other cases, a study of the fees charged for similar services in the same location and a host of other standards.
The Gibson’s Bakery case “consumed” the lawyers who worked on it, Lansdowne testified, with no guarantee of success as defamation lawsuits are notoriously difficult to prove.
“If this isn’t an exceptional case, I don’t know what is,” he testified.
Attorneys for the Canton law firms of Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty and Tzangas Plakas Mannos, two of the three firms that represented the Gibsons at trial, fall “absolutely within the range I had found and knew for services” in the region with rates that are “reasonable, customary and appropriate,” he testified.
Lee Plakas, lead counsel for the Gibsons, commands a rate of $675 an hour due to his experience, reputation and history of success, Lansdowne said on cross examination, during which Holman also grilled him on whether it was “appropriate” for the plaintiff’s attorneys to charge for expenses such as overnight hotel lodging in Elyria or for the services of expert witnesses whose testimony was forbidden by Miraldi’s orders.
Many civil cases are settled without expert witnesses testifying, but those same experts, once paid, “they don’t give their money back,” Lansdowne said with a chuckle.
Attorneys for Oberlin College called on expert and attorney Eric Zagrans, who testified Wednesday that he disagreed with Lansdowne’s representation of the case as “exceptional.”
At $25 million, the combined compensatory and punitive damages awarded by the jury is “more than sufficient” to compensate the Gibson family’s attorneys, whose contract with the Gibson family has a contingency clause seeking up to 40 percent of any potential award as compensation for a victory, Zagrans testified.
Zagrans testified he was only able to go through the most recent six months of bills submitted by Gibsons’ attorneys because he received the documents just after 6 p.m. Monday. He testified he had not slept in the past 24 hours going through the documents on behalf of Oberlin College’s defense team.
Attorney fees awarded to Canton law firms like KWGD and Tzangas Plakas should not be comparable to fees demanded for legal representation in Lorain County, Zagrans testified. That includes Plakas’ $675 an hour billing rate, which could increase by a factor of two or three depending on certain factors in Miraldi’s decision, he said.
Prior to hearing testimony Wednesday, Miraldi denied a motion by attorneys for Oberlin College to reschedule the hearing until July 20 to allow them more time to review 450 pages of documents provided by their opponents less than 48 hours before the hearing.
Holman said he received the majority of those documents late Monday, giving him and his fellow attorneys only a single business day to prepare. That left Oberlin College “severely disadvantaged and prejudiced for a hearing on attorney’s fees,” Holman said.
The court’s docket was more disadvantaged by the six-week trial than Oberlin College and its attorneys were, Miraldi said. His drug court docket was handed off to a magistrate, two bench trials and 10 sentencing hearings rescheduled and three jury trials were pushed back until next week to accommodate the Gibson’s case, the judge said.
Miraldi also said his seven years as a judge and 25 years experience as a civil litigator would enable him to consider all the arguments before making a ruling.
“This court is particularly equipped in this case to separate the fluff from the real,” he said.
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