BYRON D. FRASER, Employee/Appellant, v. CITY OF ST. LOUIS PARK, SELF-INSURED/SEDGWICK CLAIMS MGMT. SERVS., INC., Employer.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
SEPTEMBER 18, 2007
ATTORNEY FEES - HEATON FEES. A determination that the attorney=s hourly rate and time expended were reasonable does not automatically entitle the attorney to the total fee claimed. Rather, a reasonable fee is to be determined based on all of the factors listed in Irwin v. Surdyk=s Liquor, 599 N.W.2d 132, 59 W.C.D. 319 (Minn. 1999), and those factors need not be given equal weight.
Determined by: Wilson, J., .Stofferahn, J., and Pederson, J.
Compensation Judge: Danny P. Kelly
Attorneys: Gary L. Manka, Katz, Manka, Teplinsky, Due & Sobol, Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellant. Mark A. Kleinschmidt, Cousineau, McGuire & Anderson, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondent.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge=s decision on attorney fees. We affirm.
The employee sustained an admitted work-related injury to his right knee while employed as a police officer by the City of St. Louis Park [the employer] on May 26, 2001. The employer was self-insured for workers= compensation purposes and did not offer the employee work within his restrictions. Rehabilitation efforts eventually focused on retraining, and a retraining plan was filed on June 30, 2004, calling for the employee to attend college to complete a Master of Education degree in special education. On July 8, 2004, a Notice of Approval for Retraining Plan was filed. The employee purchased a laptop computer and accessories at a cost of $1840.69 for use in his schooling. On July 23, 2004, the employer was informed by the employee=s attorney, Gary Manka, that the employee was making a claim for his computer expenses. The employer denied the claim.
On September 9, 2004, the employee filed a Rehabilitation Request, seeking payment for the laptop computer. The employer and insurer filed a Rehabilitation Response on September 20, 2004, denying payment.
The Rehabilitation Request proceeded to hearing on May 17, 2005. In findings and order filed on August 2, 2005, the compensation judge denied the employee=s request for payment for the laptop. The employee appealed, and, in a decision filed on January 25, 2006, this court reversed the compensation judge and ordered the employer to reimburse the employee for the laptop computer.
On March 9, 2006, the employee=s attorney filed a Statement of Attorney Fees seeking $10,092.50 in Heaton fees. The employer filed an objection, and the attorney fee issue proceeded to hearing on January 23, 2007. At the hearing, Mr. Manka amended his fee petition to claim two fewer hours, for a total fee claim of $9,542.50.
In findings and order filed on March 22, 2007, the compensation judge found that Mr. Manka was entitled to $4,125.00 for representing the employee on the Rehabilitation Request. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers= Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether Athe findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.@ Minn. Stat. ' 176.421, subd. 1 (2006). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, Athey are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.@ Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, Aunless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.@ Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
The compensation judge, in unappealed findings, found that Mr. Manka spent 34.7 hours representing the employee in the rehabilitation matter and that Athe claimed attorney time is well documented and reasonable.@ The judge also found that $275 per hour was a reasonable hourly rate for the attorney services provided by Mr. Manka. In his appeal brief, Mr. Manka contends that the court need not look at the Irwin factors where the compensation judge has determined that both the time spent and the hourly rate were Areasonable, necessary, appropriate and related to the Employee=s rehabilitation issue.@ Once those determinations have been made, Mr. Manka argues, Athe Compensation Judge should simply multiply the determined reasonable time spent by the determined reasonable hourly rate to arrive at the appropriate fees.@ We are not persuaded.
As this court cautioned in Borgan v. Bob Hegland, Inc., 62 W.C.D. 452 (W.C.C.A. 2002),
a claim for Roraff/Heaton fees is not merely a matter of multiplying the attorney=s hourly rate times the amount of time spent on the case less the contingent fee awarded. The time reasonably necessary to present the case is but one of the Irwin factors. Rather, a reasonable fee must be determined based on all seven of the Irwin factors.
Id. at 462. The Irwin factors include Athe amount involved, the time and expense necessary to prepare for trial, the responsibility assumed by counsel, the experience of counsel, the difficulties of the issues, the nature of the proof involved, and the results obtained.@ Irwin, 599 N.W. 2d at 142, 59 W.C.D. at 336. The Irwin factors need not be weighed evenly. The issue is whether the judge=s decision was reasonable based on the record as a whole, considering and applying all of the Irwin factors. Wilmes v.Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 61 W.C.D. 548 (W.C.C.A. 2001).
In the present case, the compensation judge found that the disputed claim was Asolely@ for rehabilitation expenses in the amount of $1840.69, that 34.7 hours of attorney time was reasonable, that Mr. Manka=s hourly fee was reasonable, that Mr. Manka assumed Anormal responsibility@ in the matter, that Mr. Manka has 30 years of experience in the practice of workers= compensation law, that the nature of proof was Anormal@ for a workers= compensation matter, and that the issues in the case Awere not complex@ and Awere not difficult from a factual and legal standpoint.@ (Emphasis added).
At oral argument, Mr. Manka contended that the compensation judge Aplucked a number out of the air@ in arriving at a fee of $4125. He further argued that a judge must Ado more than pay lip service to the Irwin factors.@
The facts of this case are very similar to those in Jeffrey v. Banana Republic, WC06-273 (W.C.C.A. May 1, 2007). In Jeffrey, the employee was seeking payment of 2.2 weeks of temporary total disability benefits (totaling $286) and medical expenses of $2,371. The employee=s attorney in that case recovered those benefits and sought attorney fees of $9008.39, based on 35.9 hours of legal services at $225 - $250 per hour, plus one hour of legal assistant=s time. The compensation judge found that the time expended was reasonable, and the parties stipulated that the hourly fee was reasonable. The judge also found that the issues were not difficult or complex and awarded the employee=s attorney $4924.21 in fees. This court affirmed, and that decision was summarily affirmed by the Minnesota Supreme Court on August 21, 2007.
At oral argument, Mr. Manka argued that Jeffrey is distinguishable because the compensation judge in Jeffrey wrote a memorandum wherein he articulated the basis for his award, whereas, in the instant case, the compensation judge did not. We agree that the judge=s memorandum in the present case contains nothing to explain the basis for his decision. However, because the record supports the judge=s finding that the issues Awere not complex and were not difficult from a factual and legal standpoint,@ and because the total amount of the claim was less than $2000, the judge=s reduction of the claimed fee was not unreasonable. This court will generally defer to the compensation judge who presided at the hearing to determine a reasonable fee award. Peterson v. Everything Clean, Inc., 55 W.C.D. 126 (W.C.C.A. 1996). Here, the judge=s findings are sufficiently detailed to allow this court to determine the basis for the judge=s decision, and, because that decision was reasonable, we affirm.
 Heaton v. J.E. Fryer & Co., 36 W.C.D. 316 (W.C.C.A. 1983).
 That hearing also addressed a claim petition seeking penalties and interest. No appeal was taken from the findings connected with the claim petition.
 See Irwin v. Surdyk=s Liquor, 599 N.W.2d 132, 59 W.C.D. 319 (Minn. 1999).
 The memorandum reads, in its entirety,
This compensation judge has carefully considered the entire record in this matter, including the testimony at trial, documentary evidence submitted, and also the arguments ably presented by counsel for each of the parties. He has concluded that the evidence supports his findings as to the issues before him in the present proceeding; no further comment or explanation if [sic] necessary.