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The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reviews a court's award of attorney's fees under a highly deferential abuse of discretion standard, but even this wide latitude is not unlimited latitude, and the district court still bears the responsibility of justifying its conclusions. The Illinois Probate Act does not expressly channel the trial court's discretion. Rather it simply requires that the minor's representative obtain "leave of court" before compounding or compromising any claim or any interest of the ward. 755 I.L.C.S. 5/19-8. Even though the statute itself doesn't specify limits on the court's discretion, a motion to a court's discretion is a motion, not to its inclination, but to its judgment; and its judgment is to be guided by sound legal principles. Discretion is not whim, and limiting discretion according to legal standards helps promote the basic principle of justice that like cases should be decided alike. Although the text of the provision does not specify any limits on the district court's discretion to allow or disallow fees, in a system of laws discretion is rarely without limits.
The law firm of Williams, Bax & Saltzman, P.C., represented Cole Goesel and his parents in a personal-injury suit that settled prior to trial. Because Cole was a minor, the law firm needed judicial approval to finalize the settlement. The parties' contingent-fee agreement entitled the firm to one-third of the gross settlement, while all litigation expenses would be covered by the Goesels' share. The district court refused to approve the settlement unless litigation expenses were deducted off the top and one-third of the net settlement was allocated to the firm. The judge also rejected the firm's attempt to count the cost of computerized legal research as a separately compensable litigation expense rather than rolling it into the fee recovery. The firm appealed the judge's order limiting its fees.
Did the district court err in refusing to approve the settlement unless litigation expenses were deducted off the top and one-third of the net settlement was allocated to the firm?
The Court held that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to approve the settlement. Without either a quantitative or qualitative basis for objection, the firm's bargained-for compensation could not be called unreasonable. There was no indication that the retainer agreement was the product of such gross inequity that it qualified as procedurally unconscionable, which was the standard for non-enforcement under Illinois law. Moreover, the Court held that it was not error to exclude the firm's computerized-research costs from the recoverable litigation expenses.