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Judge awards Gibson's attorneys $6.5 million in fees on top of damages (UPDATED)

  • 071019-OBERLIN-VS-GIBSONS-KB03

    Judge John Miraldi addresses the court on Wednesday, July 10.

    KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — The law firms that represented Gibson’s Bakery and its owners in a lawsuit against Oberlin College have been awarded approximately $6.5 million in attorney fees by Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi.

The amount is on top of the $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages Oberlin College has been ordered to pay the bakery and its owners, who won a lawsuit against the college last month.

The fees will be split between the law firms of Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty; Tzangas Plakas Mannos; and attorney James N. Taylor of Elyria.

Lee Plakas, one of the lead attorneys for the Gibsons, said Thursday that Miraldi’s decision “keeps the courthouse doors open” for small businesses and individuals who otherwise “would not be able to withstand the power and resources” of an institution like Oberlin College.

“The jury’s verdict opened the eyes of a nation to recognize the college’s need to have an adult in the room,” he said.

Attorney Ronald Holman, who represented Oberlin College, referred all questions to college officials Thursday. Oberlin College had no official comment on the matter, spokesman Scott Wargo said.

Attorneys for the Gibsons initially sought between $9.5 million and $14.5 million in fees and more than $404,000 to reimburse them for expenses incurred while representing the Gibsons. Their representation amounted to more than 14,400 billable hours between April 2017 and this month.

Given a chance to rebut those claims, Oberlin College attorneys estimated during a hearing July 10 that fees payable to the Gibsons’ attorneys by the college more reasonably were between $2 million and $2.25 million.

Oberlin College attorneys asked the court to award fees to Gibsons’ attorneys based only on their successful claims and not the ones rejected by jurors. They also asked Miraldi to exclude any fees or expenses for expert testimony disallowed by the court.

Defense attorneys billed Oberlin College for more than 15,600 work hours, they told the court July 10.

In Miraldi’s ruling, he said the Ohio Supreme Court has a two-step process for figuring out attorney fees, which involves multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably spent on the case. This is known as a lodestar number, and provides an estimated value of services.

The court can adjust this number up or down. Miraldi found the reasonable hourly rate for the plaintiff’s attorneys to be an average of $290 per hour. Multiplied by the 14,417 billable hours “reasonably expended” representing the Gibsons, he ruled the lodestar number to be $4,180,930.

Miraldi then multiplied that number by a factor of 1.5 to reach $6,271,395 in attorney fees. Factors included in Miraldi’s decision, he wrote, were the time and labor required; the novelty and difficulty of the legal questions involved in the case; and the experience, reputation and abilities of the attorneys involved.

The Krugliak firm also was awarded expenses totaling almost $214,000, Tzangas Plakas Mannos received $79,500 in expenses and Taylor about $800 in expenses. That totals slightly more than $294,000, or about three-quarters of the expenses the plaintiffs sought to recoup, according to Miraldi’s ruling.

Following a six-week trial, jurors found that the college libeled and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the bakery’s co-owner, David Gibson; that the college and its vice president/dean of students Meredith Raimondo libeled and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on his father, Allyn W. Gibson; and that the college libeled the bakery as well as intentionally interfered with its business relationships.

Jurors originally awarded the Gibsons $44.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages — the largest libel judgment in Ohio history. That amount later was reduced by Miraldi, due to state laws governing caps on civil judgments.

The lawsuit followed an incident in November 2016 during which a student tried to use a fake ID to buy alcohol and shoplifted wine from the West College Street store. He and two other students, who are black, then assaulted the clerk who chased the thief from the store.

The clerk, Allyn D. Gibson, is white and the son of owner David Gibson.

Students protested, calling the bakery racist and claiming black shoppers and black shoplifters were treated differently. The college also briefly stopped its daily catering order from the bakery, a business relationship that stretched back more than 100 years to before World War I.

The students involved in the theft and assault eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal charges. The Gibsons sued the college and Raimondo for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress and intentional interference with business relationships in 2017.

Attorneys for Oberlin College have said in court that they intend to appeal the initial verdict. Holman declined comment on that issue Thursday.

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.


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