The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled March 28 that an arbitrator was justified in reducing an award of attorneys’ fees for a plaintiff who pursued the wrong defendant earlier in the case.
Floyd Steven Wiedner, a former database administrator for Ferrellgas, had alleged disability discrimination and retaliation following his termination in 2016. After several years of litigation, the matter was sent to arbitration, where last year Wiedner was awarded $46,375 in lost wages, $15,000 for emotional distress and $131,678 in attorneys’ fees.
The fee award was about $75,000 less than Wiedner’s requested amount, which the arbitrator attributed to unnecessary litigation earlier in the case. Wiedner’s original suit had named Ferrellgas Partners Finance Corp. as a defendant, but on the eve of trial he amended his petition to substitute a separate entity, Ferrellgas Inc., as his actual employer. A Jackson County circuit judge allowed the substitution but then dismissed the suit entirely.
In 2020, the Western District reinstated the case and said the trial court needed to decide if Wiedner’s claims were subject to an arbitration agreement, as Ferrellgas Inc. alleged. Judge Jennifer Phillips ultimately granted Ferrellgas’ motion.
(The appeals court also said Wiedner could proceed on his claims against his former supervisor and a human resources official, despite a 2017 change to the Missouri Human Rights Act that, among other things, bars plaintiffs from naming individual employees as defendants. According to the opinion, the claims against the individuals were later dismissed.)
After Phillips confirmed the arbitration award last September, Wiedner once again appealed, arguing that the judge should have partially overturned the arbitration ruling and awarded him all of his claimed attorneys’ fees.
Judge Edward R. Ardini Jr. wrote for the Western District that the arbitrator had reduced Wiedner’s award because some of the submitted hours had been spent unreasonably pursuing the wrong defendant in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid arbitration.
“The arbitrator found that Wiedner’s tactics caused delay and needless extra work despite FPFC’s repeated protests that Wiedner had sued the wrong entity,” Ardini wrote. He added that the reason the MHRA allows plaintiffs to recover their fees is to make them whole. “The purpose is not to encourage parties to delay or unnecessarily prolong the litigation in an attempt to avoid an inevitable result such as arbitration.”
Judges Lisa White Hardwick and Karen King Mitchell concurred.
The court remanded the case for a determination of post-judgment interest, though in a footnote Ardini said Ferrellgas has already paid most of the judgment, with only the amount of the attorneys’ fees left to be satisfied. Andrew J. Lewis of Scharnhorst Ast Kennard Griffin in Kansas City, who argued for the company, said he regards the case mostly as a win, given the relatively small amount of the award and the plaintiff’s loss on most points appeal.
Mark A. Buchanan, an attorney for Wiedner, couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.
The case is Wiedner v. Ferrellgas Inc., WD85747.