No Playing Around: California Court Cuts Fee Request by 37%

Posted on November 6th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A California federal court has laid out a number of reasons for significantly reducing a request for attorneys’ fees. The case arose from a homeowners’ association’s adoption of a “no sports play” rule, which prohibited children under the age of 14 from being in the complex’s common area without adult supervision, and from engaging in any “sports activities” in the common area. A class of residents with children sued the association, and the parties eventually reached a settlement. Plaintiffs then requested $468,888 in attorneys’ fees, an amount to which defendants objected. The Court found that plaintiffs’ counsel billed at unreasonably high hourly rates, and that a number of hours were unreasonably expended. The reductions resulted in a final fee award of $296,020, 37% less than the amount requested.

The Court began its analysis by considering the requested hourly rates. In its analysis, the Court relied in part on the testimony of defendants’ expert. The expert testified that the hourly rates should be significantly lower, and based his recommendation on the 2016 Real Rate Report, a publication that collects data on legal spending, including fee rates by location, experience, firm size, areas of expertise, industry, and timekeeper role. The Court agreed that the requested hourly rates should be reduced, but not quite as significantly as the expert recommended due to the complex nature of the case. Accordingly, the Court found that a 10% rate reduction was appropriate, which would be applied after the reductions discussed below.

As to the requested number of hours, the Court first found that, on its face, “277.69 hours and $156,994 expended on investigatory tasks and drafting the complaint is not reasonable.” As such, the Court reduced these amounts by 50%. Moreover, the Court found that 162 hours spent on plaintiffs’ second-class certification motion should be reduced by 50%. The Court reasoned that such work “should have taken less research and labor given that they had already briefed class certification once.”

Additionally, the Court found plaintiffs improperly billed for administrative tasks and submitted a number of billing entries that were impermissibly vague. Tasks such as filing documents on ECF, preparing exhibits and cover sheets, preparing pro hac vice applications and notices of appearance, updating calendars, and “attending meetings” were clerical in nature and would normally be performed by a non-attorney. Hours spent on such tasks were therefore excluded, resulting in a $19,567 reduction. Further, a large proportion of plaintiffs’ entries were too vague. For example, plaintiffs’ billing records included vague entries such as “email to client,” “phone call with client,” and “complete internal memo for FHLP.” While entries such as these permeated plaintiffs’ fee petition, the Court only reduced fees associated with vague entries by $3,000, only because many of the entries related to investigation and the complaint, time which the court had already excluded.

In sum, the Court awarded $296,020 in attorneys’ fees, which amounted to a 37% reduction. This case serves as a useful guide for attorneys for several reasons. First, the case shows that a Court may be amenable to consulting the Real Rate Report when setting hourly rates. Attorneys should consult the comprehensive report when objecting to hourly rates. Finally, the case provides numerous examples of non-billable clerical tasks as well as the type of billing entries that are impermissibly vague.

Lewis v. Silvertree Mohave Homeowners’ Ass’n, Inc., No. C 16-03581 WHA, 2017 WL 5495816 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 16, 2017)

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