Ruff Decision for California Lawyers—Court Slashes Fees by Nearly 70%

Posted on October 23rd, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

In a case that should give future fee petitioners paws, a California appellate court affirmed a massive fee reduction involving holding periods at a dog shelter. Plaintiff’s dog was impounded at a county dog shelter and adopted after the shelter applied a four-business-day holding period. Plaintiff attempted to retrieve the dog, but he was one day late. He then sued the shelter, arguing that it was violating a local code by counting Saturday as a “business day.” The trial court ruled in favor of the county, but the decision was overturned on appeal. Plaintiff sought attorneys’ fees totaling $1,527,168. The trial court reduced the request by 69% and awarded $471,592.50, reasoning that plaintiff’s counsel spent an excessive amount of time litigating a relatively simple case. The decision was upheld on appeal.

The Court found that the case did not require extraordinary legal skill and that the time spent on the case should not have been as extensive as plaintiff claimed. The Court determined that no reasonable attorney would have “ever” billed a client for the amount of time claimed, and at the rates that were charged, in a case of this difficulty. The Court emphasized that the case only involved a simple issue of statutory interpretation of the term “business day,” that did not require any particular expertise or experience.

Moreover, the Court observed that plaintiffs sought $525 per hour for a significant amount of time spent typing, cite-checking, rule-checking, creating tables, and similar tasks that “are generally performed by clerical or paralegal staff.” Plaintiff also sought to be compensated for nearly 50 hours producing a few pages of unverified discovery responses. The Court also found that an excessive amount of time was spent practicing oral argument and conducting mock depositions in the office. Further, “based on the complexity of the case, the experience level of the attorneys and the prevailing market rates,” the Court reduced one attorney’s hourly rate from $525 to $250 an hour, and another attorney’s rate from $525 to $200 an hour.

The Court found similar problems with plaintiff’s requested hours and rates for the fee-dispute aspect of the litigation, and concluded that a reasonable attorney would have expended only half of the claimed hours on the entire case. Thus, the Court reduced the requested hours by half. After applying a multiplier of two in order to account for the contingency risk in the litigation, the reductions resulted in a total fee award of $471,592.50, 69% less than plaintiff requested.

This case shows courts’ hesitancy to hand out giant fee awards in relatively simple cases. Moreover, the case demonstrates that charging attorney rates for clerical- and paralegal-level work will not be permissible. Attorneys should view this case as a strong reminder to consider the complexity of a case when determining how to structure a litigation and what to bill clients.

Purifoy v. Howell, No. A144262, 2017 WL 6422532 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2017)

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