Friday, May 6, 2011

Second Circuit affirms large attorneys' fees award

There are two days of reckoning for a defendant that loses a civil rights trial. The first day of reckoning is the amount of the jury verdict, usually read by the jury foreman at the close of trial when the judge asks how much money the plaintiff gets. The other shoe drops a few weeks later, in the form of motion papers filed by the plaintiff's attorney. This is the attorneys' fees motion.

The case is Manzo v. Sovereign Motor Cars, Ltd., a summary order decided on April 15. This is a Title VII case where plaintiff alleged that she was sexually harassed and then retaliated against for complaining about it. The jury awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitives. The trial court awarded Manzo's attorneys $314,534.00 in attorneys' fees. So Sovereign Motor Cars loses twice.

When someone loses at trial, you often read in the newspaper that they are going to appeal. Appeals are not easy to win, however. It's all about the standard of review. Once the jury weighs in, the Court of Appeals is loathe to second guess its credibility assessments. But challenging the jury's findings is a romp in the park compared with appealing from an award of attorneys' fees. The Court of Appeals reviews fee awards for an "abuse of discretion," a standard that is particularly deferential to the trial court's judgment, owing to the judge's intimate familiarity with the case.

I guess Sovereign Motors couldn't bear the thought of paying more than $300,000 in attorneys' fees on top of the quarter million dollars in damages. The appeal fails. With limited analysis beyond reminding us about the deferential standard of appellate review, the Court of Appeals affirms the attorneys' fees award. For details, you have to read the district court opinion, which provides some insight into how these motions are decided.

As the case was tried in the Eastern District of New York, hourly rates are lower than cases handled in the Southern District. Still, Judge Gleeson awarded lead counsel in this case (with 30 years' experience) $480 per hour. The court notes this is "at the upper end of the range typically awarded in this district," but Judge Gleeson notes that attorney Moskowitz "was brought in to try the case, his trial skills may well be the reason for the favorable jury award, and I conclude that reasonable paying clients would be willing to pay $480 per hour for an attorney of his caliber." Nice words for the prevailing attorney. The other partner who tried the case (with 19 years' experience) was awarded $360 per hour. A lengthy footnote in the district court ruling gives a good summary of recent hourly rates in EDNY cases.

The district court also rejected defendants' challenge to the number of hours expended in litigating the case (987 hours) and allegedly vague billing entries. The trial court also rejected the argument that counsel was not entitled to any fees for litigating unsuccessful claims. These objections are commonplace, and each judge seems to have his or own view on how to resolve them. By way of example, Judge Gleeson upholds the following time entry as sufficiently precise: 12.0 hours for "editing cross examinations of all potential witnesses; editing opening statements; begin work on summation." While one claim did not succeed at trial (involving an overtime violation), it was sufficiently related to the successful harassment claim that counsel could recover for that work. Defendant faces a third penalty: plaintiff's counsel gets fees for work expended on the successful appeal.

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