Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Appellate courts don't like to second-guess trial court attorneys' fees rulings in civil rights cases

Every civil rights lawyer knows about the fee-shifting statutes. Under these laws, 42 U.S.C. 1988 in particular, the prevailing plaintiff recovers his legal fees from the losing defendant. Those fees usually go to the plaintiffs lawyer, the reward that follows years of litigation without any payment on a case that posed a risk that the plaintiff might lose and the lawyer gets nothing. This case shows us how it works, and why it is difficult to challenge the district court's reasoning on an attorney's' fees motion.

The case is Ortiz v. City of New York, a summary order issued on February 1. Ortiz prevailed at trial on his excessive force claim against the police, winning $118,000 in damages. His lawyers then moved for attorneys' fees in the amount of $944,987.25, premised on more than 1,000 hours of legal work at hourly rates of $675 and $575. The trial court slashed and burned that fee application, awarding the attorneys $221,502.98 in fees, based on a uniform hourly rate of $300. Plaintiff appeals, but that effort runs into the settled principle that the trial courts have broad discretion in awarding fees because they and not the Court of Appeals saw the case from the ground floor and presumably knows if the case was efficiently handled. Plus, the appellate judges really don't want to get their hands dirty on a fee motion, with its time logs, hourly rates, and fighting among the lawyers on both sides about money, which is never a pleasant fight in any context. The Supreme Court also says fee awards should reflect "rough justice," meaning "auditing perfection" is not the goal so long as the trial court generally gets it right.

Those discretionary legal standards doom this appeal. The Second Circuit (Cabranes, Lynch, and Marrero [D.J.]) notes that one factor that district courts may consider in awarding fees is whether the case was straightforward or complex. The Second Circuit says the district court "appropriately considered the complexity of a matter because a reasonable paying client would consider the complexity of his or her case when deciding whether an attorney's proposed hourly is fair, reasonable, and commensurate with the proposed action." The appellate court will not second-guess the trial court's judgment on this issue, even if poses a hypothetical question about what a reasonable client might pay his lawyer, a model endorsed by the Court of Appeals over a decade ago in Arbor Hill v. County of Albany, 522 F.3d 182 (2d Cir. 2008). Whether that hypothetical is accurate in the real-world is another story.

What about the district court's ruling that slashed down the hours sought on the fee motion? The district court figured the total hours amounted to 38 weeks of full-time work on what the court also deemed a relatively straightforward case. These hours were excessive, the court said, and the Court of Appeals will not second-guess that judgment, either. Let's face it, that's a lot of hours. 

Plaintiff does get a small victory on this appeal. It turns out that, under the district court's calculation, $221,000 is not the correct number. The right number is $291,000. Somewhere on the trial court phase of this motion, the numbers got confused or something. So plaintiff's attorneys get an additional $70,000 in fees thanks to this appeal. That may be relatively small consolation in light of the overall fees they requested, but, hey, $70,000 is $70,000.


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