Monday, January 11, 2016

Trial Court Must Show Its Work on Lodestar

Kerkeles v. City of San Jose, No. H040919 (D6 Dec. 18, 2015)

The settlement agreement in a civil rights case permitted Plaintiff to seek an award of attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 from the court. Under § 1988, fees are computed using a lodestar—hours times reasonable rate, potentially adjusted by a multiplier. But the unadjusted rate times time measure is presumptively the reasonable fee. And, as the court here explains, in making that calculation, a trial court needs to show its work.

If a trial court questions the time time spent or whether the rates are market, it needs to explain its adjustments. In particular, if it thinks the time spent is excessive, it needs to give a specific reasoned basis for the reduction—shaving a substantial percentage off the top of total hours is viewed as suspect. Here, the trial court reduced plaintiff’s lawyer’s hours by half, without giving any reasoned explanation. That reduction—which the court here calls a ”draconian, blanket reduction in complete and uncritical conformance to the defendants’ proposals”—would not fly.

As to the rates, the fee applicant party bears the burden of showing its rates are reasonable in the relevant market. The opposing party can rebut that showing. If the trial court makes a reasoned determination, its computation merits significant deference, given the trial judge
s awareness of his or her own legal community. But the trial court here didn’t make any such reasoned determination here. So it needs to do that on remand too.

Reversed and remanded for reconsideration.

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