Dueling Appeals Resulted In No Change To Fee Award.
Alvarez v. W&L Harris Ranches, LLC, Case No. C074421 (3d Dist. Dec. 21, 2015) (unpublished) is an interesting case which primarily discusses the level of substantiation needed in a fee proceeding. It reinforces that California state court judges have a lot of discretion in this area, although there is reasoning that says more detail is better when it comes to substantiation.
In this one, FEHA plaintiff prevailed by winning a compensatory award of $92,500. Then, in a very contested fee proceeding, plaintiff requested a lodestar of $232,596.90 multiplied by a 2.5 multiplier for a total request of $581,492.25. Plaintiff did not submit any billing records, but relied on six charts showing the litigation phases coupled with hourly rates/total hours for each working professional. The defense vigorously contested both the hourly rates and ultimate request. The trial judge, albeit observing the lack of time records but based upon 33 years of experience as a practitioner, finally awarded $180,880 to plaintiff after a reconsideration motion from the defense—this included a 1.25 multiplier to the lodestar found reasonable by the lower court. Both sides were unhappy, inspiring appeals by both plaintiff and the defense.
No change in result occurred on appeal.
The Third District found that the hourly rates accepted by the trial court were reasonable--$275 “blended” rates for partners and associates, and $120 for paralegals and certified law students. The reviewing court also endorsed that the trial judge possessed a great amount of discretion in deciding the amount of a fee award, through this language directed at admittedly vague fee billing substantiation: “But just because some trial courts have found such vague showings sufficient, and those determinations have been upheld on appeal, does not mean that every trial court is bound to find a vague showing sufficient, or that a trial court that finds such a showing insufficient must be reversed. In essentially arguing otherwise, what Alvarez fails to appreciate is that the discretion to determine whether a particular showing is sufficient rests with the trial court, and the proper exercise of that discretion does not require every court to make exactly the same choice. One judge may find a vague showing sufficient, while another may not. In each case, however, the determination may well be within the wide range of discretion allowed those courts and thus may not be subject to reversal on appeal. Only if the court’s decision was clearly wrong, thereby amounting to an abuse of discretion, can an appellate court grant relief. [Citation omitted.] Here, however, we do not find any such error.”
However, the Court of Appeal did indicate that well documented fee submissions should be the norm, discussing situations where trial judges have great discretion to reduce requests for block billed time entries.
In the end, the appellate court found that FEHA awards should be guided by CCP § 1021.5 principles, and found that plaintiff was wrong to challenge the fee award given the vague time substantiation which was provided. The defense appeal was rejected given that the lower court did make reductions to the request both in an original order and reconsidered order, with no more haircuts being necessary.