Plaintiff’s Challenges To Hourly Rates, Billing Substantiation, And Staffing Rejected By Trial and Appellate Courts.
Lund v. Gifford, Case No. B259366 (2d Dist., Div. 3 Dec. 2, 2016) (unpublished) is a good example of how a successful defendant’s attorneys should draft a fee petition after winning a SLAPP motion on behalf of their client.
Defendant moved to recoup $73,780 in fees, supported by declarations from the partner and associate working the case. The partner submitted a declaration indicating he was a 20-year practicing attorney and his $590 hourly rate was reasonable for comparable Orange County large firms. The associate (a five year practicing attorney) submitted a declaration indicating her hourly rate was $490 in 2013 and $500 in 2014, and that she excluded work unrelated to the SLAPP motion from the fee claim. In response, plaintiff submitted a declaration from a fee expert who opined that $299-375 should be the appropriate hourly rate and that the work was excessive, suggesting the fee award should be in the $22,634.30 - $28,387.50 range.
The trial court awarded $66,627, finding the requested hourly rates were reasonable based on the judge’s own perception that fifth year associates in L.A. firms bill between $390-$600 per hour. The judge found the work to be reasonable in magnitude, but reduced the request for certain discovery work which could have been allowed (but was not).
Defendant’s appeal of the fee award was unsuccessful, in addition to not obtaining a reversal of the underlying SLAPP grant. The appellate court found that the declarations were detailed, augmented by also including verified time statements—no problem in substantiation, with the defense not having to introduce salary surveys to meet a fee petition burden of proof. The appellate court could not say the case was overstaffed with one partner and one associate, especially given that the SLAPP motion was somewhat complex in nature. On the hourly rates, the lower court was within its right to make its own determination of what was reasonable based on knowledge of the relevant legal market. Finally, although there was some block billing, it was not so vague as to prevent meaningful review of the performed work.