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Court Slashes Requested Attorneys’ Fees

The court in Kamali v. California Department of Transportation approved a “Draconian” reduction of attorneys’ fees by the trial court in a discrimination case. Plaintiff’s counsel won the case and sought more than $3.6 million in attorneys’ fees. The trial court awarded “only” $889,280 in fees.

KPC Legal Audit provided opinion testimony, by André E. Jardini, as to the reasonable amount of fees which might be awarded, recommending an award in the amount of $780,660. The reduction was based on a careful review of the rates charged by plaintiff’s counsel, and the degree of success achieved, among other concerns.

The case is illustrative of the high stakes in “fee shifting” cases, in awarding attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. This case proceeded under the California Government Code alleging discrimination based on mental and physical disabilities. Numerous such statutes provide for an award of attorneys’ fees. Fee litigation at the conclusion of a case is not uncommon. As occurred in Kamali, the prevailing party seeks an award of fees by motion, supporting the request by declaration testimony, usually that of the winning attorney. In opposing such motions, defendants have no opportunity to conduct discovery, and times are short, based on a motion calendar. The opposition is usually based on a discussion of the particular facts of the case, the level of success of the prevailing party and, very commonly, an expert declaration as to the reasonableness of the fees. KPC Legal Audit has provided expert declarations in more than 150 such cases over the years.

In making a fee award, courts ordinarily begin with the “lodestar,” i.e., the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate. This analysis was, as usual, found to be “fundamental to a determination of an appropriate attorneys’ fee award.”

In addition, as in Kamali, the prevailing party may seek “a multiplier” to enhance the lodestar amount. The Kamali party sought a multiplier of 1.75 times the lodestar amount of more than $2 million.

A detailed declaration described by the Court of Appeal as “a declaration of more than 100 pages from its expert, André E. Jardini, in opposition to Kamali’s motion” was pivotal in upholding the Court’s decision. The Court of Appeal stated:

In light of the detailed analysis by Cal Trans’s expert Jardini of the fees and hours claimed by Kamali’s counsel, if the trial court did rely on Jardini’s calculations, we cannot say that it was “clearly wrong” in doing so under the circumstances.

The Court also addressed the circumstances where the plaintiff was not entirely successful. In this case, Kamali prevailed on only two of eight causes of action. Under those circumstances, the Court found that “a reduced fee award is appropriate when a claimant achieves only limited success.”
The Jardini declaration also opined as to the reasonable availability of a multiplier under the circumstances of the case. The Court found, consistent with the declaration, that the case did not present novel or difficult issues or a result generally benefitting the public interest. The Court stated in this regard as follows:

Jardini discussed in his declaration why a multiplier was not appropriate in this case, including because (1) any award would come from public funds, citing San Diego Police Officers Association v. San Diego Police Department (1999) 76 Cal.App. 4th 19, 24 [applying a fractional multiplier of .20 to the attorneys’ fees requested due to limited success, no contingency involved and award “would ultimately be borne by the taxpayers”], (2) the case was not novel or difficult, and (3) the case did not serve a public benefit, citing Serrano v. Unruh (1982) 32 Cal.3d 621, 648 [“litigation will have no widespread public benefit”].

The Kamali case demonstrates the intricacies and importance of the significant proceedings which happen in a short time frame in prevailing party fee motions. Expert declarations are vital in making or opposing such fee requests.