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California: Federal Court Grants Increased Attorney Fee Rates in Armstrong Disability Case

On August 8, 2011, a California federal district court approved an increase in the hourly rates for the plaintiffs’ attorneys due to additional experience the attorneys had accrued since the beginning of the litigation.

The court had entered an order on September 20, 1996, granting an injunction that required California prison officials to develop plans ensuring that state prisoners and parolees were afforded their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including state prisoners and parolees held in county jails. [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.28; July 2003, p.14; Sept. 1998, p.13; Sept. 1997, p.3].

The district court also held the plaintiffs were the prevailing party, which entitled them to fees and litigation costs. A March 26, 1997 order governed the payment of attorney’s fees and any dispute over fees.

The parties agreed in 2009 that the plaintiffs’ attorneys, paralegals and other legal support staff would be compensated at 2008 hourly rates for work completed in 2009. At the end of the first quarter for 2010, however, they were unable to agree on rates for work performed in 2010. The plaintiffs sought an increase, which the defendants rejected. Mediation efforts failed to reach an accord.

The plaintiffs asserted in a motion to compel compensation that the increased 2010 hourly rates they submitted were reasonable, as the 2008 rates resulted in their attorneys being paid $110,070 less than they should receive.

Under the ADA, reasonable attorney’s fees are determined by looking to the “prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Several factors may be considered, “including the novelty and difficulty of the issues, the skill required to try the case, whether or not the fee is contingent, the experience held by counsel, and fees awarded in similar cases.”

To meet its burden of establishing that fees are reasonable, a party may submit affidavits from counsel and from “other attorneys regarding prevailing fees in the community, and rate determination in other cases, particularly those setting a rate for the [party’s] attorney.”

For partner-level attorneys, the plaintiffs sought rates ranging from $560 for a 1997 law school graduate to $800 for a 1962 law school graduate. For associates, the plaintiffs requested a range of $285 for a 2009 graduate to $510 for a 1993 graduate. For paralegals they sought rates ranging from $200 to $240. Finally, they sought rates from $150 to $185 for litigation support staff and paralegal clerks. These rates applied to personnel with the San Francisco law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan.

For attorneys with the Prison Law Office, the plaintiffs sought rates ranging from $275 for a 2009 graduate to $700 for a 1978 graduate. They also requested $170 hourly for their office manager.

Attorneys with the Bingham-McCutchen law firm sought hourly rates of $400 for an associate who graduated in 2008, $480 for an associate who graduated in 2006 and $655 for a partner who graduated in 1997. An attorney who was a 1988 graduate and represented the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund sought $565 hourly.

The defendants offered no evidence that the requested rates were unreasonable, nor did they dispute they were “prevailing market rates in the Bay Area.” The district court held that attorneys, like state employees, are entitled to hourly rate increases for additional experience gained over time.

The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel and ordered the defendants to pay the disputed increased rates with interest. Note that in cases brought under the ADA involving prisoners, attorney fees are not capped pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act as the ADA contains its own attorney fee provisions. See: Armstrong v. Brown, 805 F.Supp.2d 918 (N.D. Cal. 2011).

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Related legal case

Armstrong v. Brown