District Courts "Must Show Their Work" and Provide Detailed Figures when Deciding Fee Awards

by Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP
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In Padgett v. Loventhal, U.S.C.A. 9th, DAR p. 1933 (Feb. 11, 2013), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided District Courts must explain how they reduce requests for fees and costs from partially victorious plaintiffs.  Joseph and Darla Padgett filed a civil rights complaint against eight defendants arising from a dispute with the City of Monte Sereno, California, and enforcement of a fence height ordinance.  Plaintiffs claimed violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech and their Fourteenth Amendment rights not to be subjected to selective enforcement of the law (as well as other claims).  

Defendants chipped away at the claims and by the time of trial only two claims survived and only two defendants remained.  By the time it reached the jury only one claim remained.  Ultimately, only one plaintiff prevailed on one claim against one defendant.  The jury awarded $1 in nominal damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. 

The prevailing plaintiff then sought attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. section 1988.  Judge Ware properly held that some of his claims were not successful, so fees for the entire litigation may be excessive.  The District Court eventually reduced plaintiff's $3.2 million fee request to $500,000, and reduced the $900,000 request for costs to $100,000. 

However, because the District Court did not explain how it determined these figures, the Ninth Circuit panel was unable to review the court's reasoning and vacated and remanded for a more complete explanation.  While the lower court properly recognized that plaintiff did not prevail on the vast majority of his claims, without a calculation, the appellate panel was unable to review the decision for an abuse of discretion. 

"We have long held that district courts must show their work when calculating attorneys fees," citing several previous cases for that conclusion. 

Moreover, the lower court must "specify reasons" for not awarding costs.  This rule is particularly important when, as here, there are many overlapping claims and a very mixed result.  In these types of cases, work often bears on multiple claims, only some of which are successful.  Fees for work which relate only to unsuccessful claims should not be awarded.  The difficult test, of course, is work which proves to be beneficial to both successful claims and unsuccessful claims.  Generally, the court should award fees for work contributing to the successful result even if the work is also useful to an unsuccessful claim.  Finally, the fees must also be reasonable. 

Because the lower court did not show it's work, the court vacated the award of both costs and fees and remanded for an explanation of how it used the lodestar method to reduce Padgett's fees and costs.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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