The Pro Bono Road to Riches!

Don’t be shy about asking for attorneys fees. Don’t be shy to ask for more than 100 times the suggested schedule in the local rules. Don’t be shy to ask for an amount that far exceeds the amount of damages awarded to your client. Don’t be shy about anything, including the fact that you’re asking for several hundred thousand dollars in fees for a case you took on pro bono.

Had O’Melveny and Myers been more forward, they might have received more than the roughly $124,000 in fees approved by the trial court and affirmed by the Court of Appeal in Cruz v. Ayromloo, case no. B190959 (2d Dist. Oct. 3, 2007).

The Case

The landlord in Cruz was sued by more than 30 tenants on several causes of action arising from landlord’s refusal to let the tenants return to their units after they were evacuated by the city because the building was unsafe. The trial court awarded a per-rental-unit measure of damages, plus damages individual to each tenant, such as the return of security deposits, loss of personal property, and emotional distress.

Four of the tenants — apparently the only ones with written lease agreements that included an attorney fee provision — moved for attorney fees of more than $400,000. They insisted this figure excluded fees unique to the remaining plaintiffs (such as for discovery relating only to other plaintiffs or for trial time related to issues exclusive to the other plaintiffs).

The trial court significantly trimmed the amount but awarded nearly $124,000 in fees. The Court of Appeal affirms in full.

The Rejected Challenges to the Attorney Fee Award

First, the fact that the award exceeds the amount set forth in the schedule of suggested fees in the local rules (specifically, Los Angeles Superior Court Local Rule 3.2) — indeed, the landlord contends the amount of fees awarded is 39 times the guideline in the schedule (and the fees awarded were less than a third of what was requested!) — doesn’t mean the court abused its discretion. The rule itself allows the court to depart from the guidelines and Civil Code section 1717 says fees shall be “fixed by the court.” It was reasonable for the court to use a “lodestar” method of calculation: hours times hourly rates.

Second, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees in an amount greater than the damages awarded. “It is not uncommon to award attorneys’ fees in an amount higher than the total damages awarded to a plaintiff or plaintiffs in a particular case.”

Third, the court did not err by awarding fees for the non-contract claims as well as the contract claim. The fee provision in this case applied to any action “in connection with” the lease. Since all the claims and damages, including those in tort, arose from the breach of the lease, there was no need to apportion fees between contract and tort causes of action.

Fourth, the decision confirms that fees for work done regarding issues of fact or law common to all the plaintiffs do not have to be reduced to the requesting plaintiffs’ pro rata share:

In any event, respondents sought fees for legal work performed solely on their behalf and the fees were awarded only to them and not to the other tenants. Respondents and the other tenants all lived in the same building, were evacuated from the building, and were not allowed to return to the building by appellant. All tenants asserted the same causes of action. The attorneys conducted legal research pertaining to the overarching legal issues common to all tenants, including the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance and the claims for forcible detainer, wrongful eviction, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The attorneys had to do the same legal research and analysis in preparing their case on behalf of respondents, irrespective of the number of potential tenants benefiting from the legal work performed.

***

[T]he fact other tenants incidentally benefited from the legal work performed on behalf of respondents does not diminish respondents’ contractual right to recover attorneys’ fees litigating issues common to all.

(Footnotes omitted.)

The Pro Bono Angle

Finally, it’s very interesting that the trial court trimmed the $413,000 request by half right off the top because “counsel knew this was a mildly pro bono type of work.” Mildly pro bono?

Plaintiffs did not cross-appeal to contest the amount of the award. I’m sure O’Melveny now wishes they did:

Finally, we find it important to emphasize something we are not deciding in this case. Respondents elected not to appeal the trial court’s ruling the fee award should be reduced in part because respondents’ counsel had agreed to provide representation on a “pro bono” basis. This court’s affirmance of the judgment should not be construed as signifying our approval of this particular element of that judgment. We do not find it self-evident a law firm’s commendable willingness to provide its services on a pro bono basis to low income clients should necessarily justify a diminishment in the fee award when that pro bono representation proves successful. Because respondents did not directly challenge the court’s decision to reduce the fee award based on the pro bono nature of the litigation, we had no reason to invite the parties to brief the issue. Our research indicates courts reduce a fee award to adjust, for example, for duplicative work, for lack of success on certain issues, or the like. However, our research uncovered no case in which a trial court reduced a fee award simply because of the “pro bono type of work” involved. Moreover, in the analogous situation of contingent fee and legal aid lawyers—where again the clients are not responsible for paying legal fees out of their own pockets—the majority of courts have approved awards at a full level of “reasonable” fees.

(Footnotes omitted.)

This is very interesting in light of the fact that the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs “pro bono” in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case against Seattle Public Schools have generated some controversy for seeking $1.8 million in statutory fees.

Admittedly, the cases do implicate somewhat different concerns. In Cruz, no one is going to complain much about sticking it to a landlord who is seen as stealing his tenants’ homes out from under them. In the Seattle Schools case, however, much of the controversy centers around the fact that the attorneys are seeking fees from a public entity, and specifically from a school district. The argument against recovery is that if pro bono representation is indeed for the public good, then the attorneys should not take funds from education.

Might the Cruz court have felt differently in the case of a public sector defendant?

For more on the Seattle schools case

From the Seattle Times: If attorneys get paid for pro bono work, is it still pro bono?

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “. . . a little contrary to the idea that pro bono is for the public good” and some letters to the editor that include several on the side of the attorneys.

And here’s some coverage by the ABA, the Sound Politics blog, and Overlawyered.

UPDATE (10/9/07): I did not make this point as clearly as I should have – the court’s discussion on recovering fees in pro bono cases is dictum, as is made plain by the court’s opening words: “Finally, we find it important to emphasize something we are not deciding in this case.” (Emphasis added.) This is all interesting discussion, but not something that can result in Supreme Court review of the issue.

One other item to note in the decision is that the trial court’s award of fees was pursuant to a contractual provision rather than a fee-shifting statute. The California cases cited in the court’s dictum in support of the proposition that fees should be recoverable in pro bono cases were all concerned with fee-shifting statutes. One wonders whether a party who agrees to a contractual fee provision contemplates paying out fees where none actually accrue.

UPDATE # 2 (10/10/07): I am writing an article on this case, and so looked at it yet again.  Relevant to my contract provision/fee statute dichotomy, the fee provision in this case entitled a party to recover “any reasonable attorney’s fees,” much like many fee statutes do.  It did not explicitly require fees to be “incurred” to be recoverable.  The existence of “incurred” as a modifier of “fees” in a fee-shifting statute, however, has seldom, if ever, been an obstacle to recovery in a California pro bono case.  I’ll elaborate in the article.

8 Responses to The Pro Bono Road to Riches!
  1. Miss L
    October 15, 2007 | 1:13 am

    Student here, so I maybe ignorant of something here. But in a loser pays situation where the winner is represented pro-bono, why should the damages not include fees to be paid to the attorney. Otherwise we’re making it cheaper for people to wrong those without money, as their final judgment wouldn’t include the 100k+ or what have you in fees.

    Again if I’m speaking on inexperience, forgive me.

  2. Greg May
    October 16, 2007 | 9:37 am

    Miss L,

    I think you raise an excellent point. Indeed, the cases cited by the court support it.

    Notwithstanding my cyincal headline (which, I must confess, was drafted to generate interest in the post), the two main things I wanted to accomplish with the post were: (1) show how easily some of the objections to the fees were overcome, and (2) contrast the Cruz court’s readiness to award fees to the public outcry to the fee request in the Seattle schools case because of where the money would come from.

    Third, though I did not bring it up until I added an update, I am curious that the court wrote such lengthy dictum without noting that, unlike the cases it cited, this recovery was based on a contractual provision, which may implicate policy concerns different than those underlying fee-shifting statutes.

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