Attorney Fees

“Big Law” Comes to a Small Town

Last week’s attorney fee case of Nichols v. City of Taft, case no. F051147 (5th Dist. Oct. 2, 2007), has been written about by several blogs — Legal Pad, The Opening Brief, and California Appellate Report among them — so I’ll summarize it very briefly before giving my take.

The plaintiff had hired some “big gun” attorneys from the big city to litigate her employment case in a small town. The case was settled, and the settlement provided for attorney fees to be fixed by the court. The essential holdings are that (1) before seeking statutory attorney fees in excess of fees that would be charged in the local community, a party must demonstrate that it sought local representation before being forced to use outside counsel; (2) whether the fees should be adjusted upward from what would be reasonable in the small town location is within the discretion of the court. In the end, the big guns may have to be satisfied with the small town fees.

I got to wondering if courts will allow an attorney from outside the local area to seek rates reasonable for that area if they are higher than the rates that attorney charges in his hometown. In my town of Ventura, for example, hourly rates tend to be significantly lower than they are for attorneys of similar experience in Los Angeles, which is barely an hour’s drive away (an hour away in time, but a world away in lifestyle). If I prevail in a case in a Los Angeles court and seek fees under a fee-shifting statute, am I entitled to recover at a higher hourly rate — the one I would charge if I were an L. A.-based attorney?

In my exchange with Tom Caso at The Opening Brief in the comments to his post covering the case, he seems to think that I could. I agree with him that the reasoning in Nichols leads to that result. Better than that, Tom has some real world experience with the question.

UPDATE (10/9/07):  Cal Biz Lit has a very detailed, and highly recommended, post on this topic generally, including comments on Nichols. Here’s a line from it that will make litigants cringe:  “And, on top of everything else, the plaintiff attorneys are likely entitled to their fees incurred in obtaining fees.”