Appellate Procedure,  Attorney Fees,  Federal Procedure,  Standard of Review

Lawyers Must Eat — Getting Your Attorney Fees on Appeal

You’d be hard pressed to find a better overview of federal appellate review of attorney fee awards than Moreno v. City of Sacramento, case no. 06-15021 (9th Cir. .July 28, 2008). Judge Kozinski’s analysis begins with the truism “lawyers must eat,” then goes on to analyze the district court’s attorney fee award under 42 U.S.C.§ 1988, and thus looks at the issue from the perspective of the policies underlying attorney fee awards in civil rights cases.

Of particular interest is the section on fees for the appeal. Here’s a two-question quiz.

Do you know the proper forum for making your application for fees on appeal? If you said the court of appeals, you’re wrong! Fee applications are brought in the district court after remand.

You probably already know that the standard of review on a fee award is abuse of discretion. Is it any different when reviewing an award for fees on appeal? Well, yes and no. The award is still reviewed for abuse of discretion but the court of appeals will “look more closely” at fee awards involving appeals. Call it an enhanced review for abuse of discretion, if you will.

The district court trimmed the appellate fees by a third! But it did so without offering a good explanation . . . a problem that pervaded its fee determination. It’s interesting to see how Judge Kozinski analyzes the time and fees on appeal versus the time and fees for a summary judgment motion in the case:

The district court noted that plaintiff’s counsel spent twice as long on the appeal than on the summary judgment, but this does not mean the additional time spent on appeal was unjustified; after all, plaintiff lost claims at summary judgment that he won on appeal. More fundamentally, preparing summary judgment motions and appeals are not commensurate tasks, though they have some elements in common. What matters is whether spending more time winning on appeal than losing on summary judgment was an imprudent use of hours. The district court points to nothing to support the conclusion that it was.

Then there is the discussion of the “cost effectiveness of various law firm models” for staffing cases, and which personnel get assigned which tasks at which rates. As I read through it, I thought, “All this concern over hourly rates and who did what! What would the court do if the firm charged a flat fee and didn’t keep track of anyone’s hours?”

I haven’t seen a fee decision based on a flat fee without time records. But the courts still appear to be in love with the “lodestar” system: reasonable hourly rate times reasonable time expended. Which is why I tend to keep time records even when I charge a flat fee.

Now I’m really curious. If anyone knows of a case analyzing the propriety of a fee award based on a flat fee, please send me the cite.

UPDATE (8/7/08): California Attorney’s Fees examines some of the standards employed by the Moreno court to fees incurred prior to appeal, notes the significance of the case, and responds to my query about flat fees.