April 19, 2021
A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “9th Circ. Bumps Ore. Atty’s Hourly Fee Rate in Labor Case,” reports that a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge wrongly reduced an Oregon attorney's hourly rate by $100 while awarding attorney fees in a Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act case, the Ninth Circuit ruled, telling the Benefits Review Board to assign the case to another judge.
In a 35-page published opinion (pdf), the three-judge panel said the review board should not have upheld the administrative law judge's decision to knock down attorney Charles Robinowitz's fee rate from $450 per hour to $349.85 per hour, finding that the attorney had presented "substantial evidence" that his requested rate was in line with similar services by lawyers of comparable skill and experience. Robinowitz provided supportive affidavits from other attorneys, the 2012 Oregon State Bar Survey reporting that Portland attorneys with more than 30 years of experience billed between $300 per hour and $400 per hour, and court decisions awarding him $425 per hour and $420 per hour for work performed in 2012, 2013 and 2014, according to the opinion.
The fee appeal comes after Ladonna E. Seachris in 2006 filed a claim for benefits under the LHWCA following the 2005 death of her husband, who was injured while working as a longshoreman in 1979, according to court filings. An administrative law judge denied the claim in 2010 and Seachris appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed the judge's order. Seachris appealed again to the Ninth Circuit, which remanded the case in 2013, and the administrative law judge ruled in her favor in 2016, according to court records.
Following that decision, Seachris' attorney Robinowitz filed for attorney fees for 109 hours at a rate of $450 per hour, as well as costs of $5,413. The administrative law judge in 2017, however, allowed the attorney 98 hours at about $341 per hour, according to court filings. The Benefits Review Board then affirmed the decision, but increased the hourly rate to $349.85 because of an inflation error.
Seachris and her attorney then appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Seachris' husband's former employer, Brady-Hamilton Stevedore Co., said Robinowitz should only get an hourly fee rate of $358, arguing that the administrative law judge correctly calculated the market rate using the 2012 Oregon State Bar Survey, according to court filings.
In its opinion, the appellate panel said the judge erred by rejecting Robinowitz's evidence of prevailing market rates as outdated, saying reliance on historical market conditions is appropriate when it is the most current information available. The panel said the judge needs to treat the parties equally, finding that both parties, as well as the judge, relied on dated evidence.
Brady-Hamilton also relied on the 2012 OSB Survey, the panel said, and the judge herself relied on that same survey as the linchpin of her rate decision. By the time her fee decision came out in January 2017, the 2011 rates in that 2012 survey were already six years old, according to the opinion. "The ALJ nevertheless relied on the survey by adjusting the 2011 data for inflation — appropriately so," the panel said. "But the ALJ declined to make similar adjustments to Robinowitz's evidence."
"We see no reason why she should not have taken the same approach to Robinowitz's evidence, and it was [an] error not to do so," the panel added. The administrative law judge also erred by rejecting Robinowitz's evidence from the 2012 OSB Survey and not taking into account the way the survey reported rates, the panel said. The survey reported hourly rates charged by Portland attorneys based on their years of experience, irrespective of practice area, and based on their practice area, irrespective of experience, according to the opinion.
Robinowitz relied on the survey chart based on years of experience to calculate his hourly rate, but the judge rejected the evidence as being too "one-dimensional," according to the panel. But then the judge relied on the other survey chart based on practice area to determine her rate, the panel said.
"Although the ALJ rejected Robinowitz's survey evidence as 'one dimensional,' she proceeded to base her rate determination on the equally one dimensional chart reporting rates by practice area," the panel said. "Even assuming arguendo that rates based on practice area are more probative than rates based on years of experience, the latter rates are at least relevant." The panel found that the judge and the review board committed legal error in determining Robinowitz's hourly rate and that the judge's rate decision isn't supported by substantial evidence, according to the opinion.
The panel remanded the case and told the review board to assign it to a different judge, finding that "the tone of the ALJ's decision and the manner in which the ALJ evaluated the evidence suggest that the ALJ may not be able to provide Robinowitz with a fair and impartial hearing on remand."
The panel also noted that the Oregon State Bar has published an updated survey, saying the 2017 survey reports that Portland attorneys with more than 30 years of experience charged a median rate of $425 per hour in 2016 and for attorneys in the 75th percentile, the average rate was $495 per hour. "These updated rates, which the BRB should take into account on remand, provide further support for Robinowitz's requested rate," the panel said.