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Federal Circuit Rejects Use of Laffey Matrix in Calculating Fee Award

May 21, 2019 | Posted in : Fee Award, Fee Award Factors, Fee Calculation Method, Fee Data / Analytics, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Statute, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “DC Circ. Vacates $7M Atty Fee Award in Civil Right Row,” reports that a split D.C. Circuit panel tossed a nearly $7 million fee award in a long-running civil rights class action in Washington, D.C., finding a lower court used a matrix for calculating fees that improperly included attorneys based outside of the district and specialized in irrelevant legal areas.  A majority of the three-judge appellate panel held that the federal court in the District of Columbia erred by relying on a new fee calculation matrix proposed by the district that included attorneys practicing in rural Virginia and West Virginia as well as those who worked in areas of law such as real estate and wills, rather than focusing on attorneys practicing complex federal litigation within the district.

The new matrix runs counter to statutory requirements that those who file and prevail in civil rights cases should be able to collect attorney fees based on "rates prevailing in the community" for the "kind and quality of services furnished," according to the majority opinion.  The plaintiffs in the case had sought $9.76 million in fees under a different matrix, according to court documents.  "It is obvious that the rates charged for, say, simple wills are lower than those for complex federal litigation," the panel majority wrote, which vacated the award and remanded it to the lower court for a recalculation.  "Worse still, nothing in the record reveals what percentage of respondents in the ... custom cross-section of ... data were litigators."

The plaintiffs — parents of children in Washington who fit within the class — sought the fees after prevailing in a class action they initiated in July 2005, claiming that the district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to identify disabled children and to deliver adequate and timely education to a broader set of minors, according to the opinion.  The lower court in August 2017 awarded the plaintiffs $6.96 million in attorneys' fees, finding that the matrix proposed by Washington had a "statistically significant sample size" and "'more narrowly defined' experience categories," according to the opinion.

U.S. Circuit Judge David B. Sentelle dissented, holding that the appellate court could only toss the fee calculation matrix used by the lower court had it abused its discretion or clearly misapplied legal principles or demonstrated a "disregard" for the evidence entered in the case.  "The district court found another matrix to be more factually appropriate," Judge Sentelle wrote.  "The making of that factual determination, under the law in general and under the governing statute in particular, is the district court's province."

The case is DL et al. v. District of Columbia et al., case number 18-7004, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.