January 20, 2021
A recent NLJ story by C. Ryan Barber, “Ballard Spahr Wins $122K in Legal Fees in FOIA Suit Over PPP Loan Secrecy,” reports that Ballard Spahr will receive $122,347 in legal fees for its work in an open records lawsuit that forced the U.S. government to release detailed information about who received hundreds of millions of dollars through a COVID-19 emergency loan program. The law firm asked for nearly $154,842 in fees and costs, but U.S. District Judge James Boasberg of the District of Columbia said Ballard Spahr failed to support its billing rates and hours worked, and subsequently shaved off nearly $32,000.
Ballard Spahr, representing The Washington Post and other media outlets against the Small Business Administration and U.S. Treasury Department, sought to use the higher rates available under the Legal Services Index Matrix. The federal government countered that Boasberg should use the lower rates detailed in a matrix used by lawyers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Boasberg ultimately found Ballard Spahr failed to show how its preferred rates were in-line with rates used within the legal community for similar FOIA litigation, and granted the government’s request. “They offer no evidence whatsoever—such as surveys or billing-rate tables—of rates charged and received by lawyers of comparable skill and experience in the D.C. market generally, let alone when handling FOIA cases,” Boasberg wrote. “Indeed, their declarations do not even assert that their requested figures are in line with prevailing community rates for similar litigation.”
Boasberg shaved off another $6,710 due to an error in the hours billed, ultimately settling on $122,347 in legal fees and costs. According to the USAO matrix listed in the ruling, Ballard Spahr partner Charles Tobin’s hourly rate came to $665. Associates Maxwell Mishkin and Kristel Tupja’s rates came to $388 and $369 an hour, respectively.
Tobin said the award highlights the public importance of the case in ensuring there’s accountability of a program that handed out nearly half-a-billion dollars. “Overall, the fee award is higher than most, and fully justified in this case,” Tobin said. ”We are hopeful it serves as a powerful deterrent for government agencies that aren’t transparent enough on issues like this one.”