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Seventh Circuit Upholds Attorney Fee Reduction in Discrimination Case

July 7, 2021 | Posted in : Billing Record / Entries, Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Dispute, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Reduction, Fee Request, Fee Shifting, Hourly Rates, Hours Billled, Practice Area: Civil Rights / Public Interest, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Law 360 story by Clark Mindock, “7th Circ. Back $1M Atty Fee Cut in Bias Case,” reports that the Seventh Circuit upheld a finding that an attorney inflated his hourly rate and "grossly" overstated the hours that could have reasonably been expended on an Illinois discrimination case, ultimately cutting over $1 million in fees and costs.  A three-judge panel said that an Illinois district court acted within its discretion when it cut nearly $1 million from an attorney fee request by Joseph Longo of Longo and Associates Ltd., and cut around $400,000 in costs.

The reduced award came after the district court combed through Longo's submission and determined that he had inflated the number of hours put into the case by billing for things like trips from his office to the downtown Chicago courthouse and by billing over 18 hours of paralegal work at an attorney rate.  The circuit said there was "no question" that the district court had applied the correct analysis to determine Longo's award, despite appellate arguments from Longo that touched on "virtually every aspect of the district court's decision."

The panel warned Longo against again attempting to boost his award through similarly misleading accounting methods and arguments, which it called "plainly frivolous."  "All of Mr. Longo's contentions in his appellate brief are meritless. Some are simply frivolous," the circuit said.  "Although we do not impose sanctions today for Mr. Longo's apparent failure to heed past opinions critical of frivolous fee litigation conduct, we are unlikely to countenance such behavior in the future."

The underlying dispute dates back to 2012, when an employee of the Illinois Department of Transportation, Demarco Nichols, alleged that supervisors with the department had discriminated against him based upon his Muslim religion.  Nichols said in his complaint that he lost his job after requesting a place to pray during his lunch break and repeatedly notifying his supervisors of inappropriate behavior by colleagues.

After the complaint was filed in 2012, the case was tried and a jury awarded Nichols a judgment of $1.5 million in damages, which was later reduced to the statutory cap of $300,000, and $952,156 in equitable relief.  That verdict and the equitable relief were not challenged in the appeal involving the attorney fees.  After the win, Longo petitioned for $1,709,345 in attorney fees and $4,460.47 in costs. That figure included an hourly rate of $550, and Longo said he worked 3,107.9 hours on the case. 

He petitioned for those fees and costs through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act's fee-shifting provision.  In its review of the request, the district court found that the number of hours was inflated and inappropriately included higher-billed hours for paralegal work.  The court also said that the $550 figure was much too high, noting that a judge in a previous case had pegged Longo's hourly rate at $360 an hour.  As for billing for travel expenses, the lower court determined that those fees — which were billed at around 2.8 hours round-trip, or $1,008 for a trip at the $360 rate — were unreasonable, in part because there was no indication that Longo bills paying clients for those trips.