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Gonzalez v. City of Maywood

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 9, 2013

Martin Gonzalez, Sr.; Martin Gonzalez, Jr.; Jose Gonzalez; Martha Hernandez; Krystal Hernandez; Monique Paniagua; Jose Quinones; Jesse Castro; Jose Molina; Vanessa Garcia; Shannon Board; Manuel Herrera; Humberto Herrera; Gerardina Herrera; Freddie Barajas; Marvin Tejeda; Jesus Jimenez; Eder Jimenez; Jordan Payan; Pablo Camarillo, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
City of Maywood; Maywood-Cudahy Police Department; Bruce Leflar; Paul Pine; Cunningham, Officer; Florez, Officer; West, Officer; Viscarra, Officer, Defendants-Appellees.

Argued and Submitted June 4, 2013—Pasadena, California

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Otis D. Wright, II, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:07-cv-03469-ODW-SH

Paul L. Hoffman (argued) and Catherine Sweetser, Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris, Hoffman & Harrison, LLP, Venice, California; Cynthia Anderson-Barker, Law Office of Cynthia Anderson-Barker, Los Angeles, California; Robert Mann and Donald W. Cook, Attorneys at Law, Los Angeles, California; Ellen Hammill Ellison, Law Office of Ellen Hammill Ellison, Los Angeles, California; Olu K. Orange, Orange Law Offices, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Richard A. Semon (argued) and Lee A. Wood, The Aguilera Law Group, APLC, Costa Mesa, California, for Defendants-Appellees City of Maywood, et al.

Brian P. Keighron (argued), Wisotsky, Procter & Shyer, Oxnard, California, for Defendants-Appellees Cunningham and Muriello.

Before: Ronald M. Gould and N. Randy Smith, Circuit Judges, and Sharon L. Gleason, District Judge. [*]

SUMMARY[**]

Civil Rights/Attorneys' Fees

The panel vacated the district court's attorneys' fee award, entered pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and remanded for a re-computation of the fee arising from the settlement of numerous civil rights lawsuits against the City of Maywood, its police department, and several local government officials.

The panel held that the district court abused its discretion by: (1) erroneously applying across-the-board cuts to the lodestar; (2) failing to find a reasonable hourly rate on which to compute the lodestar; (3) declining to award a state-law multiplier; and (4) declining to award fees for work performed on the fee application.

The panel stated that in determining a reasonable fee award, the district court failed to apply the following principles: (1) that a court must compute the fee award using an hourly rate that is based on the prevailing market rates in the relevant community; (2) that when a district court reduces either the number of hours or the lodestar by a certain percentage greater than 10%, it must provide a clear and concise explanation for why it chose the specific percentage to apply; and (3) it is not per se unreasonable for the prevailing party in a civil rights case to be awarded an amount of attorneys' fees that exceeds the amount of money recovered by his or her client. Although the panel remanded for a re-determination of the fee award, it denied plaintiffs' request to re-assign this case to a different district judge.

OPINION

N.R. SMITH, Circuit Judge.

42 U.S.C. § 1988 authorizes district courts to award the prevailing party in civil rights litigation a "reasonable attorney's fee." Several important principles bear on the district court's determination of a reasonable fee amount. First, the court must compute the fee award using an hourly rate that is based on the "prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Dang v. Cross, 422 F.3d 800, 813 (9th Cir. 2005). Second, when a district court reduces either the number of hours or the lodestar by a certain percentage greater than 10%, it must provide a clear and concise explanation for why it chose the specific percentage to apply. See Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1398 (9th Cir. 1992); Moreno v. City of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1112 (9th Cir. 2008). Finally, it is not per se unreasonable for the prevailing party in a civil rights case to be awarded an amount of attorney's fees that exceeds the amount of money recovered by his or her client. Because the district court did not apply these principles when determining the amount of Plaintiffs' attorney's fee award, we must vacate and remand.

BACKGROUND

The dispute over attorney's fees in this appeal arises from the settlement of numerous civil rights lawsuits against the City of Maywood, its police department, and several local government officials (collectively, the "City"). On August 19, 2010, following a successful mediation of eight such lawsuits, the parties entered into a Stipulation for Settlement (the "Stipulation").[1] Under the terms of the Stipulation, Plaintiffs would receive $500, 000 total. The Stipulation also provided that Plaintiffs could apply to the district court for attorney's fees. However, the Stipulation limited any fee award to $1, 000, 000 for work on the merits, and $25, 000 for work on the fee application.

On November 12, 2010, Plaintiffs filed a fee application in the district court for the Central District of California. Plaintiffs' initial application computed their lodestar amount as $1, 455, 339 for work both on the merits and on the fee application. Because this amount exceeded the amount the Stipulation authorized, Plaintiffs requested a fee of $1, 025, 000. The City filed an opposition to Plaintiffs' fee application on December 6, 2010.

The City's opposition identified a mathematical error in Plaintiffs' computation of their lodestar. An inadvertently placed decimal point in the sub-total for attorney Anderson-Barker's fee produced a lodestar amount that was nearly $500, 000 less than it should have been. Plaintiffs filed a supplemental declaration acknowledging this error one day after the City filed its opposition.

Later, Plaintiffs identified a second error in their initial lodestar computation. In a declaration filed along with their reply to the City's opposition to the motion for attorney's fees, Plaintiffs indicated that the arithmetic function in their word processing software had miscalculated the total number of hours attorney Ellison had worked on the case. Thus, although Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees claimed Ellison had worked 411.54 hours, correcting the computation error showed that she had actually worked 636.7 hours.

After correcting the errors in Ellison's and Anderson-Barker's billings, Plaintiffs computed their lodestar to be $2, 059, 451.50. Nevertheless, this adjustment did not affect Plaintiffs' ultimate contention that they were entitled to receive $1, 025, 000 in fees—the maximum amount permitted by the Stipulation.

On January 24, 2011, the district court held a hearing on the attorney's fee award. At the hearing, the district court indicated that it would not award fees in excess of the $500, 000 that Plaintiffs had recovered:

This is offensive on its face. I have got a summary here of the various, we will call it indignities suffered by each of the plaintiffs and what their settlements have been, and then I look at the attorney's fees request and it literally shocks the conscience.
Let me cut to the chase. If it were flipped, if what is being divided up among the plaintiffs is what the attorneys are asking for in compensation, fine. I would approve that. And then the attorneys get what ...

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