Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Brown Out

A decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the seemingly endless Cobell litigation

In this unusual case, although the original plaintiffs are designated as appellants, the actual controversy on appeal is between attorneys for the plaintiffs and an attorney who is a former member of the litigation team. Hereinafter, “Appellants” will refer to the attorneys who constitute the final litigation team. Appellants appeal the district court’s decision to award attorney’s fees and prejudgment interest. They also assert that this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear an appeal on the fees awarded. The Appellee-Cross Appellant, attorney Mark Kester Brown (“Brown”), a former member of plaintiffs’ legal team, appeals the district court’s decision not to award the full amount of attorney’s fees sought by him. See Cobell v. Jewell, 234 F. Supp. 3d 126 (D.D.C. 2017); Cobell by & through Cobell v. Zinke, No. 96-cv-1285, 2017 WL   (D.D.C. May 9, 2017).

Brown worked on the Cobell litigation for a number of years. Interpersonal issues arose among the lawyers, leading to a decrease in work assigned to Brown and to his eventual move to California. Appellants filed a motion for fees without including Brown’s fee information. Brown intervened, filing his own petition for $5.5 million using the Laffey rate as his calculation. The Laffey rate is derived from a matrix created to calculate appropriate hourly rates for attorneys in fee-shifting cases. Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 572 F. Supp. 354, 371 (D.D.C. 1983), affd in part, revd in part on other grounds, 746 F.2d 4 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The district court placed $5.5 million of the fees awarded by the court into an escrow account pending resolution of Brown’s action. Instead of using a Laffey rate, the district court used the $350/hour rate from Brown’s engagement letter and awarded Brown $2.88 million of the funds in escrow. Brown introduced no evidence to support his actual hourly rate other than the $350/hour rate specified in his engagement letter. The rate never changed despite various amendments to the engagement letters. Furthermore, the rate was his customary hourly rate in private practice at the time he joined the team. Brown filed a motion seeking prejudgment interest, which the district court awarded. The parties each filed notice of appeal.

The court

Appellants argue that the district court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to Brown, arguing that he violated his ethical duties by withdrawing from the case without informing his clients or the district court. Brown argues the district court should have used Laffey rates to calculate his fees.

Appellants further argue that the district court erred in awarding prejudgment interest under D.C. Code § 15-109. Section 15-109 of the Code allows a party to recover interest on a judgment for damages in contract actions in order to “fully compensate the plaintiff.” D.C. Code § 15-109. Appellants argue that awarding prejudgment interest under § 15-109 was an abuse of discretion because the plain text of the Code applies only in breach of contract actions, and because awarding prejudgment interest is not appropriate when the disputed funds were held in an escrow account under terms set by the court.

We conclude that there was no abuse of discretion by the district court. Trial courts have broad discretion in determining attorney’s fees, Salazar ex rel. Salazar v. District of Columbia, 809 F.3d 58, 63 (D.C. Cir. 2015), and in “awarding . . . prejudgment interest under § 15-109,”  District of Columbia v. Pierce Assocs., Inc., 527 A.2d 306, 310 (D.C. 1987). The district court did not exceed that discretion in awarding attorney’s fees, nor in declining to award Laffey rates. Accord Salazar, 809 F.3d at 63. It also was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to award prejudgment interest because the award originated from a claim based on contract, that is, his engagement letter. Accord Pierce Assocs., Inc., 527 A.2d at 310.

 The panel consisted of TATEL and PILLARD, Circuit Judges, and SENTELLE, Senior Circuit Judge. (Mike Frisch)

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