Thursday, July 19, 2007
Appeals Court Reverses Fee Award to Manatt Phelps
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal has reversed a $112,288 attorney fee award to a newspaper that prevailed on an anti-SLAPP motion, declaring that it was fundamentally unfair to deny the plaintiffs access to the bills the defendant received from its lawyers.
Div. Eight of this district’s appeals court, in an unpublished opinion by Presiding Justice Candace Cooper, affirmed the order granting the anti-SLAPP motion by the Chinese Daily News, which had been sued for libel, but reversed the order for attorney fees, holding that it was not supported by substantial evidence.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge C. Edward Simpson set the fees after receiving a report from a referee, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk. At the time Simpson made the reference, he declared that he did not “want to pull a number out of the air.”
Ouderkirk reviewed the actual bills from the law firm representing the Chinese Daily News, Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP, but did not permit access to the bills by Qingxin Yan or the other plaintiffs. The lawyers who had worked on the anti-SLAPP motion and their hourly rates were Donald R. Brown, $510; Henry C. Wang, $385; Yi-Chin Ho, $410; and Lydia Mendoza, $190.
Cooper said, in an opinion filed last Thursday, that refusing to let the plaintiffs see the bills “deprived appellants of the opportunity to meaningfully challenge the attorney fees requested.”
She went on to observe:
“CDN’s argument underscores this very problem. It argues that appellants’ challenges were speculative. ‘All that they [appellants] came forward with were boilerplate objections about duplicative billing and excessive hours, and suggestions of arbitrary reduction in attorney time.’ Based on the information CDN provided appellants, they could raise only speculative challenges because CDN failed to provide specifics and provided only boilerplate descriptions of work completed. Appellants could not challenge the reasonableness of the attorney time because it is impossible to determine the time any CDN attorney spent on any particular task or whether every task billed was related to the anti-SLAPP motion. Significantly, the referee found that appellants ‘have failed to present any admissible evidence that the fees were unreasonable or that the work performed was unnecessary, duplicative or otherwise improper,’ without acknowledging that appellants were hamstrung in their ability to make that showing.”
A concern that privileged matters would be revealed by the bills did not justify the procedure that was employed, Cooper said, pointing out that sensitive matter could be redacted.
The defendant “was required to provide enough information for appellants to meaningfully assess if the case was overstaffed and if the hours were reasonably expended,” she said.
The libel action was brought by persons who were identified in an article as suspects in a kidnapping. The reporter attributed the statements to an individual who publicly uttered them at a meeting.
Cooper found applicable Civil Code Sec. 47 which says, in relevant part:
“Section 47 provides: “A privileged publication or broadcast is one made: [¶] . . . [¶] (e) By a fair and true report of (1) the proceedings of a public meeting, if the meeting was lawfully convened for a lawful purpose and open to the public, or (2) the publication of the matter complained of was for the public benefit.”
The case is Yan v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., B186420 and B191119.
John Derrick, along with Arthur J. Liu of Inter-Pacific Law Group, Inc., acted for the plaintiffs. Manatt Phelps attorneys Brown, Wang, and Ho, joined by Lara M. Krieger, represented the newspaper.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company