Thursday, August 14, 2008
Court: Reduction of Inflated Fee Request Justified
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A trial judge did not abuse his discretion when he severely reduced attorney’s fees sought by a successful anti-SLAPP movant whose request included noncompensable hours and vague, indecipherable billing statements, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Holding that the unreasonable inflation of fees with respect to the single-issue anti-SLAPP motion for attorneys from Ross, Dixon & Bell in Irvine destroyed the submission’s credibility, Div. Three ruled that Orange Superior Court Judge Robert J. Moss’ award of only $21,300 on the $250,000 request was justified.
William Alnor made the request after the Court of Appeal directed Moss to grant Alnor’s motion under state law preventing strategic lawsuits against public participation to strike a defamation complaint by the Christian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that disseminates religious information, and its former president, Hank Hanegraaff.
The institute and Hanegraaff had sued Alnor—a former institute employee who maintains the Christian Sentinel, a website reporting on the fundraising and spending practices of various Christian organizations—after he posted an article on his website alleging they were the subject of a mail fraud investigation.
Moss denied Alnor’s motion to strike, but the Court of Appeal—in a 2007 opinion by Justice Richard M. Aronson, from which Justice William F. Rylaarsdam dissented—concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits by clear and convincing evidence that Alnor made the challenged statement with actual malice.
Alnor contended his five attorneys expended more than 600 hours on the motion and ensuing appeal, but the trial court—noting that the case involved a single anti-SLAPP motion on a single issue—found much of the work to be duplicative and unnecessary; that the use of “block billing” to include more than one activity in a single charge obscured the nature of the work claimed; and that much of the work was related to trial preparation, not the motion.
Moss then awarded fees based on 25 hours for the motion, 40 hours for the appeal and six hours for the fee motion.
On appeal, Aronson commented the Legislature had not intended for the recovery of attorney fees and costs under the anti-SLAPP statute to be a “windfall,” and opined that Moss’ conclusion that the billing hours submitted were not credible was reasonable.
“An attorney’s chief asset in submitting a fee request is his or her credibility, and where vague, blockbilled time entries inflated with noncompensable hours destroy an attorney’s credibility with the trial court, we have no power on appeal to restore it.” he said.
Aronson similarly rejected Alnor’s argument that the “complex, and sometimes novel” issues in the case supported the fee request.
He conceded that whether plaintiffs were required to prove falsity by clear and convincing evidence or by a preponderance of the evidence presented a First Amendment question still unanswered by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that “we were the first California court to hold a defamation plaintiff need only demonstrate falsity by a preponderance of evidence.”
But, Aronson added:
“[W]e resolved this issue without any aid from Alnor, specifically noting in our opinion that ‘Alnor provide[d] no argument why the element of falsity requires a clear and convincing evidence standard to protect freedom of expression’…. We resolved the issue simply based on the Evidence Code’s default rule that the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence unless otherwise specified.”
Aronson explained that his conclusion was not meant to imply that the earlier matter had been “an easy case,” noting that Rylaarsdam’s dissent “ably demonstrated reasonable minds could disagree” on application of the law to the facts.
“But a case that presents a close question based on the facts is not necessarily a complex or time-consuming one,” he wrote.
Rylaarsdam and Justice Richard D. Fybel joined Aronson in his opinion.
The case is Christian Research Institute v. Alnor, 08 S.O.S. 4912.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company