Friday, September 6, 2019
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Shaller’s award of less than $600,000 in attorney fees to a firm that had sought roughly $1.5 million, rejecting the contention that error was reflected by the fact that higher hourly rates for the firm’s lawyers were found reasonable by judges who presided over 10 other recent cases in the county.
Justice Carl Moor of Div. Five wrote the unpublished opinion, filed Wednesday. It upholds an award of $594,070 in attorney fees to Matern Law Group (“MLG”) in Manhattan Beach based on its representation of Dominga Navarro in an action against her former employer under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Shaller also awarded $54,950.62 in costs.
Navarro then sought $1,473,315 for her lawyers, with their hourly rates ranging from $450 to $850 for the firm’s founder, Matthew J. Matern, after Shaller granted Navarro summary judgment on liability and a jury set damages at $309,310.
Shaller said in an order that “whether or not courts in other cases awarded a full amount of Plaintiff’s claimed hourly charge is not admissible or binding on this court’s independent judgment.”
He declared that the rates being sought were “in this court’s experience in excess of reasonable market value in this community for such services,” even taking into account that the lawyers risked getting no award if Navarro’s action had failed.
The judge found $500 an hour to be adequate recompense for Matern.
Other Awards Considered
“Navarro contends that the court abused its discretion by excluding the 10 prior court orders approving MLG’s hourly rates. We conclude the trial court actually considered the rates when it relied on alternate grounds, finding the unrelated fee awards were not persuasive or binding as applied to the current case.”
The justice agreed with Shaller’s analysis that the awards in previous cases had no bearing on the issue before him. Moor quoted Shaller as saying:
“[W]hether or not the other 10 cases...awarded you all those fees at that hourly rate, I really think it’s apples and oranges because this case is different. This case is itself on its facts and on the presentations and on the evidence and the work that was done by the attorneys. And I don’t know what the facts are in any of these other cases.”
Moor recited that Matern provided a list of 10 recent fee awards, setting forth the case names and numbers, and in three instances, quoted the judge who presided as declaring the rates reasonable. He said:
“There was no information from which to conclude any of the cases were similar to Navarro’s individual employment claims. To the contrary, at the conclusion of the list, Matern acknowledged that all of the listed cases were class actions, unlike the present case which involved a single plaintiff.”
Argument Not Persuasive
He went on to observe:
“Navarro makes no persuasive argument that the court abused its discretion in drawing the distinction between class action and single plaintiff cases. Nor does she make any persuasive argument that she would have obtained a more favorable result if the court had formally admitted the evidence before rejecting its import for this same reason.”
Although Shaller was provided a list of class actions which generated fee awards, Moor pointed out, “MLG notably did not provide, from the over 700 employment discrimination or sexual harassment cases counsel had litigated, even a single example of rates approved for an individual (non-class action) case.”
Shaller did not use a multiplier. Moor said it was permissible for the trial judge to take into account the risk factor in approving higher hourly rates than he otherwise would have done, in place of employing a multiplier.
“Overall, the trial court was in the best position to evaluate the reasonableness of Navarro’s request for attorney fees, and our review of the record reveals no abuse of discretion,” he said.
The case is Navarro v. 4Earth Farms, B288105.
Matern and two lawyers in his firm, Dalia Khalili and Debra J. Tauger, represented MLG, along with appellate lawyer Norman Pine of the Sherman Oaks firm of Pine Tillett Pine. Paul S. Marks and Yuriko M. Shikai of the downtown Los Angeles firm of Neufeld Marks acted for Navarro’s former employer, 4Earth Farms.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company