New Trend in Attorney’s Fees Declarations?

As the judges of the Eastern District continue to differ regarding reasonable hourly rates for attorneys, practitioners need to be aware of a potential new trend regarding declarations supporting or opposing petitions for attorney’s fees.  Unfortunately, that new trend appears likely to make such petitions more detailed and time-consuming – and therefore, more expensive.

Traditionally, declarations supporting a petition for attorney’s fees in the Eastern District have followed a familiar pattern: An outside attorney reviews the hourly rates charged, the number of hours charged, the docket sheet, and selected motions/briefs.  The resulting opinions were usually based upon a “general” review of or familiarity with the litigation.  These reviews were not usually “deep dives” into the documents, pleadings, or billing records for a good, simple reason:  keeping costs down.

This custom may need to change, based upon the recent case of Salim v. Dahlberg, 1:15-cv-468 LMB / IDD, 2016 WL 2930943 (E.D. Va. May 18, 2016), which was covered by the EDVA Update here.  In that case, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the Alexandria Division was faced with a petition for attorney’s fees after the plaintiff prevailed on part of his civil rights claim.  The petition was supported by declarations from six leading attorneys, all whom have extensive experience in the Eastern District.  As Judge Brinkema said in her opinion, all six were “well-known to and well-respected by the Court,” and all “summarily conclude[d] that the hourly rates charged and hours worked were reasonable.”

In opposition, the defendant submitted one declaration by attorney Wayne G. Travell, a partner with Hirschler Fleischer’s Tysons office.  Despite the lop-sided number of supporting declarations, Judge Brinkema rejected much of the plaintiff’s fee petition (along with the conclusions in the six supporting declarations) and essentially adopted much of the opinion and analysis expressed by Mr. Travell.

Mr. Travell’s declaration is extensive, at 18 pages long with 47 paragraphs.  He discusses in detail the steps he took to form his opinion (including documenting the telephone calls he had with the respective counsel).  He recounts the applicable law, and then provides a detailed recitation of the facts (citing and quoting from the pleadings in the case).  The heart of his declaration, however, appears to be nearly eight pages of detailed examination of the plaintiff attorney’s time records, including identifying alleged instances of double-billing, block-billing, and vague entries.

In her opinion, Judge Brinkema sided with Mr. Travell’s declaration because he “actually reviewed counsels’ billing records, provide[d] a detailed analysis of those records, discusse[d] the specific issues involved in the case, and evaluate[d] the work performed with respect to those issues.”  In contrast (according to the court’s opinion), the six supporting declarations were unpersuasive because none went into a “detailed analysis of plaintiff’s counsels’ time sheets; instead, the declarants base their conclusions almost exclusively on a review of the pleadings and of [plaintiff counsel’s] declaration.”

Mr. Travell’s declaration is another example of judicial pushback in the Eastern District against excessive attorney hourly rates (or, at least hourly rates perceived as excessive by the bench).  But it also likely signals that some judges will more closely scrutinize petitions for attorney’s fees, including attorney declarations that support and oppose those petitions.  For this reason, Mr. Travell’s declaration is likely a roadmap for future petitions in the Alexandria Division, if not throughout the Eastern District.  And the irony is straight-forward:  While the intent may be to hold down hourly rates, the added expense of more detail in such declarations will ultimately increase the cost of litigation overall.  But regardless of this impact, practitioners need to be aware of this possibility.

Is the Standard for Summary Judgment Evolving in EDVA?

Is the standard for summary judgment evolving, and has the Eastern District kept up with the evolution? 

In a July 6, 2016 decision in Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, (Dkt. No. 15-1055), the Fourth Circuit reversed Judge Lee on all six counts in a fairly standard discrimination case.  The Court found repeatedly that the record was sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find for the plaintiff, yet the District Court had credited the Defendant’s summary judgment evidence and granted summary judgment.  Stated differently, the appellate court reminds us that a district court’s weighing the evidence at summary judgment is impermissible.

The adjustment to the summary judgment standard traces to a May 2014 Supreme Court decision in what was a fairly routine § 1983 case.  In Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. __ , 134 S.Ct. 1861 (2014), a Texas district court had granted summary judgment to a police officer deciding that his conduct in a police shooting was “objectively reasonable.”  There was evidence on both sides of the summary judgment issues; the district court weighed the evidence and came down in favor of the police officer.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed, albeit on different grounds, but three judges on that court voted in favor an en banc hearing. The case could easily have been passed over at the certiorari stage (Justice Alito, joined by Justice Scalia, wrote a concurring opinion complaining that the case was so routine that the Court should not have granted certiorari), but it seemed that several of the Supreme Court justices were looking for the opportunity to remind lower courts that a judge’s function at summary judgment is not to weigh the evidence but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.”  This is the time-honored directive from Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), but the Court’s Tolan decision suggests that justices believed that the standard needed some reinforcing.

The Fourth Circuit followed Tolan a few weeks later in McAirlaids, Inc. v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 756 F.3d 307, 310 (4th Cir. 2014).  It then quoted from Tolan: “It is an ‘axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, [t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.’”   Not long afterwards, in March 2015, the Fourth Circuit provided “further elaboration” of the summary judgment standard in Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568 (4th Cir. 2015).  In an ominous introduction that highlighted a “clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards”, the panel of Judges Floyd, Keenan, and Harris cited Tolan:

Ordinarily we would begin our discussion with a brief restatement of the standard of review for a motion for summary judgment. When “the opinion below reflects a clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards,” however, further elaboration is warranted. Tolan v. Cotton (citations omitted) (per curiam).

Given this harsh treatment of the district court, it was no surprise that the Fourth Circuit reversed in part and remanded for trial.  The Court observed that in the Tolan case the district court had “fail[ed] to credit evidence that contradicted some of its key factual conclusions” and “improperly ‘weighed the evidence’ and resolved disputed issues in favor of the moving party.”

The Tolan and Jacobs decisions arguably provide a course correction in the summary judgment standards in cases where there is conflicting record evidence. The frequent Tolan quote is this:

Where there is conflicting evidence, the court must credit the evidence of both sides and acknowledge that there is a genuine issue of material fact that cannot be resolved by summary judgment. See Tolan v. Cotton (stating that summary judgment is inappropriate where each side has put forward competent evidence that raises a dispute about a material fact).

Westlaw identifies more than 870 case citations to Tolan.  Granted, many of the citations are for the § 1983 issues, but the case still stands tall because of the adjustments to the summary judgment standard.  Since Tolan, the above quote appears in multiple summary judgment rulings by Judge Cacheris, and in several ruling by Judge O’Grady.  Magistrate Judge Buchanan has also cited Tolan.  The Westlaw search shows, however, no other reliance either way on Tolan in the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District.

Sometimes district courts cite only the controlling circuit court decision without mentioning the Supreme Court case. The leading Fourth Circuit authority is the Jacobs decision.  Westlaw confirms that Jacobs has been cited in 136 cases, with most of these from within the circuit; there are more than 70 citations from the Maryland District Court, but only four from the Eastern District of Virginia, and just one of those four is from the Alexandria Division.

The Fourth Circuit’s Guessous decision relies on both Tolan and JacobsThe Court writes:

The court must “view the evidence in the light most favorable to the [nonmoving] party.”  Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (internal quotation omitted).   “The court . . . cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568-69 (4th Cir. 2015).  In general, if “an issue as to a material fact cannot be resolved without observation of the demeanor of witnesses in order to evaluate their credibility, summary judgment is not appropriate.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 advisory committee’s note to 1963 amendment.

Guessous at 16-17.  It is after these pointed citations that the Court launches into its “reasonable jury” analysis.   “A reasonable jury could easily conclude, however . . .”       Id. at 22. “This alone would be enough to allow a reasonable jury to conclude. . .”   Id. at 23.  “[T]he record is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to conclude . . .” Id. at 28.  “[A] reasonable jury would certainly be entitled to reach a different conclusion . . .”   Id. at 30.  The Court’s unanimous decision reversed and remanded on all six counts.

Because so much of the Eastern District’s civil docket encounters summary judgment, Tolan and Jacobs are important precedents.  Other districts within the circuit, mostly notably the District of Maryland, seem to have recognized the course adjustment.  The Guessous decision perhaps is a wake-up call to the rest of the circuit, including the Eastern District of Virginia, to recognize the appellate direction for a tighter summary judgment standard.

Supreme Court of Virginia Addresses the Reach of Conspirator Liability under the Virginia Business Conspiracy Act

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently addressed conspirator civil liability under the Virginia Business Conspiracy Act, Va. Code §§ 18.2-499 and -500.  Borrowing from Illinois law, the Court recited that “[t]he function of the conspiracy claim is to extend liability in tort beyond the active wrongdoers to those who have merely planned, assisted or encouraged the wrongdoer’s acts.”   While the case does not really change the substance of Virginia law, the opinion in Gelber v. Glock offers language that will likely appear in every future Virginia brief on conspirator liability and in the conspiracy jury instructions.

Tucked into the back of a 39-page opinion dealing with a family feud over an estate, the Supreme Court provides its tutorial on conspirator liability.   Admittedly, this is not federal law, but VBCA claims often appear in E.D. Va. litigation when state claims are before the federal court under diversity jurisdiction or pendent jurisdiction.

The Family Feud Case

The case is Gelber v. Glock, Record No. 160500 (June 22, 2017), a decision from an appeal heard during the Supreme Court of Virginia’s February 2017 Session.  The facts are those of the classic family feud.  In an early will, Mrs. Gelber left her estate to be divided among her five children.  Subsequent estate documents seemingly altered this directive—Mrs. Gelber’s real and personal property was to go to just one of her daughters.  The Executors sued on multiple theories, including a claim that the lucky daughter was part of a civil conspiracy with one of her sisters and a brother-in-law.

The Circuit Court for Henrico County granted a Motion to Strike the conspiracy claim.   The Supreme Court found no error in this circuit court ruling.  Given this straightforward appellate finding, the Supreme Court perhaps likely could have addressed the conspiracy Assignment of Error in a single paragraph.  But the Justices chose to give us a powerful tutorial on conspirator liability under the VBCA.  The tutorial is perhaps dicta, but it is nonetheless part of the Supreme Court opinion.

The Language of the Virginia Business Conspiracy Act

The VBCA is a two-part statute found in Title 18 of the Virginia Code, the criminal law title.  Va. Code § 18.2-499 identifies the elements of the criminal conspiracy. The next section, Va. Code § 18.2-500, provides for civil remedies for conspiracy violations.  Subpart A of the section reads:

Any person who shall be injured in his reputation, trade, business or profession by reason of a violation of § 18.2-499, may sue therefor and recover three-fold the damages by him sustained, and the costs of suit, including a reasonable fee to plaintiff’s counsel, and without limiting the generality of the term, “damages” shall include loss of profits.

The Reach and Purpose of Civil Conspiracy Liability

The real punch from the Gelber decision is the confirmation of conspirator liability beyond the primary tortfeasor.  The decision explains, “the object of a civil conspiracy claim is to spread liability to persons other than the primary tortfeasor.”  Gelber at 37.  The Court expands its discussion in footnote 21.  Quoting from Beck v. Prupis, 162 F. 3rd 1090, 1099 n. 18 (11th Cir. 1998), aff’d, 529 U.S. 494 (2000), the Gelber Court adds that “[i]n a civil context … the purpose of the conspiracy claim is to impute liability– to make X jointly liable with D for what D did to P.”   This is language is straight from Prosser and Keeton on Torts § 46 (5th Ed. 1984).

The Gelber opinion continues, in the same footnote 21, “[t]hus, a civil conspiracy plaintiff must prove that someone in the conspiracy committed a tortious act that proximately caused his injury; the plaintiff can then hold other members of the conspiracy liable for that injury.”  In support of this statement, the Supreme Court cites authority not only from the 11th Circuit, but also from the 8th Circuit, and from the Utah federal court and the Illinois Supreme Court.

The cited Eighth Circuit decision, Simpson v. Weeks, 570 F.2d 240, 242-43 (8th Cir. 1978), provides a clever analogy, “[t]he charge of conspiracy in a civil action is merely the string whereby the plaintiff seeks to tie together those who, acting in concert, may be held responsible for any overt act or acts.”   The Utah federal court decision, Boisjoly v. Morton Thiokol, Inc., 707 F. Supp. 795, 803 (D. Utah 1988), explains that “[c]ivil conspiracy is essentially a tool allowing a plaintiff injured by the tort of one party to join and recover from a third party who conspired with the tortfeasor to bring about the tortious act.”

Finally, Gelber confirms that conspiracy liability is the same for low-level players as it is for conspiracy kingpins.  The cited Supreme Court of Illinois decision, Adcock v. Brakegate, Ltd., 645 N.E.2d 888, 894 (Ill. 1994), offers, “[t]he function of the conspiracy claim is to extend liability in tort beyond the active wrongdoers to those who have merely planned, assisted or encouraged the wrongdoer’s acts.”

Summary: Gelber and VBCA Conspirator Liability

The Supreme Court of Virginia ranges far and wide for its authority on conspirator civil liability perhaps because a clear statement of civil liability tied to a conspiracy claim was previously missing from the Virginia case law.  For instance, plaintiffs looking for authority for conspirator civil liability have frequently cited Carter v. Commonwealth, 232 Va. 122 (1986), a criminal case about vicarious liability for the use on a firearm in a felony.  This is not to say that Virginia law was any different before Gelber, but that it was challenging to find on-target Virginia citations supporting conspirator civil liability.

Expect that the Gelber language will be prominent in trial briefs and jury instructions for future VBCA claims in the state courts and in the federal courts.