Court Gives Guidance on Reasonable Attorney Rates in Northern Virginia

Litigators in the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District of Virginia have often faced a dilemma when seeking attorney’s fees after successful litigation:  What is a reasonable hourly rate to charge for this area?  The $800 per hour and higher rates charged by large law firms in downtown Washington, DC, are generally thought to be inappropriate for Northern Virginia practice, while the hourly rates of Richmond, Virginia, are generally too low to compensate a client who has prevailed in the Alexandria Division.

In a recent decision, Judge Gerald Bruce Lee provided important and useful guidance to practitioners in the Alexandria Division.  In Taylor v. Republic Services, Inc., No. 1:12-cv-00523, Judge Lee issued a comprehensive opinion and order (available here) which granted a successful plaintiff over $500,000 in attorney’s fees.  While the facts of the case focused on employment discrimination, Judge Lee’s guidance is useful for any attorney who appears frequently in the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District.

Judge Lee began his analysis by determining “lodestar” figures and examined the twelve factors set forth in Johns v. Ga. Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974).  He then examined the hourly rates charged by the multiple attorneys who worked on the plaintiff’s case.  Each attorney’s hourly rate varied by the number of years the attorney had been in practice.

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Importantly, Judge Lee found these hourly rates to be reasonable and acceptable for practice in Northern Virginia.  Thus, it appears that he focused on the number of years of experience of each attorney to justify a particular billing rate.  This provides important guidance to practitioners in the area.

Judge Lee briefly discussed the affidavits submitted in support of the reasonableness of the rates but did not linger there.  Instead, he moved on to discuss a table of rates developed by a prominent local attorney that had been adopted by the Court in two previous cases, Vienna Metro v. Pulte Home Corp., Case No. 1:10-cv-00502, and Tech Systems, Inc. v. Pyles, Case No. 1:12-cv-0034.  Referred to as the Vienna Metro Matrix, the table consisted of the following rates:

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Judge Lee referenced the Laffey Matrix of Washington-Baltimore area attorney rates that is periodically published by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and then essentially rejected the Laffey Matrix in favor of the Vienna Metro Matrix.  The Laffey Matrix was “neither sufficient to show the reasonableness of an hourly rate nor [is it] controlling in this Court.”

Judge Lee’s analysis did not stop there, and while he found the hourly rates charged by the plaintiff’s attorneys to be reasonable, he ultimately applied a 50% across-the-board reduction to the plaintiff’s attorney fee recovery due to the plaintiff prevailing on only one of seven counts in the Complaint.  Despite the reduction, Judge Lee made clear that the reduction was due to limited success in the litigation and not due to the hourly rates charged by counsel.

Judge Lee’s opinion in Taylor is the third time that the so-called Vienna Metro Matrix has been adopted by the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District.  It is important reading for federal practitioners who face a dispute over attorney’s fees in litigation.