Thursday, October 4, 2012

Salvidar v Rodella, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2012 WL 4497507 (W.D.Tex.) [Mexico] [Attorneys Fees]

In Salvidar v Rodella, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2012 WL 4497507 (W.D.Tex.) the Court considered Petitioner Sonia Eledia Acosta Saldivar's "Application for Reasonable Attorneys' Fees and Costs . Having prevailed on the merits of the underlying action, Petitioner moved for award of expenses, including legal fees and costs, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 11607(b)(3), the fee-shifting provision of ICARA. In her fee application Petitioner sought attorneys' fees in the amount of $60,022 .00, litigation costs in
the amount of $11,718.16, and out-of-pocket expenses in the amount of $1,398.38.
Because Respondent asserted  that he was financially unable to pay any award of fees and costs, the Court issued an order instructing Respondent to submit evidence in support of his assertion. After due consideration, the Court issued a lengthy and instructive opinion granting the application in part.

The Court observed that where, as here, a court has ordered the return of the child to his habitual residence, the court must order the respondent-abductor to pay "necessary expenses incurred by or on behalf of the petitioner," unless to so order would be "clearly inappropriate." 42 U.S.C. 11607(b)(3).The respondent has the burden to show that an award of fees or expenses would be "clearly inappropriate. 

Respondent argued that Petitioner should be denied the statutory attorneys' fees and costs because her attorneys are employed by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Inc. ("TRLA"), a publicly funded legal aid entity. Further, Respondent maintained that because Petitioner or a relative of Petitioner on her behalf had not paid or agreed to pay any attorneys' fees or costs to TRLA, the requested fees and costs have not been incurred on her behalf. Awarding fees under such circumstances, Respondent contended would reward legal aid societies, who are already funded by taxpayers, rather than compensating a petitioner for her legal fees and costs. Respondent invited the Court to interpret §11607(b)(3) as precluding an award where the petitioner is represented for free by a publicly funded legal aid entity. The Court rejected this argument.  Given that the text of § 11607(b)(3) does not in any way limit the scope of the entities who may recover under it, the structure of § 11607(b) suggests that Congress did not intend to cut off from recovery legal aid entities-the very entities on which Congress intended to rely in fulfilling the United States's obligations under the Convention, and the legislative history points to Congress's adoption of the Department of State's broad understanding of the phrase "on behalf of," the Court concluded that under ICARA, an award of expenses, including legal fees and costs, is not inappropriate where the petitioner is represented by a publicly funded legal aid entity, such as TRLA.

Respondent further asserted that an award was clearly inappropriate here because Petitioner had "unclean hands." Given the statutory mandate that the Court "shall order the respondent to pay," it was unclear whether equitable principles such as "unclean hands" should apply to outright deny any recovery of fees and costs. In any event, the Court found that the doctrine of unclean hands did not operate to bar an award of fees in this case. The Court concluded that Respondent has failed to carry his burden to show that an award of necessary expenses, including costs and legal fees, was "clearly inappropriate" in this case. Petitioner, therefore, was entitled to an award.

The court held that to be awardable, the expenses must be "necessary"
to secure the child's return.  Aldinger v. Segler, 157 F. App'x 317, 318 (1st
Cir.2005).  Further, the expenses must be incurred in connection with an action brought under § 11603.Koch v. Koch, 450 F.3d 703, 719 (7th Cir .2006).  To determine an appropriate legal fee award, federal courts typically use the "lodestar" method in Hague Convention cases.  The calculation of attorneys' fees under the lodestar method is a two-step process. In the first step, the court calculates the lodestar amount by multiplying the reasonable number of hours expended on the case by the reasonable hourly rates for the participating lawyers.  In the second step, the court decides whether the lodestar amount should be adjusted upward or downward based on the circumstances of the case using the factors articulated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir.1974) The attorneys' fees calculus is a fact-intensive one and its character varies from case to case." Hopwood v. Texas, 236 F.3d 256, 281 (5th Cir.2000).   The reasonableness of an attorney's hourly rate "depends on the experience and qualifications of the professional. Hourly rates are to be computed according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant legal market,
not the rates that lions at the bar may command. The relevant market was the
community in which the district court sits. Typically, the reasonable hourly rate for a particular community is established through affidavits of other attorneys practicing there.   Finally, a legal aid counsel, though she does not exact a fee from clients, is awarded the same hourly rate that a counsel in the private bar with the same experience and skills as hers commands. The Court found that the reasonable hourly rate for Brown was $250 and the reasonable hourly rate for Saenz was $150.

The district court pointed out that it must determine whether the hours claimed were "reasonably expended" on the litigation; that is, whether the total number of hours claimed were reasonable and whether specific hours claimed were reasonably expended.. The fee applicant bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of the number of hours expended on the litigation,  and must present adequately documented time records to the court,  Using this documented time as a benchmark, the court must exclude hours which, though actually expended, are excessive, duplicative, or inadequately documented. The court considered(1) Hours Spent for Petitioner's Hague Application; (2) Hours Spent for State Court Proceedings; 
(3) Hours Spent for the Preliminary Injunction Hearing; (4) Hours Spent for Trial Preparation; (5) Hours Spent on Tasks Performed after the Child's Return; (6) Travel Time (noting that while travel time is not per se excludable, non-working travel time is often compensated at a discounted hourly rate.  In re Babcock & Wilcox Co., 526 F.3d
824, 828-29 (5th Cir.2008): and (7) Fees for Fees, hours spent in preparation of her application for attorney's fees and costs-commonly known as "fees for fees." In the Fifth Circuit, it is settled that a prevailing plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees for the effort entailed in litigating a fee claim and securing compensation. ; and (8) Hours Inadequately Documented.  The court found that 71.8 hours expended by Brown were reasonable. It noted that if more than one attorney is involved, the possibility of duplication of  effort along with the proper utilization of time should be scrutinized. The time of two or three lawyers in a courtroom or conference when one would do, may obviously be discounted. the Court found that 8.0 hours expended by Saenz are reasonable.

  To arrive at the lodestar amount, the Court multiplied the reasonable hourly
rate by the number of hours reasonably expended. . For Attorney Brown, the Court multiplied 71.8 hours by the rate of $250, to arrive at the lodestar amount of $17,950, and for Attorney Saenz, it multiplied 8.0 hours by the rate of $150 to arrive at the lodestar amount of $1,200. The total lodestar amount therefore was $19,150.  Once the court has calculated the lodestar, it noted that it may adjust upward or downward
after considering following Johnson factors:  (1) the time and labor required to represent the client or clients;  (2) the novelty and difficulty of the issues in the case;  (3) the skill required to perform the legal services properly;  (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney;  (5) the customary fee charged for those services in the relevant community;  (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent;  (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances;  (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorney;  (10) the undesirability of the case;  (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.     Johnson, 488 F.2d at 717-19. Of these factors, the court should give special heed to factors (1), (5), (8), and (9). Saizan v. Delta Concrete Prods. Co., 448 F.3d 795, 800 (5th Cir .2006)."    The Court determined that adjustment due to Johnson factors was not warranted. The factors that would warrant an upward or downward adjustment had already been considered when the Court made its determination regarding the reasonable hours expended and the hourly rates.

Respondent stated that he lacked financial means to pay the amount of fees
requested by Petitioner. The court noted that it may reduce a fee award in a Hague Convention case, if it prevents the respondent-parent with straitened financial condition from caring for his child.  Rydder v. Rydder, 49 F.3d 369, 373-74 (8th Cir.1995); Whallon v. Lynn, 356 F.3d 138, 139-40 (1st Cir.2004); see also  Norinder v.
Fuentes, 657 F.3d 526, 536-37 (7th Cir.2011).Such reduction is equitable in nature,  Rydder, 49 F.3d at 374, and the Court has "broad discretion,"  Whallon, 356 F.3d at 140. In determining whether and to what extent a fee award should be reduced on the basis of the respondent's financial situation, the Court inquires "whether respondent has clearly established that it is likely that h[is] child will be significantly adversely affected by the court's award."  Upon due consideration, the Court found that Respondent's financial condition was straitened, particularly in light of the recent termination from his work. This was not to say that his straitened condition was a permanent one, for given his past work history, it was not unreasonable to assume that he would be employed again soon. Since the parties' separation in 2010,
Respondent provided monthly child support and paid for D.I.R.A.'s cost of education. Pursuant to the parties' divorce agreement, Respondent was obligated to pay child support for D.I.R.A. There was nothing to indicate that he would not continue to provide for the child. Therefore, a large fee award in this case would undermine "the ability of [the] respondent to care for [his] child." Whallon, 356 F.3d at 140.    Accordingly, the Court was of the opinion that a reduction of the above-calculated fee award was warranted. However, the Court declined to reduce the fee award to an amount so little as to effectively result in a denial of all fees. To do so would contravene the statutorily mandated award of attorneys' fees and thwart the legislative purpose of deterring future violations of the Hague Convention. Accordingly, the Court reduced the fee award by 55%. A reduction on the account of straitened financial condition, however, would not be applied to litigation costs and out-of-pocket expenses.    Accordingly, the Court ordered Respondent to pay attorneys' fees  of $8,617.50.

Petitioner requested an award of $11,718.16 as litigation costs incurred on her
behalf by TRLA. Federal courts may only award those costs articulated in 28
U.S.C.  1920 absent explicit statutory or contractual authorization to the contrary."  Costs taxable under § 1920 are per se awardable under § 11607(b)(3). Under s 1920, a court may tax the following costs: fees of the clerk and marshal; fees of the court reporter for all or any part of the stenographic transcript necessarily obtained for use in the case; fees and disbursements for printing and witnesses; fees for exemplification and copies of papers necessarily obtained for use in the case; docket fees; compensation of court-appointed experts, interpreters, and special interpretation services. 28 U. S.C.1920. The court allowed the following costs as necessary expenses: fees for filing the action ($350.00), fees for service of summon ($91.30), and compensation of interpreter used at trial ($780 .00).  Petitioner itemized $65.56 for freight/postage expenses, without explaining for what purposes the freight was used. Because the Court was unable to determine their necessity without further elaboration, it disallowed this amount.  Petitioner sought $1075 for translation services. These costs were necessary and  the Court allowed them.  Petitioner itemized $384 as transcript fees. The Court deem these costs as necessary. (28 U.S.C.  1920(2) ("Fees for ... transcripts necessarily obtained for use in the case."). Petitioner asked for $401.50 as costs for a court reporter and $150 for a videographer. The Court allowed the costs for the court reporter, but not the costs for videographer.   Petitioner requested reimbursement of travel expenses incurred for Browns trips between Weslaco and El Paso. Reasonable transportation and lodging costs incurred by an out-of-town attorney are awardable under  11607(b)(3).  A total of $1446.10 was disallowed, resulting in awardable travel expenses in the amount of $2146. Petitioner requested $4828.70 in expert fees for services rendered by Mariano Nunez Arreola. An attorney licensed to practice law in Mexico. Arreola worked for TRLA as its foreign legal advisor and served in this action as an expert on Mexican law. He provided his expert opinions on the issue of whether Petitioner's custody rights under Mexican law are "rights of custody" under the Convention. Hague Convention, art. 3. His services included researching the Federal Civil Code of Mexico, the Chihuahua Civil Code, and Mexican Jurisprudencia, interpreting the relevant law, and preparing two affidavits. Such services were clearly necessary to establish Petitioner's entitlement to the
return remedy, as contemplated by the Convention. Accordingly, costs incurred for services rendered by Arreola were  generally awardable. The Court scrutinized the  claimed expert fees for reasonableness and necessity and disallowed some of his time as well as $748.70 billed as travel expenses incurred for his trip to El Paso
to attend the hearing.