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D.C. Could Pay At Least $900K in Attorney Fees in False Arrest Case

December 22, 2011

In March, a Washington federal jury found the District and two police officers liable for $97,500 in damages for falsely arresting a local woman, Lindsay Huthnance. The city could now be on the hook for nearly 10 times that amount in attorney fees, at a minimum.

Goodwin Procter, which represented Huthnance pro bono, moved for more than $1.9 million in attorney fees on Sept. 8. In an opposition brief (PDF) filed Wednesday afternoon, the city challenged that request as too high, offering a counter proposition to pay about $900,000.

Huthnance's motion for attorney fees (PDF) also included $23,364 for work performed by the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, but the city is not challenging that request.

In the city’s opposition brief, they argue that Goodwin Procter’s proposed hourly rates “are too high, the number of hours spent on various tasks is unreasonable, and the billing records submitted are inadequate.” The city is asking U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth to instead award $902,212 in attorney fees to Goodwin Procter.

“Plaintiff‘s Goodwin Procter attorneys seek rates higher than the presumptive maximum set by the U.S. Attorney‘s Office Laffey Matrix, contending that their proposed rates are nonetheless reasonable for the work conducted in this case because they represent Goodwin Procter‘s usual rates and align with prevailing market rates for similar services by lawyers of comparable skill,” the city wrote.

A spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General declined to comment. Lead counsel for Huthnance, Goodwin Procter partner John Moustakas, was not immediately available for comment.

In requesting the fees, Goodwin Procter said that its hourly rates were reasonable and commensurate with “prevailing market rates.” Acknowledging that the requested fees far exceeded the judgment amount, the firm wrote that in addition to securing a win for Huthnance, the verdict "also vindicated important constitutional rights belonging both to Plaintiff and to the citizens of the District of Columbia that cannot be valued solely in monetary terms."

"The Goodwin Procter attorneys and case assistant who worked on this case have skill, experience, and reputation fully consistent with, and justifying, their usual billing rate," the firm wrote in its motion. The firm added that "the District’s scorched-earth litigation tactics also compelled Goodwin Procter to expend substantial additional efforts to prosecute this action."

The District, in its brief, said that the firm should still have to follow the rate structure set out in the Laffey Matrix, which is used by the U.S. attorney’s office. The city said the Laffey Matrix should be considered “prevailing-market rates” for private law firms taking on pro bono work.

According to a table included in the brief, Goodwin Procter’s hourly rates exceeded Laffey Matrix rates by as much as $235. Moustakas, for instance, charged $675 per hour, compared to the $495 hourly rate he could charge under the Laffey Matrix, according to the District.

Huthnance claimed she was arrested in November 2005 on a trumped-up charge in retaliation for publicly criticizing a group of police officers. The jury found the city and two officers who arrested Huthnance liable for $97,500 in damages for false arrest, emotional distress and other constitutional violations committed in the course of her arrest and imprisonment; a third officer was not found liable.

The city is appealing the verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The city had asked Lamberth to enter judgment in their favor, or, in the alternative, grant a new trial, arguing that important evidence was excluded at trial and that Huthnance had failed to present evidence to back up her constitutional claims, among other things. Lamberth, in a July 19 opinion, wrote that the jury's award was reasonable given the underlying facts.

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