Saturday, February 04, 2012

Ninth Circuit Reverses Reduction of Attorney's Fee Award in ADA Public Accommodations Case

On Thursday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an unpublished opinion in Hohlbein v. Utah Land Resources, LLC..  The case looks like a pretty straightforward barrier removal case involving a business called The General Store.  The district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiff on the merits -- which is awfully unusual and suggests that the business's case here was especially weak -- and the plaintiff moved, as the prevailing party, for attorney's fees as provided by the ADA.  The district court (presided over by a new judge, as the original judge retired between the merits ruling and the fees ruling) granted attorney's fees but chose to award less than the plaintiff had sought (and apparently less than the "lodestar" figure of a reasonable rate multiplied by a reasonable number of hours).  The Ninth Circuit held that the reduction was an abuse of discretion.  Here's the key analysis:
First, the district court’s factual finding that The General Store quickly complied with the ADA is clearly erroneous. The record contains no evidence to support the finding that the defendants removed the barriers quickly or that they removed the barriers at all. To the contrary, the only evidence in the record is that the defendants did not comply with the ADA. Judge Sandoval made a finding that, eight months after Hohlbein filed the Complaint, the barriers were still present, and he granted summary judgment and ordered the injunction for that reason.

Second, the district court’s finding that paying the requested fees would likely put The General Store out of business is clearly erroneous. The record contains no evidence of the defendants’ financial status. Defendants had an opportunity to raise the ADA’s “not readily achievable” defense, but they conceded in the interrogatories that compliance with the ADA was readily achievable. Based on that concession, they chose not to produce any financial documents. Judge Sandoval relied on that concession when granting summary judgment.

Moreover, there is no evidence in the record of the cost of compliance. Although defendants’ counsel has argued that complying with the ADA’s requirements would be expensive, defendants have not provided any bids, plans, affidavits, or other evidence to support that contention.

Third, the district court committed a legal error by concluding that the amount of requested fees “would perhaps be appropriate against a large business entity, but it would be unjust in a case like this one [against] a relatively small establishment.” We have never held that a court may consider a defendant’s ability to pay when awarding fees to a plaintiff under the ADA.

* * *.

Fourth, the district court erred by reducing Kilby’s hourly rate without considering the uncontested evidence regarding (1) the result Kilby obtained, (2) the prevailing rates in the community, and (3) Kilby’s skill, reputation, and experience.
The court of appeals sent the fee motion back to the district court for reconsideration.

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