Friday, July 8, 2011

Getting Paid for Taking Service Dog Cases: Thank the Law Gods for Appellate Courts

In October 2005, Charles Williams, a paraplegic, entered a Hilton Hotel franchise in Long Beach, California, with his service dog and requested a room. He was refused accommodations and told to leave the premises. In 2009¸a jury found that the Hilton franchise had violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and had negligently trained and supervised its employees, awarding Williams $14,200 in damages, but rejected Williams’ claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted the Hotel’s motion for summary judgment notwithstanding the verdict, finding that Williams’ negligence claim as to the Hotel's training of employees was not supported by substantial evidence.

The parties also stipulated to a permanent injunction after trial. The Hotel agreed to post signs that service dogs are welcome, modify its policies so that no weight limitations would apply to service animals accompanying a disabled guest, not to require a cleaning fee or deposit for service animals unless authorized by statute, and implement training standards for personnel regarding the rights of disabled persons to be accompanied by service dogs.

Williams was represented by two lawyers and applied for statutory attorneys’ fees. Samuel Jackson claimed 145.15 hours at an hourly rate of $550, totaling $79,832.50. Aaron Stites claimed 487.4 hours at a rate of $295, totaling $143,783. The trial court concluded that the case was not a difficult one, did not involve a large number of witnesses, numerous documents, or complicated transactions. The court described it as “a very simple case that would be won or lost on the issue of plaintiff’s credibility.” The court disallowed all fees claimed by Jackson, but allowed that a reasonable amount of time for Stites was 80 hours, for which the court awarded him $23,600.

The trial court thus decided that Jackson should receive nothing for interviewing Williams, inspecting the hotel property, reading depositions of the Hotel’s employees, reviewing various documents prepared by Stites (an attorney recently admitted to the California bar), conducting voir dire, preparing witnesses, giving the opening statement, and examining Williams at trial. The trial court apparently felt that Stites should have been able to conduct the case without any of this support or help, and presumably without virtually any preparation at all. This would make disability rights a very unappealing area of practice, which may have been the idea. (Presumably this trial court would feel that the book I wrote covering the law of service and therapy dogs could have been written in much less time than the two years it took me.)

There is good reason for appellate courts. The appellate court accepted that the trial court has latitude in awarding attorney fees, “and its determination will be upheld unless there is a manifest abuse of discretion.” The trial judge can rely on its own expertise, but is to consider (1) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (2) the skill displayed in presenting them, (3) the extent to which the nature of the litigation precluded other employment by the attorneys, and (4) the contingent nature of the fee award. When a trial court severely curtails a fee award, the appellate court may reasonably presume that it concluded the fee request was padded.

Williams contended on appeal that only the first of these four matters was considered by the trial court, the difficulty of the case. The appellate court noted that the amount of compensatory damages awarded the plaintiff does not control the appropriate level of attorneys’ fees where constitutional rights are vindicated. Trial courts can, however, reject attorneys’ fees on claims that are unsuccessful, as was true of some of the claims here. Of course, part of the lack of success here was the judge's decision to set aside part of the jury's verdict.

“Even if the trial court could reasonably deny attorney fees for claims that it felt were unnecessarily pleaded, the court could not ignore that in addition to obtaining damages for Williams personally, plaintiff's counsel benefitted the public by securing a permanent injunction…. The purpose of the Unruh Act's attorney fees clause is to encourage vigorous enforcement of civil rights—an important public policy—by allowing injured parties to seek redress and attorney fees in situations where they would not otherwise find it economical to sue.”

The appellate court found that the trial court gave “no credit to counsel for vindicating the legal rights of all disabled people who frequent the Hotel while using licensed service animals.” Further:

“The trial court's refusal to award any fees to co-counsel Jackson was arbitrary and inexplicable. Jackson conducted jury voir dire, made the opening statement, and examined plaintiff at trial. The court conceded that Jackson's participation was “no doubt helpful and of benefit” to Stites. Any benefit to lead counsel is, at base, a benefit to plaintiff. As Stites revealed to the trial court, this was his first jury trial. Plaintiff might not have prevailed at trial without Jackson's skill in establishing plaintiff's credibility for the jury. While the court has discretion to award a reasonable fee for Jackson, it lacked discretion to deny his fee altogether.” (emphasis added)

The appellate court concluded:

“The case must be remanded to the trial court to revisit its award of attorney fees. On remand, the court must take into account the public benefit secured by counsel in pursuing this civil rights case and obtaining a permanent injunction requiring defendant to post signs, modify its policies and implement employee training with regard to treatment of disabled customers with service dogs, to deter future Unruh Act violations. Further, the trial court must award attorney fees to Samuel Jackson for nonduplicative services he rendered at trial—and pretrial preparation for those services—that helped plaintiff win his Unruh Act claim. Finally, the trial court must award attorney fees incurred in prosecuting this appeal.”

This counts as chastising. Hopefully, I won’t have to add an additional note about a subsequent appeal from this trial court.

Williams v. HEI Long Beach LLC, 2011 WL 2120908 (Ct. App. 2011)

1 comment:

  1. I received an Anonymous comment on this blog through the blogger system that alleges that one of the individuals mentioned in this blog had for a time been practicing law without a license and has engaged in other improprieties. These claims may be true, though I was unable to verify their accuracy through standard search mechanisms. I am not sure they are relevant to the issues discussed in the blog, as my point does not generally concern the quality of any legal representation involved, but rather to highlight a difficulty encountered by lawyers representing economically disadvantaged populations, which can describe many individuals with disabilities who use service animals. Another reason for not posting the comment aside from its questionable relevance is the fact that by remaining anonymous, the commenter puts the burden of any liability for a potential slander on me, given that I would be making the choice to post claims I have been unable to verify. Variations on this have occurred with comments received a number of times in the six years this blog has been running. I am posting this statement as a comment in case the individual who submitted the comment be checking to determine if his or her comment had been posted and to explain why, at least in its current form, it will not be.