Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 26, 2010

Court Awards Attorneys Fees in RLUIPA Case But Notes that Political and Media Related Fees for Services Provided by Becket Fund Are Not Properly Part of Award

Following a jury trial that rendered a verdict in favor of Rocky Mountain Christian Church against Boulder County, but where the jury did not award damages to the Church, the trial judge ordered that the County approve the Church’s special use application within 45 days of the order. The Church now seeks legal fees under RLUIPA claiming that they were the prevailing party on three of its RLUIPA claims.  While the County did not disagree that the Church was the prevailing party, the County asserted that reasonable attorney fees in this case does not include all of the fees incurred by the Church.

 Using the loadstar calculation, the court concluded that the fee of $1,734,120 by the law firm that represented the Church in pursuit of its special use application was reasonable. Next the Court looked at the involvement of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit public interest law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases. During the litigation of this case, the law firm consulted with the Becket Fund, who billed the Church $68,135.50 for their legal services. The County argued that the Becket Fund’s involvement in the matter was duplicative of the law firm’s work, that the Becket Fund’s hourly rate was not reasonable (because it was higher than the rates charged by lawyers of similar experience in the Denver area) and that certain time entries by the Fund are not proper parts of an attorney fee award.

The Court, however, concluded that, “This case involved complex issues of constitutional law and the intersection of those issues with local land use law.  This complexity was enhanced by the overlay of the RLUIPA on those constitutional issues.  The RLUIPA is a relatively new act and the law concerning its application to particular factual situations is not well developed.  Given these circumstances, I find and conclude that the RMCC’s limited use of the specialized skills of the Becket Fund was reasonable.”  The Court found that under the circumstances of this case, and for the specific issue(s) the Becket Fund was brought in to address, their hourly rates were reasonable “[c]onsidering the complex and specialized issues in this case, the limited availability of the specialized knowledge of the Becket Fund attorneys, and the relatively limited amount of time the Becket Fund expended advising the RMCC on these issues…” 

However, the court noted that a number of items on the list of services provided by the Becket Fund were not proper as part of an award for reasonable attorney fees.  Specifically, entries on the bill for time “preparing for and participating in interview with the press, responding to press inquiries, contacting supporters, and communicating with members of Congress.”  The court said that these services were not reasonably necessary in this litigation. Excluding these and other entries where the Court could not separate these types of services from other essential legal services, the Court excluded $13,216 from the Becket Fund statement from the lodestar amount, leaving $54,919 for  them. Therefore, the Court concluded the lodestar amount was $1,789,039.

Next the Court explained that three additional factors must be considered that may lead a court to adjust the fee up or down: 1) the nature of the results obtained; 2) the significance of the legal issue presented by the case; and 3) the broad effect of the litigation in accomplishing a public goal.  As to the nature of the results obtained, the Court concluded that all of the claims in the case were closely related factually and legally.  As to the second factor, the Court concluded that the fact that the Church did not succeed on its theory of liability did not serve to weigh significantly toward a higher or lower award. With respect to the third factor, the public good, the Court noted that “Conceivably, RMCC’s victory will encourage attorneys to represent civil rights litigants in similar cases.”  However, this did not weigh significantly towards a higher or lower award of attorneys fees. The factors lead the Court to conclude that an award of 70% of the lodestar amount is reasonable, and therefore, the Court awarded RMCC attorney fees in the amount of $1,252,327.  In addition, the Court awarded non-taxable costs to RMCC in the amount of $89,664 for computerized legal research, costs for video services and electronic trial presentation, mediation services, travel expenses, and other miscellaneous costs (courier service, long distance telephone calls, fax charges, etc.). 

Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Board of county Commissioners of Boulder Co., 2010 WL 148289 (D. Colo 1/11/2010).

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