Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 9, 2015

Fed. Dist. Court in FL Reduces Attorney’s Fees by Half in RLUIPA Case

On November 25, 2014, the Court entered Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law ruling that the City of Jacksonville Beach had violated the Equal Terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it refused to grant the Church of Our Savior a conditional use permit (“CUP”) to construct a church. The Court then proceeded to the remedy phase. Using the least intrusive remedy consistent with the RLUIPA violation it had found, the Court stated its intention to direct the City to grant a CUP but to allow the City to consider “reasonable conditions on the permit in accordance with the City’s Land Development Code (“LDC”) and subject to its procedures.” Rather than working together, the parties chose to engage in unnecessarily contentious litigation on topics like how and where they should negotiate on possible conditions, what was permitted to be said in court filings, the correctness of the Court’s original decision, the appropriate remedy, and the amount of attorneys’ fees and costs to which the Church’s attorneys are entitled. As a result, the Court entered an Order directing the City to grant the Church a CUP containing any reasonable conditions. The City Planning Commission held a meeting on March 9, 2015, at which time it issued the CUP with certain conditions. On April 10, 2015, the Court conducted a hearing on three issues: the City’s motion for reconsideration of the Court’s original ruling finding the City to be in violation of the Equal Terms provision of RLUIPA, the Church’s objections to some of the conditions imposed by the City on the CUP, and the Church’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs.

The motion of reconsideration was denied by the court since the City acknowledged there was no newly-discovered evidence and pointed to no intervening change in controlling law since the Court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Instead, the City merely tried to more fully present the law and the facts than it did originally, under the guise of helping the Court avoid a supposedly manifest error. The court deemed this to be an attempted “second bite of the apple” and denied the motion. As to the objections to the CUP, however, the court found some of the Church’s objections to have merit. The court agreed that there should be no provision prohibiting future variance applications, nor a condition mandating the Church to secure development plan approval of its proposed facilities “within twelve months of issuance of the conditional use permit …” Other conditions, such as imposing a pedestrian only easement, and requiring the erection of a fence, were permitted.

The Church sought $851,352.59 in attorney’s fees and costs. The City responded that the rates and the hours were excessive and contends that no enhancement was appropriate, particularly since the Church succeeded on just one of eight counts it originally filed against the City. In evaluating whether the fees requested are reasonable, the court considered the reasonable hourly rate multiplied by “the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation,” the product of which was the “lodestar” reasonable sum the party may recover. Here, the court found the amount of hours and fees charged to be excessive of the median, and therefore found that an across-the-board reduction of 50% appropriately accounted for all of the factors the Court has considered in this Order. Consequently, the Court awarded $281,535.68 in fees and $23,612.08 in expenses, for a total of $305,147.76.

Church of our Savior v City of Jackson Beach, 2015 WL 2383662 (MD FL 5/19/2015)

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