Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 31, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Finds Hours Expended by Counsel in Connection with Motion for Sanctions for Spoliation of Evidence in RLUIPA Case Were Excessive

Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. brought action against the Village of Pomona challenging certain zoning and environmental ordinances under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and New York state law. Following discovery, on April 27, 2015, the Court held a pre-motion conference on Plaintiffs’ putative motion for sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Pursuant to a Scheduling Order of the same date, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Sanctions and associated documents, requesting that the Court sanction Defendants for destroying a Facebook post written by Defendant Rita Louie and related text messages between Defendant Brett Yagel and Louie, and for failing to produce “the non-destroyed portion of those texts,” which Plaintiffs alleged contained relevant evidence. The District Court granted the congregation’s motion for sanctions against village due to spoliation of evidence.

Plaintiffs sought $63,406.15 in attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with Defendants’ spoliation of evidence. At the outset, the court found that in light of counsels’ extensive experience and the prevailing rates in the Southern District of New York, the presumptively reasonable fee would be based off the hourly rate of $375. Plaintiffs have submitted records indicating that counsel expended approximately 173 hours in connection with their Motion for Sanctions. During Discovery, the submitted time records indicated that Plaintiffs’ counsel spent over 80 hours drafting the motion and reply brief, over 20 hours on research and fact review relating to the spoliation issue, another 36 hours preparing for and attending a pre-motion conference, and approximately 16 hours conferring with one another. The limited nature of the issue led the Court to find the number of claimed hours excessive. However, the court rejected the contention that the “time culling through produced documents and discovery responses” was unnecessary for Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions.

As to the issue of duplicative entries, the court found that the 16 hours that Savad, Sobel, Storzer, and Stepanovich spent conferring with one another was objectively necessary. Additionally, three attorneys, totaling over 20 hours of billed time, were all present at the pre-motion conference on April 27, 2015, despite the fact that only Stepanovich addressed the court. The court therefore found that a reduction of hours was warranted as to this issue. Furthermore, the court found that the billing records submitted by Plaintiffs were replete with examples of work identified in mere generalities, such as “Team Meeting, etc.”, “Review spoliation facts”, and “Work on Spoliation Issue.” These vague descriptions were deemed impermissible in the context of fee awards. Moreover, the fact that Storzer did not even speak at the pre-motion conference, despite having made the trip from Washington, D.C. and incurring $541.55 in travel-related expenses, warranted the elimination of several travel costs that were charge. Accordingly,the court imposed a 30% reduction of the total number of hours for which compensation was sought.

Congregation Rabbinal College of Tartikov, Inc. v Village of Pomona, 2016 WL 3030253 (SDNY 5/25/2016)

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