Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 5, 2021

Fed. Dist Court of NY Awards Almost $2.4 Million in Attorney Fees in RLUIPA Case

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Plaintiffs, including Rabbinical College of Tartikov, brought an Action to challenge certain zoning and environmental ordinances enacted by Defendants, including the Village of Pomona, which prevented Tartikov from building a rabbinical college in the Village. This case analyzed Plaintiffs’ Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs. Plaintiffs sought fees for three law firms that it retained for the litigation. Savad Churgin, Attorneys at Law, was responsible for case strategy, discovery, and factual proof at trial. Storzer & Associates, P.C. researched federal and state constitutional and civil rights issues, mainly RLUIPA, and argued in the Second Circuit. Stepanovich Law, PLC was lead trial counsel, and researched and prepared trial affidavits and cross-examination.

The court first noted that the lodestar amount is arrived at by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. Additionally, the fee applicant “bears the burden of demonstrating the number of hours expended and the type of work performed through contemporaneous time records that specify, for each attorney, the date, the hours expended, and the nature of the work done.” Here, Plaintiffs sought $5,625,711.06 in attorneys’ fees, inclusive of $5,130,528.48 for work performed through judgment, and $495,182.58 for work on the appeal. Defendants contended that Plaintiffs’ hours were needlessly duplicative, that their bills are overly vague, and that they inappropriately block billed. Defendants submitted a series of tables analyzing Plaintiffs’ fee submissions, which listed fee entries and attempted to explain the reason why the work (or a portion thereof) should be excluded. The Tables included $1,021,945.57 in reductions for work performed through judgment, and $166,838.83 in reductions for work on the appeal. The Tables suggested that the Court reduces Plaintiffs’ fee by 20% for work through judgment, and by 34% for work on the appeal.

 Defendants first claimed that Plaintiffs paid for unneeded conferences with co-counsel. The court found that Plaintiffs should not be reimbursed in full for the cost of these conferences, as they represented “duplication of effort” that was likely “inevitable, if unintentional” due to Plaintiffs’ co-counsel arrangement. In its Fees Opinion, the court indicated that it was not reasonable to pay multiple attorneys to attend “a mere pre-motion conference.” Specifically, it is unclear why Plaintiffs were required to send three lawyers to the two 30(b)(6) depositions. Conversely, billing records for Robinson & Cole indicated that Defendants sent only one attorney to most of these depositions.

 Defendants next contended that many of Plaintiffs’ time entries were overly vague. The court found that Plaintiffs should not be reimbursed for these vague entries, such as: “compare zoning amendments”, “More review of zoning amendments”, “review documents from J. Stepanovich”, and eliminated hours of attorney time for entries such as “telephone call” and “review of documents”. Plaintiffs sought reimbursement for several repetitive entries by Storzer, including: “draft master deposition outline,” “draft motion for summary judgment,” “draft opposition to defendants’ motion for summary judgment,” “draft reply brief,” “draft trial outline,” and “draft appeal brief.” The court found that while Storzer should have documented his work in greater detail, it would not reduce to zero the large number of hours spent on these and similar matters.

 Defendants further claimed that Plaintiffs excessively block billed. For example, an entry by Storzer for 8.75 hours stated as follows: “Travel to NY (1/2 time); mtg w/PS/SC; travel to Brooklyn; mtg w/clients; edit Complaint.” As discussed in the Fees Opinion, “the Second Circuit has instructed that defendants should not be penalized for a plaintiff’s choice of out-of-district counsel,” and travel time was not recoverable. In other cases, Plaintiffs’ block billing was found appropriate, and did not merit a decreased award. Moreover, the fact that Defendants paid their attorneys $5,110,134.29 for fees and costs through judgment supported the Court’s finding that this was a reasonable sum for such a complex case.

 The court also noted that Plaintiffs’ relief differed qualitatively from their initial request. Specifically, Plaintiffs sought to remove all impediments imposed by Village law to constructing their rabbinical college. While Plaintiffs succeeded in removing two of these impediments through a finding of discriminatory animus, Plaintiffs still faced a number of Village law obstacles to constructing the rabbinical college, Accordingly, the court reduced Plaintiffs’ fees award by 50% due to their lack of success. Plaintiffs’ presumptively reasonable fee of $4,781,854.40, was therefore reduced to an award of $2,390,927.20 in fees.

 Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v Village of Pomona, 2021 WL 1222159 SDNY 3/31/2021)

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