Trial Court Improperly Applied Local Market Rate When Calculating Fee Award

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Jun 30, 2020 01:08 PM

Augustine Caldera is a prison correctional officer at the California State Institute for Men in San Bernardino County.  After Caldera’s supervisor and other prison employees mocked and mimicked Caldera’s stutter, Caldera filed a formal grievance with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2008.  The CDCR rejected Caldera’s grievance finding that his stutter was not a recognized disability.

After the CDCR rejected Caldera’s grievance, Caldera contacted numerous local lawyers in the Inland Empire.  However, all of the attorneys Caldera contacted declined to take on his case.  An attorney in Pasadena, Todd Nevell, eventually agreed to represent Caldera on a contingency basis. Caldera then brought suit against the CDCR and his supervisor for various causes of action, including discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  After many years of litigation and multiple appeals, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Caldera.

Subsequently, Caldera filed a motion for attorney’s fees.  Under the FEHA, a court has the discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party.  In calculating the fee award, courts generally multiply the number of hours spent on the case by the attorney’s applicable hourly rate.  Courts also frequently increase this amount by applying a multiplier to account for other factors such as the difficulty of the litigation and the novelty of the issues.  While Caldera requested $2,468,365 in attorney’s fees, the court ultimately awarded him only $810,067.50.  This was in part because the court found that Nevell’s requested $750 hourly rate was well above the average $450 to $550 hourly rate for attorneys in San Bernardino County.  Caldera appealed.

On appeal, the court concluded that if an employee must hire out-of-town counsel, the trial court, when setting the hourly rate, must consider the attorney’s home market rate, rather than the local market rate.  The court reasoned that there was unrefuted evidence that Caldera was unable to find an attorney who would take his case in the Inland Empire, and it noted that the hourly rate the trial court applied was lower than similarly experienced attorneys in Los Angeles County.  Thus, the court directed the trial court to recalculate the fee award based on Nevell’s home market rate.

Caldera v. Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab. (2020) 48 Cal.App.5th 601.

NOTE:

This case demonstrates how substantial attorney’s fee awards can be in employment litigation.  Attorney’s fees can be far greater than expected if the employee has to use legal counsel from outside the area.

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