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Voting Rights Attorneys Seek More Than $22 Million in Legal Costs

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Editor's note: The following article has been updated to include the hours billed and the hourly rates for the plaintiff's key attorneys.

By Jorge Casuso

June 4, 2019 -- Attorneys for the plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica are seeking $22.3 million in attorneys fees and expenses, according to documents filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday.

The motion asks the court to award the legal costs incurred during the first phase of the trial and to set a hearing August 28. The City has appealed the lower court ruling.

The plaintiffs were "prevailing" and "successful" in upholding the rights of "thousands of Latino voters in Santa Monica," the plaintiffs' lead attorney Kevin Shenkman wrote in his motion.

"(T)he amount of fees and expenses sought is reasonable considering the novelty and complexity of the case, the unqualified victory achieved by Plaintiffs, the public benefit achieved for minority residents in Santa Monica, and the significant risk taken by Plaintiffs’ counsel in pursuing this case," the motion said.

In February, Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ruled that Santa Monica's at large election system discriminates against Latino voters ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

A week later, the City voted to file an appeal that stayed her order to hold a special district election and barred the current City Council from serving beyond August 15 ("Santa Monica Council Votes to Appeal Voting Rights Ruling," February 21, 2019).

"The Superior Court is in the best position to say how much (the attorneys fees) should be," Shenkman said, adding that an appeals court "almost never reverses" such a decision.

Attorneys representing the City said the plaintiffs' legal costs would not have to be paid if the Appeal Court reverses the lower court's ruling.

"We have just received, and are now reviewing, plaintiffs’ request for attorneys’ fees and costs," said Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, the lead attorney representing the City.

"As we have argued from the start, plaintiffs should recover no fees or costs because the City’s election system is fair and complies with the law," Boutrous said.

"We remain hopeful that the Court of Appeal will reverse the trial court’s judgment, which is the only basis for any award of fees or costs."

Boutrous said the defense attorneys will submit an "appropriate response" on behalf of the City.

Shenkman's motion asks the Superior Court to award attorneys’ fees in the amount of $13,419,398.25 to Shenkman & Hughes PC; $4,380,806.25 to the Parris Law Firm, $2,342,463.75 to the Law Offices of Milton C. Grimes, and $1,278,676.13 to the Law Office of Robert Rubin.

The fees are based on the number of hours reasonably worked, multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate, with the application of a "lodestar" multiplier of 2.25 based on the perceived chances of prevailing at the start of the trial, Shenkman said.

The City, including Councilmembers who aired their opinions of the case in the press, said the plaintiffs didn't have a good case, Shenkman said.

Among the key attorneys for for plaintiffs, Shenkman billed for 4,337.7 hours at an hourly rate of $815; his partner Mary Hughes billed for 2,239.3 hours at $740 an hour; Rex Parris billed for 1,018.6 hours at $975 per hour, and Milton Grimes billed for 784.15 hours at $975 per hour.

The motion also asks the Court to award expenses totaling $905,725.14 that the plaintiffs paid out of pocket.

The motion outlines the steps plaintiffs took during the "three years of contentious litigation" that resulted from the defense's "scorched-earth approach to this case."

"The efforts of Plaintiffs’ counsel in this important case have been extraordinary -- thousands of hours of work and nearly a million dollars in out-of-pocket expenses that have had a deleterious effect on their finances and physical health," Shenkman wrote.

"For their efforts in this notorious case, Plaintiffs and their counsel have endured a constant barrage of political retaliation and personal attacks in the press by Defendant and its supporters."

Thursday's filing was accompanied by documents the plaintiffs attorneys say could help determine what the City has paid Gibson Dunn for its representation.

Based on a fee application filed by the firm in a recent case, Shenkman estimates "with a high degree of confidence" that the three attorneys heading the defense bill at a minimum of $1,200 an hour.

He estimates that Boutrous bills at no less than $1,500 an hour; Marcellus McRae bills at $1,250 an hour and Kahn Scolnick bills at more than $1,000 an hour.

Shenkman estimates the case has cost the City between $13 and $20 million.

City officials have declined to provide The Lookout with the total fees paid to Gibson Dunn, citing attorney client privileges in the ongoing litigation ("City Officials Won't Reveal Cost of Voting Rights Lawsuit Until Case is Closed," March 5, 2019).

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