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No D.C. rates for D.C. lawyers, Norfolk court says

Washington, D.C. lawyers who won a pro bono voter records case can’t expect to recoup fees at D.C. rates, a Norfolk federal judge said last week.

Lawyers from the D.C. office of Boston-based Ropes & Gray went to bat for Project Vote, who alleged that students at Norfolk State University had problems registering to vote in the November 2008 primary and general elections in Virginia.

In June, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision that Virginia election officials violated the National Voter Registration Act by refusing to disclose completed voter registration applications, with social security numbers redacted. That decision set the stage for Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith to review Project Vote’s request for attorney’s fees.

Project Vote’s lawyers looked to the Laffey Matrix, which doesn’t always carry much weight beyond Northern Virginia, and asked for $349,317 in fees. They requested hourly rates as of May 31, ranging from $374 for associates to $734 for more experienced lawyers.

Smith looked at the defendants’ evidence of prevailing local market rates within the Eastern District and set the hourly rates at $225 for associates, up to $400 for a partner. She said Project Vote didn’t show it couldn’t find qualified, competent counsel outside Washington, D.C. to take the case. She rejected the plaintiff’s “idle speculation that the case ‘was likely to be politically distasteful for local counsel.’”

Lawyers for the commonwealth also complained that Project Vote’s lawyers seemingly “used this case as a training exercise, without proper billing discretion as to the amount of hours expended.”

Smith did see examples of duplicative services, as well as instances of a total amount of time reported per day, with no breakdown of how the time was spent among as many as four or five distinct tasks. She also agreed that counsel should not recover their full market rate for travel from their offices in D.C. to Norfolk and Richmond.

In her Aug. 22 opinion in Project Vote v. Long, Smith reduced the award by a fixed rate of 10 percent, for a fee award of $184,223.25.

By Deborah Elkins

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