CHRISTIAN RESEARCH Inst. v. ALNOR, G039424.

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Citation165 Cal.App.4th 1315,81 Cal.Rptr.3d 866
Decision Date13 August 2008
Docket NumberNo. G039424.,G039424.
PartiesCHRISTIAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. William ALNOR, Defendant and Appellant.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED.

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED.

Ross, Dixon & Bell, Kevin F. Kieffer, Becki F. Kieffer, Jennifer Mathis, Jenece D. Solomon, Irvine, and Michael S. Gower; ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Peter J. Eliasberg, Los Angeles, for Defendant and Appellant.

Tom S. Chun, Irvine, for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

OPINION

ARONSON, J.

William Alnor appeals from a postjudgment order awarding him $21,300 in attorney fees as the prevailing defendant on his anti-SLAPP motion to strike. 1 Alnor contends his counsel reasonably expended more than 600 hours on the motion and the ensuing appeal, but the trial court disagreed, reducing the compensable attorney time to just 71 hours. Substantial evidence supports the trial court's conclusion counsel leavened the fee request with noncompensable hours and vague, indecipherable billing statements, destroying the credibility of the submission and therefore justifying a severe reduction. We may not reweigh the trial court's implicit credibility determination, and we therefore affirm the judgment.

IFACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Following a successful appeal in which we overturned, by a 2-1 decision, the trial court's denial of his motion to strike, Alnor filed a motion in the trial court to recover his costs and attorney fees under subdivision (c) of the anti-SLAPP statute. Section 425.16, subdivision (c), provides: “In any action subject to [an anti-SLAPP motion], a prevailing defendant on a special motion to strike shall be entitled to recover his or her attorney's fees and costs. If the court finds that a special motion to strike is frivolous or is solely intended to cause unnecessary delay, the court shall award costs and reasonable attorney's fees to a plaintiff prevailing on the motion, pursuant to [s]ection 128.5.”

Alnor submitted billing statements and attorney declarations claiming his counsel worked 638.6 hours on the motion to strike and the appeal. According to the records, counsel dedicated 228.7 hours to the pretrial motion and the rest, approximately 410 hours, to the appeal.

The trial court provided a tentative decision in which the court awarded Alnor $21,300 in attorney fees and $1,494.83 in costs. The trial court observed: “While the court is required to award attorney fees to the prevailing defendant after a SLAPP motion[,] the court is only required to award reasonable attorney fees. The court finds that the moving party's claim for over 600 hours of time by 5 attorneys for total attorney fees of over $250,000.00 is excessive. While SLAPP motions are generally difficult, this one was not particularly complex. There was only one cause of action for defamation. The plaintiff conceded the first prong of the two prong test. Thus, the only issue was whether plaintiff met its burden of showing a probability of success. This issue was narrowed further[,] focusing on the question of malice and the applicable standard. The court found that much of the work done by the different lawyers was duplicative and unnecessary. The court found that the use of ‘block billing’ obscured the nature of some of the work claimed. Much of the work claimed also appeared more related to preparing the case for trial rather th[a]n advancing the anti-SLAPP motion....”

At the hearing on the motion, the trial court again noted that [t]his was a single SLAPP motion on a single issue and you claimed attorney fees of over 600 hours, more than $250,000, [with] five attorneys working on this motion.” The court added, “I just don't think that's appropriate, but I'll listen [to] what you have to say.” Unpersuaded by counsel's argument, the court awarded counsel $21,300 in attorney fees, based on 25 hours for the motion, 40 hours for the appeal, and 6 hours of attorney time for the fee motion. Alnor now appeals.

IIDISCUSSION
A. Governing Law

The anti-SLAPP statute provides for an award of attorney fees and costs to the prevailing defendant on a special motion to strike. (§ 425.16, subd. (c).) The defendant may recover fees and costs only for the motion to strike, not the entire litigation. ( S.B. Beach Properties v. Berti (2006) 39 Cal.4th 374, 381, 46 Cal.Rptr.3d 380, 138 P.3d 713 ( Berti ); Lafayette Morehouse, Inc. v. Chronicle Publishing Co. (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 1379, 1383, 46 Cal.Rptr.2d 542 ( Lafayette Morehouse ).) Appellate challenges concerning the motion to strike are also subject to an award of fees and costs, which are determined by the trial court after the appeal is resolved. ( Dove Audio, Inc. v. Rosenfeld, Meyer Susman (1996) 47 Cal.App.4th 777, 785, 54 Cal.Rptr.2d 830.) The defendant may claim fees and costs either as part of the anti-SLAPP motion itself or more commonly, as here, through the filing of a subsequent motion or cost memorandum. ( American Humane Assn. v. Los Angeles Times Communications (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 1095, 1097, 112 Cal.Rptr.2d 488.)

As the moving party, the prevailing defendant seeking fees and costs ‘bear[s] the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.’ [Citation.] To that end, the court may require [a] defendant[ ] to produce records sufficient to provide ‘a proper basis for determining how much time was spent on particular claims.’ [Citation.] The court also may properly reduce compensation on account of any failure to maintain appropriate time records. [Citation.] ( ComputerXpress, Inc. v. Jackson (2001) 93 Cal.App.4th 993, 1020, 113 Cal.Rptr.2d 625 ( Computer Xpress ).) The evidence should allow the court to consider whether the case was overstaffed, how much time the attorneys spent on particular claims, and whether the hours were reasonably expended. ( Ibid.)

A trial court “assessing attorney fees begins with a touchstone or lodestar figure, based on the ‘careful compilation of the time spent and reasonable hourly compensation of each attorney ... involved in the presentation of the case.’ ( Ketchum v. Moses (2001) 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1131-1132, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735 ( Ketchum ).) The court tabulates the attorney fee touchstone, or lodestar, by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by the reasonable hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar work. ( Id. at p. 1134, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735; Serrano v. Priest (1977) 20 Cal.3d 25, 49, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303 ( Priest ).) [T]he lodestar figure may be increased or decreased depending on a variety of factors, including the contingent nature of the fee award.”

( Ketchum, at p. 1134, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735, italics added.) The Ketchum court further noted that pursuant to Serrano v. Unruh (1982) 32 Cal.3d 621, 639, 186 Cal.Rptr. 754, 652 P.2d 985 ( Serrano IV ), absent circumstances rendering the award unjust, an attorney fee award should ordinarily include compensation for all the hours reasonably spent, including those relating solely to the fee.” ( Ketchum, at p. 1133, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735, first italics added.) The Supreme Court cautioned in Ketchum that ‘padding’ in the form of inefficient or duplicative efforts is not subject to compensation. [Citation.] ( Id. at p. 1132, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735.)

Because the Legislature specified the prevailing defendant “shall be entitled to recover his or her attorney's fees and costs” (§ 425.16, subd. (c)), an award is usually mandatory. (See Ketchum, supra, 24 Cal.4th at pp. 1131, 1137-1138, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735.) The Legislature, however, did not intend recovery of fees and costs as a windfall. ( Robertson v. Rodriguez (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 347, 361, 42 Cal.Rptr.2d 464 ( Robertson ); see Olsen v. Harbison (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 278, 283, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 909 [noting “ironic unintended consequence that anti-SLAPP procedures, enacted to curb abusive litigation, are also prone to abuse”].) The prevailing party is entitled to a reasonable award ( Ketchum, supra, at p. 1133, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735); consequently, the trial court need not simply award the sum requested. ( Robertson, at p. 361, 42 Cal.Rptr.2d 464.) To the contrary, ascertaining the fee amount is left to the trial court's sound discretion. ( Ketchum, at p. 1132, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735; Maughan v. Google Technology, Inc. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1242, 1252, 49 Cal.Rptr.3d 861 ( Maughan ).) Trial judges are entrusted with this discretionary determination because they are in the best position to assess the value of the professional services rendered in their courts. ( Ketchum, at p. 1132, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735; PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095-1096, 95 Cal.Rptr.2d 198, 997 P.2d 511); see Melnyk v. Robledo (1976) 64 Cal.App.3d 618, 623, 134 Cal.Rptr. 602 [trial court has its own expertise” on the question of fees].)

Inflated fee requests constitute a special circumstance. In emphasizing that a trial court retains the discretion to award attorney fees in an amount that is less than the lodestar amount, the Ketchum court noted, ‘To the extent a trial court is concerned that a particular award is excessive, it has broad discretion to adjust the fee downward or deny an unreasonable fee altogether.’ ( Ketchum, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 1138, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735.) Specifically, the Ketchum court stated, “A fee request that appears unreasonably inflated is a special circumstance permitting the trial court to reduce the award or deny one altogether.” ( Id. at p. 1137, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 377, 17 P.3d 735, quoting Serrano IV, supra, 32 Cal.3d at p. 635, 186 Cal.Rptr. 754, 652 P.2d 985.)

The Serrano IV court explained, “ ‘If ... the Court were required to award a reasonable fee when an outrageously...

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