Rio Grande Sun v. Jemez Mountains Pub. Sch. Dist.

Decision Date02 August 2012
Docket NumberNo. 30,698.,30,698.
Citation287 P.3d 318
PartiesRIO GRANDE SUN and Louis Mattei, individually and as a reporter for the Rio Grande Sun, Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. JEMEZ MOUNTAINS PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT and Adan Delgado, Superintendent and custodian of public records for the Jemez Mountain Public School District, Defendants–Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Peifer, Hanson & Mullins, P.A., Charles R. Peifer, Matthew R. Hoyt, Lauren Keefe, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellants.

Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP, Aaron J. Wolf, Y. Jun Roh, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellees.

OPINION

FRY, Judge.

{1} In this case filed under the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), NMSA 1978, §§ 14–2–1 to –12 (1947, as amended through 2011), we review the district court's reduction of Plaintiffs' requested attorney fees from $30,676.50 to $5000. Because the district court did not meaningfully consider the evidence in support of the request for fees and because it did not employ an objective assessment of the amount of fees reasonably necessary to successfully prosecute the case, we reverse the $5000 award and remand for recalculation utilizing the lodestar method. We also instruct the district court to reconsider its award of costs and to award gross receipts taxes attributable to the final fee award. We affirm the court's denial of post-judgment interest.

BACKGROUND

{2} Plaintiffs Rio Grande Sun (the Sun) and Louis Mattei, a Sun reporter, sued Defendants Jemez Mountain Public School District (the District) and Adan Delgado in order to obtain production of public records under IPRA. The records sought pertained to payments the District made to a former employee who was suspected of embezzling funds from the District. Before filing their lawsuit, Plaintiffs had made two requests for records from the District, and the District had denied both requests.

{3} The district court granted Plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the pleadings and ordered Defendants to produce the requested records. In accordance with Section 14–2–12(D) of IPRA, Plaintiffs then filed a motion for an award of attorney fees, damages, and expenses. Plaintiffs proffered their attorneys' itemized billing statements and resumes along with the affidavit of an attorney familiar with the prevailing rates charged by attorneys, who attested to the reasonableness of the fees charged and the competency of Plaintiffs' counsel. Plaintiffs initially sought fees totaling $22,899.50 for 125.4 hours spent in prosecuting the case, plus $834.85 in expenses, $132 in costs, and post-judgment interest. Defendants responded that Plaintiffs' requested fees were “unreasonable, both with respect to the hourly rates and the hours expended.”

{4} Without holding a hearing on Plaintiffs' motion, the district court entered an order awarding Plaintiffs nominal damages, $5000 in attorney fees, and $794.04 in costs. The court explained its large reduction of the requested fees by noting that Plaintiffs had filed a complaint, a motion, and a reply, and that there were no hearings held. The court noted that Plaintiffs' counsel “hold themselves out as having an expertise in this area of law and being very experienced” and that [i]t is this expertise and experience that they claim justified the strikingly high hourly rates for the attorneys and support staff in their office ($350, $225, and $165 per hour for attorneys, and $100 per hour for support staff).” The court then observed that counsel's expertise and experience meant that “a minimal amount of time should be needed to draft the required pleadings.”

{5} The district court went on to observe that “Plaintiff[s'] hours are the equivalent of working all day, every week day, for nearly three weeks to produce the limited pleadings in this case.” The court stated that it declined to analyze counsel's bill “line by line” and that counsel's bill was “so unreasonable in both the hourly fee rate and the hours billed that it is no help at all to the [c]ourt in determining reasonable fees.” The court noted that “an attorney who charged $5000 for nothing more than filing a [c]omplaint was found to have charged an excessive fee,” citing In re Roberts–Hohl, 116 N.M. 700, 866 P.2d 1167 (1994) (per curiam).

{6} Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration in which they sought, in addition to their initial fee request, fees in the amount of $7777 and expenses of $485.16. Following a hearing, the district court denied the motion without explanation. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

{7} Plaintiffs argue that the district court's reduction of the attorney fees billed was arbitrary because it failed to consider the amount of reasonable fees necessary to achieve success, it failed to consider the billing records submitted, and it relied on a misapprehension of the issues in the case. They maintain that arbitrary reductions of attorney fees, such as the district court's reduction, will discourage citizens from protecting their rights under IPRA. Plaintiffs also contend that the district court erroneously failed to award all of the costs incurred, gross receipts taxes, and post-judgment interest. Finally, Plaintiffs ask for an award of attorney fees incurred in this appeal.

Attorney Fees Incurred in the District Court

{8} IPRA provides that [t]he court shall award damages, costs and reasonable attorneys' fees to any person whose written request has been denied and is successful in a court action to enforce the provisions of [IPRA].” Section 14–2–12(D). Therefore, it is undisputed that Plaintiffs were entitled to an award of damages, fees, and costs. Before considering the merits of Plaintiffs' arguments, we review IPRA and its purpose in order to provide context.

{9} IPRA “embodies New Mexico's policy of open government,” Cox v. N.M. Dep't of Pub. Safety, 2010–NMCA–096, ¶ 5, 148 N.M. 934, 242 P.3d 501,cert. quashed,150 N.M. 765, 266 P.3d 634, and its purpose is to ensure “that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees.” Section 14–2–5. Given this purpose, it is clear that IPRA's provision mandating an award of damages, costs, and attorney fees to a successful litigant is an example of fee shifting—i.e., the imposition of the cost of litigation on the party who unsuccessfully resists a statutorily-compelled, socially beneficial action. See, e.g., In re N.M. Indirect Purchasers Microsoft Corp. Antitrust Litig., 2007–NMCA–007, ¶ 34, 140 N.M. 879, 149 P.3d 976 (observing that the lodestar method of calculating attorney fees “is ordinarily used in statutory fee-shifting cases because it provides adequate fees to attorneys who undertake litigation that is socially beneficial”).

{10} Generally, we review an award of attorney fees for abuse of discretion. Id. ¶ 6. However, [a] discretionary decision based on a misapprehension of the law is an abuse of discretion that must be reviewed de novo.” Id. If the trial court has correctly applied the law to the facts, we review a discretionary decision for an abuse of discretion and reverse only if it [is] contrary to logic and reason.” Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

{11} Plaintiffs contend that the district court abused its discretion in awarding only $5000 in fees because it failed to follow established guidelines for determining attorney fees, it refused to consider the evidence offered in support of the motion for fees, and it relied on unsupported factual assertions. In making their fee request, Plaintiffs submitted detailed billing statements showing dates, work performed, and time expended. The first statement, which reflected time expended from the time Plaintiffs first sought disclosure of the District's records through beginning preparation of the motion for attorney fees, comprised nine pages attributable to fees incurred and reflected 125.4 hours of labor and a total of $22,899.50. The second statement reflected time expended from completion of the motion for attorney fees through completion of the reply in support of the motion, comprised three pages, and reflected 51.1 hours of labor and a total of $7777. The two statements together reflected 176.5 hours of labor for a total fee of $30,676.50.

{12} The district court gave several reasons justifying its reduction of the fee to $5000. These reasons can be summarized as the district court's view that Plaintiffs' counsel charged “strikingly high hourly rates,” filed only four pleadings and, given counsel's expertise in the area of IPRA, should have been able to draft the pleadings in far less time than they claimed to have expended. The court then concluded that it could have analyzed counsel's bill “line by line to determine what amount of time was reasonable to spend on each task,” but it “decline[d] to do so” because [i]t is apparent that the total fee ... is facially unreasonable and the Plaintiffs are looking for a windfall in the award of attorney fees.” The court cited Roberts–Hohl as standing for the proposition that a $5000 fee for filing a complaint is excessive, and then “exercise[d] its discretion to determine the reasonableness of fees and award[ed] the amount of $5000 for attorney fees.”

{13} The district court's determination of fees is without basis in law or fact. While an award of attorney fees is discretionary, “the exercise of that discretion must be reasonable when measured against objective standards and criteria.” Lenz v. Chalamidas (Lenz I), 109 N.M. 113, 118, 782 P.2d 85, 90 (1989). Those criteria may include:

(1) the time and labor required—the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved and skill required; (2) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar services; (3) the amount involved and the results obtained; (4) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances; and (5) the experience, reputation...

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