In Clayton v. Ford Motor Company, 2017 WL 2859628 (4th Dist., Div. 2 2017) (unpublished), the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s cut of a consumer’s attorney fee request in a Song-Beverly case, finding that the trial court properly set the consumer lawyers’ rate at $275/hour and reduced the fee claim for work done on matters for which there could be no fee award. The consumer’s lawyer had sought $177,840 in attorneys’ fees, but was awarded $41,252.75. The procedural history setting forth the fee award in the trial court is set forth below:
Prior to the hearing, the trial court issued a tentative ruling awarding $41,252.75 in attorney’s fees and $1,280 in costs. It found, “The Song-Beverly claims are distinguishable from the CLRA and UCL claims.” The court found support for 148.9 hours spent on the CLRA and UCL claims. A 10 percent reduction in hours was made for the UCL work. In addition, 16 hours was added for general work for a total of 150.01 hours. The trial court further found that Plaintiffs failed to establish they could not obtain local counsel so they were not entitled to “out of town” rates. Further, it was not a complex case. The hourly rate was set at $275 per hour. At the hearing on the matter conducted on July 10, 2015, the trial court first noted there were a lot of documents filed and that it had spent a “tremendous amount of time” on the case. The trial court assured the parties it had read everything and looked at all of the arguments. The trial court clarified it had granted summary judgment on the Song-Beverly claims. Plaintiffs argued that the trial court appeared to have struck every entry from the summary bill that Ford claimed was related to a Song-Beverly claim. Plaintiffs argued the Song-Beverly and CLRA claims were so intertwined as to preclude apportionment of the time. Plaintiffs did not see how the trial court could apportion the time in this case. The trial court felt that there were two separate issues: the warranties and the terms of repurchase. Plaintiffs disagreed because the repurchase was void because it did not comply with Song-Beverly. The trial court also noted that the Song-Beverly claim was time-barred. Plaintiffs also noted that they had objected to the apportionment of time set forth in Ford’s opposition as it was speculative and lacked foundation. Anderson, who was present, stated she had been very liberal in addressing the summary bill to determine which entries only applied to the Song-Beverly claims. Ford asked that Barry provide which entries were incorrectly identified as Song-Beverly claims. The trial court stated, “That would be useful and helpful because I’ll take a second look at all of it. I spent a tremendous amount of time on this. The Court did not go to one side or the other. I took a very strong look. I tried to be as really careful as I could and distinguish it. [¶] But in the reply there was really no effort to address the specifics.” Plaintiffs argued that the legal theories for all four causes of action were intertwined and it was impossible to apportion them. The trial court noted, “In other words, if the Court had found and agreed with defense that they were intertwined, then they would have all gone, and it would have been a motion for summary judgment that was granted. But the Court did not find that. The Court explicitly found they were two separate actions, and for that reason allowed the case to move forward on counts three and four.” The trial court indicated its disappointment that neither party included evidence of hourly rates in Riverside and San Bernardino. Plaintiffs argued it was Ford’s burden to show that the rate was excessive. Plaintiffs argued that relying on rates in Los Angeles and San Diego was not “too far of a stretch.” The trial court disagreed. It stated, “[i]n terms of what this Court sees on a daily basis, there is a big difference.” The trial court also noted it had not been shown that Plaintiffs could not find local counsel. Plaintiffs responded Ford never raised that issue and wanted to submit supplemental briefing on the issue. Plaintiffs maintained that competent evidence of the hourly rate had been submitted. Ford disagreed it was its burden to show the hourly rate was excessive; Plaintiffs had the burden to show the rate was reasonable. Ford felt it had shown that $250 per hour was a reasonable hourly fee. Lastly, Plaintiffs argued they were entitled to the multiplier. Even if it was conceded it was not a complex matter, it was taken on a contingency and took over two years to complete, and counsel had received an outstanding result. Plaintiffs received over $70,000 in punitive damages. All of the $70,000 went to Plaintiffs. Ford disagreed that the reward was exceptional. Ford was willing to buy back the vehicle even before Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit. After argument, the trial court stated it was going to take the matter under submission. The trial court stated it was going to review the matter again. Counsel responded that going through the time entries, it was “impractical or downright impossible … to allocate out the claims and the time spent.” The trial court responded, “I’m not finding it’s that difficult. The Court will be allocating it out.” The trial court was going to review everything again in order to made sure it got it right. The trial court also assured counsel it would be ruling on the objections. RULING The final ruling was put at the bottom of the tentative ruling. It provided only “After taking the matter under submission, the Court GRANTS plaintiff[s’] attorney’s fees in the amount of 54.727.75 and GRANTS plaintiff[s’] costs in the amount of $1,864.75.” No further explanation of the calculation of the fees was given and Plaintiffs did not seek reconsideration of the award.