In September 2015, owners of two properties–Michael and Tina Bratcher and Michael Slaughter–filed a rails-to-trails taking case in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, later amending the complaint to add 20 additional landowners. In August 2016, Bratcher reported to the Court that the parties had resolved all liability issues through stipulation. Based on that stipulation, Bratcher voluntarily dismissed 13 claims asserted by 12 of the 22 landowners.
Following discovery on the remaining valuation issue, in August 2017 Bratcher filed a notice of acceptance of the Government’s Rule 68 Offer of Judgment of $77,466.80 in just compensation. Bratcher then moved for an award of attorneys’ fees and expenses under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act. The Government opposed the motion, arguing that the fees and expenses requested were excessive.
The Court largely agreed with the Government, and cut the attorneys’ fees in half, and the expenses by about 25%
The Court first agreed with the Government’s contention that the fees and costs associated with unsuccessful claims that Plaintiffs had voluntarily dismissed should be disallowed. Based on this rationale, the Court reduced Plaintiffs’ fee petition by 40%.
The Government likewise challenged “questionable billings.” The Court agreed with the Government’s challenge to hours billed by a senior partner as excessive when the work performed dealt with reviewing pleadings. The Court also reduced 20% of the hours claimed for airline travel in which the attorney did not simultaneously perform work on the case. The Court also disallowed paralegals’ fees. And the Court deemed unreasonable the number of hours spent researching, and reduced those hours by 50%, and the over 100 hours spent preparing the motion for attorneys’ fees, reducing those hours by 50%.
Finding that most of the work performed was carried out in St. Louis, the Court also concluded that the relevant hourly rate should be the average rate for attorneys in St. Louis, as opposed to Washington, DC. The St. Louis fees were about half that of the Washington fees.
Finally, the Government successfully challenged the expenses that plaintiffs claimed, which the Court also significantly reduced.
Read Judge Kaplan’s full decision here.