In a 2-1 decision in DL v. District of Columbia, No. 18-7004 (May 21, 2019), authored by Judge David Tatel, the D.C. Circuit has rejected the federal and D.C. governments' efforts to cut the hourly rates payable for a lawyer's legal work under federal fee-shifting statutes. (Senior Judge David Sentelle dissented.) Here is Judge Tatel's explanation of the issue and summary of the court's holding:
When plaintiffs prevail in a civil rights case, the law usually entitles them to recover reasonable attorney’s fees. Federal district judges, whom Congress has tasked with tabulating those fees, frequently find themselves whipsawed between two seemingly discordant instructions: (1) ascertain the hourly rate for lawyers performing similar work “with a fair degree of accuracy” using “specific evidence,” National Association of Concerned Veterans v. Secretary of Defense, 675 F.2d 1319, 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1982), but (2) do so without turning fee calculations into “a second major litigation,” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). To reconcile those directives, district courts often turn to a fee matrix—that is, a chart averaging rates for attorneys at different experience levels. For decades, courts in this circuit have relied on some version of what is known as the Laffey matrix. Created in the 1980s, that matrix is based on a relatively small sample of rates charged by sophisticated federal-court practitioners in the District of Columbia. Litigants have updated the matrix for inflation using an assortment of tools. Recently, however, the United States Attorney’s Office sought to replace this standby with a new default matrix based on data for all types of lawyers—not just those who litigate complex federal cases—from the entire metropolitan area—not just the District of Columbia.
In this case, after plaintiffs prevailed in a long-running Individuals with Disabilities Education Act class action, the district court accepted the District of Columbia’s invitation to rely on the USAO’s new matrix in awarding fees. But as we explain below, the new matrix departs from the statutory requirement that reasonable fees be tethered to “rates prevailing in the community” for the “kind and quality of services furnished.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). We therefore vacate the award and remand for the district court to recalculate the hourly rate based on evidence that focuses on fees for attorneys practicing complex federal litigation in the District of Columbia.