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Wednesday, April 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Excessive Force Case Nets $1.6M in Fees for Lawyers

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge awarded $1.6 million in fees to the lawyers who fought Los Angeles sheriff's deputies over a shooting that cost a man his leg.

Angel and Jennifer Mendez prevailed earlier this year on their unreasonable search and excessive force claims stemming from the October 2010 incident. The couple, who are now married, were living together in a shack behind the house of a friend in Lancaster, Calif., when deputies descended on the property while searching for a parolee at large.

The Mendezes, neither of whom was the target of the raid, were napping inside the shack as the deputies approached. Angel heard the door opening and wanted to put his feet on the floor, but could not because his BB gun rifle was in the way.

The deputies pulled back a blue blanket hanging from the top of the doorframe and allegedly saw the silhouette of an adult male holding what looked like a rifle. Two of the deputies began firing, hitting Angel several times, ultimately causing his right leg below the knee to have to be amputated. Jennifer, who was pregnant at the time, was also hit.

U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ultimately awarded Angel $2 million for lost earnings and past and future medical bills, plus $1.8 million in noneconomic damages, and awarded Jennifer $222,000 in medical costs and noneconomic damages.

The Mendezes' attorneys requested fees in the amount of $2.7 million, but Fitzgerald cut the award down to $1.6 million in a Nov. 20 ruling.

Fitzgerald found that some of the attorneys' time entries were too vague to determine whether the described work was reasonable or necessary to the litigation.

"In particular, the court takes issue with an undated time entry in 2013 by attorney Jonathan Drexler for 189 hours of work for '[r]eview of case law throughout the pendency of this case,'" the opinion states. "This entry appears to be a fairly egregious example of block-billing, since it is completely devoid of any detail that would allow the court to determine what was reviewed, when it was reviewed, or why it was reviewed."

The attorneys and paralegals also improperly billed for clerical tasks and primarily administrative tasks. Counsel cannot bill for such work at attorney or paralegal rates.

Additionally, the attorneys' requested hourly rates were unreasonable. Attorney David Drexler requested $850 an hour, but the court recently found that no court has awarded a rate as high as $800 an hour in litigation for excessive force and similar claims. Fitzgerald found that a reduction in the rates for all of the attorneys was appropriate.

The L.A. Sheriff's Department failed, however, to lower the attorneys' fee award based on the Mendezes' supposedly "limited success on their claims."

"Defendants have not questioned whether plaintiffs have obtained an excellent result, as it would be difficult to assert that a judgment awarded Mr. Mendez $3,876,516 and Mrs. Mendez $222,182 in damages is an unsuccessful result, even if awarded for only some of plaintiffs' claims," Fitzgerald wrote. "Therefore, plaintiff counsel is entitled to a full compensatory fee, subject to the reductions taken above."

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