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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Lawyers in No-Fly List Case See Smaller Payday

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge ordered the United States to pay a Malaysian woman's pro bono attorneys nearly $420,000 for successfully representing her in a fight over her placement on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list nine years ago.

But that figure was nowhere near the $3.9 million Rahinah Ibrahim - a former Stanford graduate student - had demanded.

Ibrahim sued the Department of Homeland Security and several other federal agencies after TSA agents kept her from boarding a flight to Hawaii to attend a conference in 2005. Though officials eventually let Ibrahim return to Malaysia, they revoked her student visa shortly thereafter - keeping her from returning to Stanford to finish her doctoral thesis.

After two 9th Circuit reversals made it clear that Ibrahim had established sufficient ties to the U.S. to advance constitutional claims - and U.S. District Judge William Alsup refused to dismiss the case for lack of standing as a noncitizen - the case went to trial.

Earlier this year, Alsup found that Ibrahim had been illegally placed on the no-fly list and a plethora of other watch lists and terror databases. The Justice Department admitted that an FBI agent's goof led to blacklisting Ibrahim, and the judge ordered her removed from all databases and lists.

Ibrahim's lawyers from the firm McManis Faulkner claimed victory - despite losing key constitutional claims - and asked for more than $3.9 million in attorneys' fees and costs. Alsup called the demand "grossly broad even to the point of seeking double recovery." In an effort to determine how much the taxpayers should cough up, he ordered both parties to submit detailed timecards for the eight-year case.

After months of wrangling, Alsup appointed special master Gina Moon of the San Francisco firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen to sort it out. Moon issued her 117-page report recommending $419,987.36 for McManis Faulkner last month.

Last week, Alsup accepted Moon's figures in full - including $34,768.71 in expenses - but ordered Ibrahim to pay the majority of Moon's $27,000 fee.

"At long last, this protracted satellite litigation over attorney's fees and expenses comes to an end," Alsup wrote in a scathing, seven-page order in which he also overruled all of McManis Faulkner's objections to the special master proceedings.

Alsup dumped the majority of the objections for ignoring page limit restrictions, in one case by over 240 pages. And he rejected the lawyers' criticism that Moon had made significant reductions for block-billing and vague entries.

"The special master did not err in finding these line items improper, excessive, and/or inadequately detailed," Alsup wrote. "Plaintiff's counsel also argue that to the extent the special master could not 'infer' information from the surrounding entries, 'she could have requested further clarification.' This argument is misplaced. It was counsel for plaintiff's burden to submit sufficient proof in January 2014. Plaintiff's counsel failed to do so. They were given a second chance to revise their declarations in April. They again failed to do so. They were given a third chance in June. They refused. They were then given an opportunity to work with the special master to calculate the proper amount of recoverable fees. They stubbornly insisted on '100 percent of their fees.' To now blame the special master for not requesting 'further clarification' is utterly misguided."

But the judge also rejected calls by the government to award nothing at all "given plaintiff's counsel's obstinate refusal to comply with the court's entitlement order and her untimely and insufficiently documented request for expenses," as lawyers for the Justice Department put it.

"All will recognize that plaintiff's counsel repeatedly disregarded the rules," Alsup wrote. "In such circumstances, it would be justified to refuse to enter an award. Nevertheless, counsel were permitted to proceed, spawning this second major litigation which included three motions for reconsideration and hours-upon-hours spent sifting through voluminous submissions. Discretion has been exercised to award some but not all of the massive sum demanded."

Alsup ordered the government to pay up by Oct. 30, unless either side files an appeal, and he thanked Moon for tackling what he called a "Herculean task."

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