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Ketchum v. Moses - 24 Cal. 4th 1122, 104 Cal. Rptr. 2d 377, 17 P.3d 735 (2001)

Rule:

The fee setting inquiry in California ordinarily begins with the "lodestar," i.e., the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate. The lodestar figure may then be adjusted, based on consideration of factors specific to the case, in order to fix the fee at the fair market value for the legal services provided. Such an approach anchors the trial court's analysis to an objective determination of the value of the attorney's services, ensuring that the amount awarded is not arbitrary.

Facts:

Plaintiff Smith A. Ketchum III owned a multi-unit apartment building in Sausalito. His tenant, defendant John M. Moses, reported numerous code violations to government agencies, including the Sausalito fire and building departments. According to another tenant, Ketchum referred to Moses as a "troublemaker" and stated that he would "get [him] into court" and "keep him there," asserting that he could "afford the best lawyers" while Moses could obtain only "cheap legal aid."

Moses sought mandatory attorney fees after he moved to strike allegations in a so-called strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP action, under Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16. The superior court granted the motion and awarded attorney fees, including fee enhancements based on contingent risk and the exceptional quality of the legal services provided. Moses appealed contending, inter alia, that the superior court abused its discretion in calculating the amount of the attorney fees award. The Court of Appeal reversed. It held that there was no abuse of discretion with regard to the lodestar amount but that the superior court lacked authority to apply a fee enhancement to the lodestar figure. 

Issue:

In a landlord's strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP action) against a tenant, did the trial court abuse its discretion in calculating the amount of the attorney fees award, where it applied a fee enhancement "for the contingent risk or quality of representation" merely for the purpose of punishing the tenant?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of California granted review and affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal on the basis that the superior court abused its discretion in the awarding of the fees. Specifically, the Supreme Court found that the application of a fee enhancement "for the contingent risk or quality of representation" was not properly imposed in this SLAPP case merely for the purpose of punishing Moses.

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