Proving Prevailing Paralegal Rates

Legal.com brings us another case in which the court has ruled on the reasonableness of paralegal fees as part of an award of attorney’s fees: MARTINEZ v. JOHARY Case No. 5:08-cv-148-Oc-10GRJ. This case is a bit more straight-forward than the last in which the court had to distinguish between paralegal and non-paralegal (clerical) services. In this case, brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the employees attorney had submitted an affidavit pegging her rates at $300 an hour and the paralegal’s at $105 an hour.

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The court did not have a problem with either rate per se, but was concerned that the rates were not those “prevailing” in the local market, which the court determined to be the U.S. Middle District of Florida (as the case was pending in that court). The problem was

The Plaintiff has not submitted any “specific and detailed evidence” concerning prevailing market rates in Ocala, Florida. Instead, the Plaintiff has merely attached the affidavit of her own attorney, which lists fee awards obtained in FLSA cases litigated in Orlando, Jacksonville, and Ft. Meyers, Florida (Doc. 24-1, ¶¶ 6-7). However, evidence establishing that a rate is in line with prevailing market rates must be “at a minimum more than the affidavit of the attorney performing the work.” Norman, 836 F.2d at 1299. In fact, “[t]he parties ought to provide the court with a range of market rates for lawyers of different skill levels . . . involved in similar cases with similar clients, so that the court may interpolate the prevailing market rate based on an assessment of the skill demonstrated in the case at bar.” Id. at 1300.
The Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the requirements of Norman. While the Plaintiff is correct that Judges of this District have previously awarded Ms. Amritt fees based on a $300 hourly rate, all of those cases were litigated in much larger urban areas with higher costs of living than Ocala, Florida. Moreover, this was a very straightforward case, with no novel or complex issues and minimal discovery. In the absence of any competent evidence concerning the prevailing market rate in Ocala, the Court will rely on its own competence and experience and concludes that an hourly rate of $250.00 is reasonable. SeeMoon, 2009 WL 111678 at *6. The Court further concludes that the hourly rate for the Plaintiff’s paralegal will be reduced to $100.00.

This poses an interesting problem for attorneys seeking recovery of paralegal fees on behalf of a client. What evidence might they provide, other than their own affidavits, of the prevailing rates for paralegals of varying degrees of experience and skill leval in the local market.

It seems to me that local paralegal associations may have a significant role to play in tracking such data and providing the necessary affidavits for inclusion with motions for fees. This ought to be better data than the court’s own “competence and experience,” which is likely to be limited to attorney affidavits filed in other cases unless the judge is fairly new to the bench and has had recent experience paying paralegals.

Another question is how one would determine the skill level of the paralegal. Here it would seem that one or more of the certification programs provided by organizations like NFPA, NALA, OLP, etc., might come into play.

On both issues, this appears to be an opportunity for paralegal associations to gain a greater presence as professional organizations.

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