Petitioner, Ms. Wan, successfully secured a return order using the Hague Abduction Convention, for Mr. DeBolt to return their minor children to Hong Kong. On August 10, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the CD Illinois, ordered Mr. DeBolt to reimburse Ms. Wan attorneys’ fees in the amount of $310,933.50 and costs in the amount of $134,355.95.
Ms. Wan requested $518,307 in fees and $155,710.07 in costs, along with a temporary restraining order limiting non-essential spending of Mr. DeBolt’s assets. Mr. DeBolt responded, arguing that her attorneys’ hourly rates and number of hours billed was not reasonable, and, that good faith and economic circumstances warrant a reduction of the fees.
Petitioner has the burden of establishing that her lawyers’ hourly rates are reasonable. The reasonable rate is the market rate, that is, “the rate that lawyers of similar ability and experience in the community normally charge their paying clients for the type of work in question.” An attorney’s actual billing rate for comparable work is presumptively appropriate as the market rate. If there is no evidence of the actual billing rate for comparable work in Hague Abduction suits, then the Petitioner must present “evidence of rates similarly experienced attorneys in the community charge paying clients for similar work and evidence of fee awards the attorney has received.” The relevant community is not necessarily the local market area, particularly for subject matter litigation that is highly specialized where the community may be practitioners in the national market.
Ms. Wan was represented by two separate law firms – the first until December 2020 and the second from that date until the conclusion of the case. She presented evidence of fees from both firms. For the second law firm, who represented her until the end of the case, and ultimately prevailed, the Court found that the proffered hourly rates of $605 and $475 respectively for the 2 attorneys, overstate the value of their services and is not consistent with their experience. The court specifically stated that the attorneys “tended to go over the same information repeatedly and belabored every point. They did not show the knowledge of the Hague Convention expected of someone charging the rates charged. They were not well organized.” The court therefore set their hourly rates at $425/hour, consistent with the hourly rates of similarly experienced attorneys (lawyers with 11-15 years of experience receive $425/hour). In addition to reducing the hourly rates of the second law firm that represented Ms. Wan, the court discounted some of the attorney-time for work spent on the Hong Kong and Illinois family matters. Given the reduced hourly rates of some attorneys and a discounting of some time, the court used the Lodestar method and found fees to be $414,578. The court then had the ability to adjust the total fees up or down based on certain factors, like the novelty of the legal questions, the skill needed, time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances, the results obtained, and similar awards in other cases. The court did not adjust the fees – the hours reflected the complexity of this particular case.
The court reduced the costs by discounting those for waiting for trial, waiting to visit the children, and waiting for the trial result. The Petitioner did not suggest such costs were necessary, as opposed to a convenience. She was entitled to reimbursement of the costs to travel to Chicago to appear in what was otherwise a virtual trial because it permitted her to confer with her attorneys.
The Respondent did not meet his burden to show he acted in good faith in removing the children, but the costs of the litigation over custody in Hong Kong warranted a reduction in the fee award of 25%.