Attorneys for plaintiffs in the years-long Sines v. Kessler lawsuit are seeking about $14.5 million in attorney’s fees and compensations, alleging the defendants severely extended the length of the trial and increased the expense of the litigation.
Initially filed in October 2017 on behalf of various Charlottesville-area residents, the federal Sines v. Kessler lawsuit sought to hold key organizers and participants of the Unite the Right rally responsible for violence that consumed the city in August 2017.
After years of legal struggles marked by uncooperative defendants and COVID-19 related delays, the case went to trial last year with a jury determining that the plaintiffs prevailed on four of six counts. The two counts the jury remained hung on related to federal hate crime charges, however the plaintiffs’ counsel claimed they “achieved a resounding victory for their clients.”
The jury ordered the defendants to pay approximately $26 million in damages, the bulk of which are considered punitive. As the defendants have filed post-trial motions seeking to reduce the $26 million figure, counsel for the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking an additional $14.5 million.
In a motion filed on March 9, Roberta Kaplan, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs’ filed a motion seeking “reasonable attorneys’ fees in the amount of $12,726,103.85 and costs in the amount of $1,812,439.30.” Included in that figure is $73,677 in fees for preparing the motion. In whole, the fees are based on more than 46,000 hours of work, according to the motion.
The lengthy motion includes a robust collection of arguments, citing case law, legal precedents and the complicated nature of the case, which Kaplan argues was unnecessarily impeded by uncooperative defendants.
“Nevertheless, plaintiffs persevered, with their counsel expending time and resources that would have been wholly unnecessary were it not for defendants’ never-ending recalcitrance, not to mention being the object of threats and insults to which few parties or counsel would voluntarily subject themselves,” Kaplan wrote. “In light of these circumstances, it is not surprising that in these past four years, no other lawsuit — civil or criminal — challenging the illegal conspiracy that was at the core of Unite the Right has been litigated on the merits and decided by a jury.”
Included in the motion is a chart breaking down the fees and expenses, which Kaplan characterizes as “conservative” estimates. Each firm is seeking fees for no more than six timekeepers, even though Kaplan claims the total number of attorneys working on this case from each firm was far greater.
Additionally, Kaplan wrote that the counsel did not apply their “standard New York and Washington, D.C. market rates ranging from approximately $250 to over $1500.” Instead, they opted to apply local market rates for Charlottesville, Virginia, ranging from $100 to $450/hour, with the largest rate being reserved for the most experienced lawyers, including Kaplan.
As a supporting argument, Kaplan claims that the circumstances of the lawsuit are what attorneys’ fee provisions were designed for.
“Enforcing the Virginia hate-crime statute’s fee-shifting provision in this case, intended by the legislature to act as a deterrent, would not only signal to future bad actors that they should think twice before engaging in similar violent misconduct motivated by racial and religious animus, but would signal to future victims of such illegal conduct that the risk of vindicating their rights under the statute is one worth taking,” Kaplan wrote.
Acknowledging that it is difficult to find cases that resemble the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit in terms of length, number of parties and third parties, complexity, and novelty of the claims, and discovery misconduct, Kaplan argues the fee request is still reasonable by comparison.
“Indeed, courts routinely approve fee awards to the tune of millions of dollars in similar cases featuring mitigating factors that are absent here, such as shorter durations, fewer parties, less discovery misconduct, and shorter trials,” Kaplan wrote.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia will grant the plaintiffs’ motion for attorney’s fees. However, even if the motion is granted it appears unlikely the defendants will be able to pay the high fees.
Following the end of the 22-day trial, various legal experts from the University of Virginia claimed that because the defendants do not have any assets, getting that money would be a trial in itself. The amount for punitive damages may at this point be mainly symbolic, as damage awards are often reduced by the judge, or on appeal, the experts claimed.
Plaintiffs’ counsel is expected to soon respond to a swath of post-trial motions from the defendants asking to have their damages reduced or receive a new trial. It remains to be seen how the court will respond to these motions and whether the plaintiffs’ counsel will amend their attorney’s fees calculation to include post-trial work.