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Manhattan attorneys who helped win a major voting rights case in Albany, N.Y., are entitled to compensation based on upstate, not downstate, levels, a federal judge held this week. However, Northern District Magistrate Judge David R. Homer found that the prevailing hourly rate paid to Northern District lawyers should be increased 20 percent, to $210 per hour for experienced counsel. But that is still less than one-third of what Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher would have charged in New York City. Homer’s fee order stems from a case where a coalition of citizens challenged an Albany County redistricting plan that, the court said, did not adequately reflect the local minority population. The lead plaintiff, an activist named Aaron Mair, initially could not find an Albany attorney to take the case. Eventually, he hired Paul DerOhannesian II of Albany. At the same time, Mair hired the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. DerOhannesian and Cara J. Fineman of the Lawyers’ Committee brought suit in April 2003. DerOhannesian, a solo practitioner with extensive experience in criminal law but no experience in federal appellate litigation, anticipated the need for additional counsel. Ultimately, Mitchell A. Karlan, a partner at Gibson Dunn, was brought in. The litigation was successful and the attorneys then sought fees and costs totaling $483,948. Two main issues were before Homer with regard to the fee application: Whether the “prevailing” rate, which reflects what attorneys generally charge in the Northern District, is outdated; and whether Gibson Dunn should be compensated at a much higher Southern District prevailing rate. Under a rate structure adopted by the Northern District judiciary in 1999, experienced lawyers who prevail in civil rights cases and are therefore entitled to attorney’s fees from the losing party are paid at most $175 per hour. Lesser experienced lawyers were permitted to charge $100 to $125 per hour. Homer said those figures, which should reflect the local market, are now too low. The court held that Gibson Dunn should be paid a prevailing Northern District rate, not a Southern District rate. The firm sought more than $700 per hour, and ended up with less than a third of that. Homer said the plaintiffs are not entitled to Southern District fees for Gibson Dunn because there was no showing that more economical nearby counsel was not available. He acknowledged the plaintiffs’ difficulty in finding an Albany attorney to take the case, but observed that the Northern District includes 31 other counties and the cities of Syracuse, Binghamton, Kingston and Utica. “The counties immediately surrounding Albany County include several law firms of sufficient size and federal civil appellate experience to support the litigation in this case,” Homer said in Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Association v. County of Albany, 03-CV-502. “Plaintiffs have made no showing that before retaining a law firm outside the Northern District, they made any effort to retain a Northern District firm.” Homer also reviewed the Northern District rate structure that has been in place since 1999, and found that it was outdated. He noted that in the District of Connecticut attorneys are receiving $275 to $300 per hour, that lawyers in the Western District of New York are getting $225 to $240 and that counsel in Vermont are receiving up to $225 per hour. The court said the Northern District rates should be increased to $210 for experienced counsel, $150 for associates with more than four years of experience, $120 for associates with less than four years of experience and $80 for paralegals. Using those figures, Homer awarded a total of $160,763 in attorney’s fees. The two Gibson Dunn attorneys received about $46,000 for district court work and another $15,500 for the appeal. DerOhannesian was awarded about $52,000 for work in the district court and another $4,725 for the appeal. The Lawyers Committee received about $16,000 for their work at the district court level. Appearing on the fee application were DerOhannesian, Fineman, and Karlan and Mark E. Bini of Gibson Dunn. Albany County Attorney Michael C. Lynch appeared for the defendants. Thomas J. Marcelle of Delmar, Albany County, appeared for the Albany County Republican Committee and the county’s GOP legislative caucus as intervenors.

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