A California Court of Appeal has affirmed the concept that a successful defendant who is entitled to an attorney fee award can seek an award which is greater than the fees actually billed by the insurance appointed defense counsel who represented the defendant.
In Syers Properties III, Inc. v. Ann Rankin et. al., 226 Cal.App.4th 69 (2014), defendants successfully obtained a judgment of nonsuit in a legal malpractice action. Defendants were entitled to attorney fees by reason of their fee agreement with the plaintiff which entitled the prevailing party to attorney fees. Defense counsel sought and successfully obtained an award of attorney fees which were not tied to the rates actually charged for the representation by presenting evidence to the trial court that a reasonable rate for the representation was actually higher than the rates charged. The court noted that the benchmark for a fee award is reasonableness and there is no requirement that the reasonable market rate mirror the actual rate billed. In concluding that a reasonable rate could exceed the actual rate billed, the court acknowledged that attorneys who do work for insurance companies often work at what are arguably below market rates (in part because of the volume of work). Thus, because counsel was able to convince the trial court that the skill, expertise and experience necessary to successfully litigate the case would reasonably have been charged at higher rates, the court of appeal concluded that the trial court was within its discretion in concluding that a higher rate was reasonable and justified.