The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that calculating the “reasonable hourly rate” for attorneys handling claims under the federal vaccine compensation program does not require the courts to accept an enhanced rate as prima facie evidence of the “going rate” for Vaccine Act attorneys. Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., No. 2010-5093 (Fed. Cir., decided February 9, 2011). The enhanced rate, referred to as the Laffey Matrix, is “a schedule of rates maintained by the Department of Justice to compensate attorneys prevailing in ‘complex federal litigation.’”
The father of an infant who purportedly died as a result of receiving a vaccination filed a petition for compensation in 2006, and the parties negotiated a settlement in 2007. Initial applications for attorney’s fees were amended and supplemented to include a total request of more than $94,000 for a solo practitioner in New York City.
A special master significantly reduced the hourly rate, and, on appeal, the petitioner argued that attorney’s fees under the Vaccine Act should be determined using the Laffey Matrix. The court noted how Vaccine Act cases differ from those in which the matrix is applied, emphasizing that Vaccine Act proceedings involve no discovery disputes, do not apply the rules of evidence and are tried informally. As well, claimants do not have to prevail to secure an award of fees.
According to the court, “it is appropriate to take account of the fact that Vaccine Act attorneys are practically assured of compensation in every case, regardless of whether they win or lose and of the skill with which they have presented their clients’ cases…. The attorneys’ fees provisions of the Vaccine Act ‘were not designed as a form of economic relief to improve the financial lot of lawyers.’” The court affirmed the special master’s calculation.