Getting Laffey Out of Court: Rethinking the Calculation of Reasonable Attorney Fees in FOIA Cases

American Bar Association

by Margaret Strouse
March 16, 2022

When it works as intended, the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) fee-shifting provision both deters federal agencies from unlawfully withholding records and helps financially challenged requestors contest withholdings in court. But in federal courts in the District of Columbia, where any FOIA lawsuit may be brought and where a large portion of such suits are litigated, courts frequently undermine that goal by awarding fees, not based on the hourly rates plaintiffs’ attorneys charged their clients, but by relying instead on outdated and insufficient benchmarks published by the U.S. Attorney’s Office—the very office charged with defending federal agencies in these cases. This table of purportedly reasonable hourly rates, called the “USAO Matrix” or “Laffey Matrix,” and its slightly more reasonable but still problematic cousin the “LSI Laffey Matrix,” should be retired in favor of fee awards based on rates that willing plaintiffs agree to pay their lawyers. Until the D.C. Circuit does so, however, there are a number of strategies FOIA plaintiffs’ counsel can pursue to obtain more equitable fee awards.

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