PLAGER, Circuit Judge.
Appellant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS or government) appeals the Court of Federal Claims'
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On October 1, 1990 attorneys Rodney A. Klein and Michael R. Skow filed a petition for compensation on behalf of Nathaniel Saxton under the provisions of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (Vaccine Act).
After consulting two different medical experts, Klein and Skow filed a petition to dismiss the Saxtons' case on October 3, 1991. The experts declined to testify because the medical records could not support a conclusion of either table injury or causation.
On October 31, 1991 Klein and Skow applied for $10,832 in attorneys' fees and costs incurred during preparation of the case.
On May 18, 1992 the special master awarded Klein and Skow $5982.48 under 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-15(e)(1), which authorizes the award of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs even when the petitioner does not prevail. All that is required is that the petition be brought in good faith and upon a reasonable basis. Although Klein and Skow voluntarily dismissed the petition for lack of proof, the special master found that they had brought the petition in good faith because they could not have fully evaluated the claim in October of 1990, during the rush to file claims before the impending statutory deadline.
The special master did not award the full amount requested; he reduced the attorneys' fees by about 50 percent. He found the number of hours billed overall to be unreasonable, and pointed to specific examples of
To confirm his subjective impression, the special master surveyed every fee award made since the beginning of the vaccine program. He found that the five other law firms that handled multiple vaccine cases averaged 62.3 hours per case, while Klein and Skow averaged 143 hours per case — roughly twice as many hours. In the special master's opinion, reducing Klein and Skow's hours by 50 percent would still "provide a generous amount of time for a competent [Vaccine] Program attorney, in a typical Program case, to put together a Program petition, send the case to medical experts, and review and discuss such experts' responses, before electing to dismiss the case." Id. at 5.
Klein and Skow filed a motion for review with the Court of Federal Claims, and requested an additional $1000 in fees and costs incurred while preparing the motion for review. On August 7, 1991 the court vacated the special master's decision. It ruled that the special master's experience with counsel in the past was an irrelevant factor, and that his reliance on that factor rendered his entire decision arbitrary:
Saxton/CFC, slip op. at 7.
The Court of Federal Claims awarded Klein and Skow the full amount of fees requested, finding the fee request to be reasonable because it "is documented and all of the items seem realistic." Id. at 7. The government appealed that decision to this court.
On review of the judgment of the Court of Federal Claims, "[w]e may not disturb the judgment of the [court] unless we find that judgment to be arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Munn v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 970 F.2d 863, 870 (Fed.Cir.1992); see also Phillips v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 988 F.2d 111, 112 (Fed.Cir.1993).
The issue before us is this: Was the Court of Federal Claims correct in holding that the special master erred in determining the fee award because he took into account his previous experiences with these attorneys in the vaccine program? We review this question
If we conclude that the court was correct in its analysis, then it properly set aside the special master's decision under the applicable statutory standard—arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law — and properly substituted its own findings and conclusions. See 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-12(e)(2)(B). At this point, we would review the Court of Federal Claims' new findings "under the same standard by which we review trial court fact findings in other contexts ... clearly erroneous." Munn, 970 F.2d at 871-72.
The government argues that the Court of Federal Claims, by specifying what
Klein and Skow argue that the court did not unduly interfere with the special master's discretion; it merely instructed special masters on how to properly apply their prior experience. Klein and Skow charge that the special master's fee award was arbitrary because he failed to perform an independent evaluation of the fee request — he merely relied on his uncontrolled `study' of previous fee awards and his belief that Klein and Skow had inflated their fees in the past. His 50 percent reduction of the fees was made without explanation; according to Klein and Skow, decisions employing this `meat-axe' technique should be subject to heightened scrutiny.
Because of the no-fault nature of the vaccine program, its simplified procedures, and its elimination of the need to prove fault or causation in every case, legal fees and costs in the vaccine program were not expected to be high:
H.R. Report No. 908, 99th Cong., 2d Sess. 36, reprinted in 1986 C.C.A.N. at 6287, 6377-78; cf. Zeagler v. Secretary of Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 19 Cl.Ct. 151, 153 (1989) ("A suit under the Act was meant to be, and is, a straightforward proposition. ... we do not think that suits under the statute can be viewed as litigation in the traditional sense.").
The section of the Vaccine Act which authorizes the award of attorneys' fees and costs provides that:
42 U.S.C. § 300aa-15(e)(1).
If the petition for compensation is successful, the special master is required to award reasonable fees and costs. 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-15(e)(1). The determination of the amount of reasonable attorneys' fees is within the special master's discretion. See Hines v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 22 Cl.Ct. 750, 753 (1991). If the petition for compensation is denied, the special master "may" award reasonable fees and costs if the petition was brought in good faith and upon a reasonable basis; the statute clearly gives him discretion over whether to make such an award. See Perreira v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 27 Fed.Cl. 29, 31 (1992).
Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-34, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 1939-40, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983).
The trial forum "has discretion in determining the amount of a fee award. This is appropriate in view of the [trial forum's] superior understanding of the litigation and the desirability of avoiding frequent appellate review of what essentially are factual matters." Id. at 437, 103 S.Ct. at 1941; see also Commissioner, Immigration & Naturalization Serv. v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 161, 110 S.Ct. 2316, 2320, 110 L.Ed.2d 134 (1990).
Trial courts routinely use their prior experience to reduce hourly rates and the number of hours claimed in attorney fee requests. See Bernardi v. Yeutter, 951 F.2d 971, 974 (9th Cir.1991) (district court's reduction of hourly rates and reduction of hours billed by one-half was not an abuse of discretion; "[t]he district court is in the best position to determine in the first instance the number of hours reasonably expended"); Coulter v. State of Tennessee, 805 F.2d 146, 150-52 (6th Cir.1986) (district court's reduction of hourly rates and reduction of hours billed was proper; "When the issue is a question of the lawyer's judgment in billing for a particular number of hours on a piece of work, we must depend in larger measure on the fairness of the District Court ... we do not believe the District Court acted arbitrarily or irrationally in reducing the pretrial preparation hours from 62 to 31.").
Vaccine program special masters are also entitled to use their prior experience in reviewing fee applications. See Farrar v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 1992 WL 336502, at *2-3, 1992 U.S.Cl.Ct. LEXIS 512, at *7-8 (Cl.Ct.Spec.Mstr. Nov. 2, 1992) (requested fees of $24,168.75 reduced to $4112.50); Thompson v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., No. 90-530V, 1991 WL 165686, at *2-3, 1991 U.S.Cl.Ct. LEXIS 401, at *9-10 (Cl.Ct.Spec.Mstr. Aug. 13, 1991) (requested fees of $18,039.75 reduced to $9000); Wasson v. Secretary of Dep't Health & Human Servs., 24 Cl.Ct. 482, 483 (1991), on remand, No. 90-208V, 1992 WL 26662, 1992 U.S.Cl.Ct. LEXIS 42 (Cl.Ct. Spec.Mstr. Jan. 2, 1992), aff'd, No. 90-208V (Cl.Ct. Feb. 21, 1992), aff'd, No. 92-5101, 1993 WL 18492 (Fed.Cir. Jan. 29, 1993) (hourly rates reduced, and requested fees of $151,575 reduced to $16,500; special master disregarded the claim for 698.5 hours and estimated what, in her experience, would be a reasonable number of hours for a case of that difficulty).
Such fee determinations are within the discretion of a trial forum and are entitled to deference. See Jean, 496 U.S. at 161, 110 S.Ct. at 2320; Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437, 103 S.Ct. at 1941; Delta-X Corp. v. Baker Hughes Prod. Tools, Inc., 984 F.2d 410, 414 (Fed.Cir.1993); Hines, 22 Cl.Ct. at 754 ("The special master is within his discretion in reducing hours that are duplicative, padded, spent on unrelated matters, or not `reasonably expended.'").
It was well within the special master's discretion to reduce the hours to a number that, in his experience and judgment, was reasonable for the work done. The Court of Federal Claims erred in prohibiting the special master from considering his past experiences with attorneys in the vaccine program — this past experience is a relevant factor and should be taken into account. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 430 n. 3, 103 S.Ct. at 1937 n. 3 (awards in similar cases and counsel's
Since the special master's consideration of his past experiences was the only basis for the Court of Federal Claims' conclusion that the special master's decision was arbitrary, and since the court's determination on that issue was erroneous, we reverse its decision and remand for entry of judgment in accordance with the special master's decision.
Costs awarded to the government.