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Bethea v. Rash

United States District Court, D. Delaware

July 22, 2015



SUE L. ROBINSON, District Judge.

At Wilmington this 22ndday of July, 2015, having reviewed plaintiff Rodney Bethea's motion for attorney fees and costs (D.I. 128), and the papers filed in connection therewith, the court issues its decision based on the following reasoning:

1. Introduction. On March 13, 2015, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Rodney Bethea ("plaintiff") on his excessive force and battery claims against defendant Corporal Greg Rash ("defendant") in the amount of $15, 225.00.[1] (D.I. 120) Judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff and against defendant on March 18, 2015. (D.I. 126) Plaintiff timely moved for attorney fees and costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1920. (D.I. 128) In support of his motion for attorney fees and costs, plaintiff submitted: (1) an itemized billing record for the litigation; (2) affidavits from plaintiff's counsel; and (3) an affidavit from a local attorney specializing in police misconduct cases. (D.I. 128, exs. 0-F; 129; 130) Defendant filed opposition briefs and a supporting affidavit from an attorney specializing in audits of legal billing. (D.I. 133, 134) Plaintiff filed reply briefs with an additional affidavit from a local attorney. (D.I. 137, 138) The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

2. Background. Plaintiff seeks attorney fees in the amount of $243, 315.00, based upon 540.7 hours of work by Brian S. Chacker, Esquire and Michael I. Silverman, Esquire at the rate of $450 per hour. Additionally, plaintiff seeks litigation expenses and costs in the amount of $9, 440.37, for a total of $252, 755.37.

3. Standard. Although litigants are generally responsible for their own attorney fees and costs, Congress has mandated that fee-shifting is appropriate in civil rights actions. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), in any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs."[2] The Third Circuit has further concluded that such awards should be made absent special circumstances weighing against such an award. See Truesdell v. Phila. Haus. Auth., 290 F.3d 159, 163 (3d Cir. 2002).

4. The court calculates attorney fees pursuant to the "lodestar" approach. Brytus v. Spang & Co., 203 F.3d 238, 242 (3d Cir. 2000). The lodestar amount results from multiplying the amount of time reasonably expended by reasonable hourly rates. See id. The court may exclude from the lodestar calculation unnecessary hours or hours that lack proper documentation. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The prevailing community market rates assist the court in determining a reasonable hourly rate. Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1984). The prevailing party bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of both the time expended and the hourly rates. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; Blum, 465 U.S. at 895 n.11.

5. Calculation of the lodestar does not end the inquiry. The court may adjust the fee upward or downward. First, the court may exclude from the lodestar calculation hours spent by the prevailing party's counsel on claims that were unrelated to the claim on which the prevailing party succeeded. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. Second, the court may also exclude hours not commensurate with the degree of success obtained. See id. If a party has achieved only partial or limited success, the lodestar may be an excessive amount. See id. at 436. Finally, the party opposing the fee award may challenge, by affidavit or brief with sufficient specificity to give fee applicants notice, the reasonableness of the requested fee. See Bell v. United Princeton Properties, Inc., 884 F.2d 713, 715 (3d Cir. 1989). Based on the opposing party's evidence, the court may further adjust the fee.

6. A court may not sua sponte reduce a request for attorney fees. Bell, 884 F.2d at 719. However, "the district court retains a great deal of discretion in deciding what a reasonable fee award is, so long as any reduction is based on objections actually raised by the adverse party." Id. at 721. The party who asks for the fees to be adjusted has the burden of proving an adjustment is necessary. Blum, 465 U.S. at 898.

7. District courts may award costs other than attorney fees to the prevailing party pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d).[3] This power is limited by 28 U.S.C. § 1920, which "defines the term costs' as used in Rule 54(d) [and] enumerates expenses that a federal court may tax as a cost under the discretionary authority found in Rule 54(d)."[4] Crawford Fitting Co. v. J. T. Gibbons, Inc., 482 U.S. 437, 441-42 (1987). As the court's power to award costs is discretionary, § 1920 does not guarantee an award of costs. In the District of Delaware, Local Rule 54.1 "provides guidance to counsel and litigants as to how this Court has chosen, as a general matter, to exercise its discretion with respect to taxation of costs." Honeywell lnt'I, Inc. v. Nokia Corp., 2014 WL 2568041, at *5 (D. Del. May 30, 2014). When awarding costs, the court looks first to the requirements set out in Local Rule 54.1. See id. If the court finds that application of Local Rule 54.1 results in an inequitable award for plaintiff, the court retains the discretion to award costs beyond the limitations of Local Rule 54.1 to the fullest extent permissible under§ 1920.[5]

8. Attorney Fees. Defendant objects to the amount of fees set forth in plaintiff's motion, requesting that the court substantially reduce the award. In support of his objection, defendant asserts that plaintiff's request suffers from excessive time expenditures, unreasonable rates, and a failure to account for plaintiff's relative success. The court addresses each alleged defect in turn.

9. The prevailing party must establish that the number of hours worked were "reasonably expended." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434 (citing S. Rep. No. 94-1011, at 6 (1976)). The prevailing party's counsel should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary. See id. Defendant identifies as duplicative hours that include reviewing letters and filings over the course of the litigation. This work is not unreasonable given that plaintiff retained primary and local counsel and the fact that this work represents less than 1% of the total hours claimed. Likewise, the court finds that 13.8 hours of communication between local counsel and trial counsel during four years of litigation is not unreasonably excessive. The court also agrees with plaintiff that the hours that defendant alleges involve non-legal administrative work relate to reviewing documents filed with the court or preparing for court proceedings. As to the task descriptions that defendant alleges lack sufficient specificity, [6] the court is satisfied that plaintiff has supported his request with information "specific enough to allow the district court to determine if the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1190 (3d Cir. 1990) (internal citations omitted). Therefore, the court finds that plaintiff's counsel expended a reasonable amount of time in connection with this litigation.[7]

10. The court turns next to the reasonableness of the hourly rates billed by counsel for plaintiff. The Third Circuit has endorsed the use of an attorney's usual billing rate as a starting point in the reasonableness inquiry. Pub. Interest Research Group v. Windall, 51 F.3d 1179, 1185 (3d Cir. 1995). These hourly rates represent "the price that [an attorney's] time normally commands in the marketplace for legal services in which those services are offered." In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litig., 751 F.2d 562, 590 (3d Cir. 1984) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 447). The court "is presumed knowledgeable as to the fees charged by attorneys in general and as to the quality of legal work presented to [it] by particular attorneys." Lindy Bros. Builders, Inc. v. Am. Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., 487 F.2d 161, 169 (3d Cir. 1973). Plaintiff's counsel billed time at an hourly rate of $450 per hour. To establish that these rates are reasonable market rates, plaintiff submits affidavits from two local attorneys who aver that the rates charged are reasonable and within the range of prevailing rates in the area. (D.I. 128, ex. F; D.I. 137, ex. A) As a general matter, plaintiff's counsel are experienced attorneys. Although counsel did not achieve success on a substantial majority of the claims pursued in this case, the rates charged by plaintiff's counsel are commensurate with those charged by Wilmington counsel of similar stature in similar matters.[8]

Therefore, the court finds that an inference of reasonableness is present in the quality of counsel's legal work, both in general and specific to this matter, as well as counsel's conformity with the hourly rates of the relevant market.

11. Given the court's partial summary judgment against plaintiff and the jury's mixed verdict, [9] the court reduces the hours claimed by 50% to reflect the relative success of plaintiff's claims. See Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 557 (7th Cir. 2014), cert. denied sub nom. Montanez v. Chi. Police Officers FICO, ____ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 459 (2014) (permitting 50% reduction of fees when plaintiff succeeded on two of six claims); Betancourt v. Giuliani, 325 F.Supp.2d 330 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (permitting 90% reduction of fees requested when failed attempt ...

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