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Barnett v. Board of County Commissioners of County of Montrose

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 14, 2015

STEPHANIE BARNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
The BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS of the COUNTY OF MONTROSE Defendant.

RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

GORDON P. GALLAGHER, Magistrate Judge.

This matter comes before the Court as a result of Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs (ECF #106)[1], Defendant's Response (ECF #111), and Plaintiff's Reply (ECF #113). By order of reference (ECF #112) and in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and D.C.Colo. LCivR 72.1C this matter has been referred to the Magistrate Judge. In addition, the Court has reviewed Plaintiff's Supplemental Motion (ECF #114) to which there was no response. The Court has reviewed the pending motion, the response, the reply and all exhibits attached thereto. The Court has also considered the entire case file, the applicable law, and is sufficiently advised in the premises. Oral argument would not materially assist the Court in filing a recommendation as to this motion. The matter is fully briefed. Based upon the entirety of the record, the Court RECOMMENDS the following: with regard to Plaintiff's Motion (ECF # 106), et seq., an award of attorney/paralegal fees in the amount of $198, 330.72 and costs/expenses in the amount of $14, 643.94 for a sub-total of $212, 974.66.[2] In addition, the Court RECOMMENDS an award of attorney/paralegal fees with regard to Plaintiff's Supplemental Motion (ECF #114) in the amount of $10, 805 (no ½% reduction being taken from this award, to be explained below) and an award related to the same filing of costs/expenses in the amount of $933.88. Total RECOMMENDED award of: $224, 713.54.

Plaintiff in this Title VII action prevailed at trial and ultimately secured a total award in excess of $750, 000.00 (inclusive of $465, 011.00 in front pay). Plaintiff's Counsel now seeks attorney's fees and costs ($203, 990.25 in attorney/paralegal fees and $14, 643.94 expenses for a total request of $218, 634.19) as well as supplemental amounts as addressed above from ECF #114. Absent unusual circumstances, prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the entitlement to those fees. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983).

Defendant, while not debating the overall right of Plaintiff to claim such fees or that Plaintiff prevailed, does dispute the amounts based upon the following factors:

1. Excessive hourly rates (this includes the experience of each counsel ((time and subject matter)) and the geographic jurisdiction of each counsel);
2. Inadequate documentation in the invoice/block billing;
3. Excessive time and duplication of services; and
4. Billing for unnecessary and/or inappropriate expenses.

Exercising its discretion, a district court may award a reasonable attorney fee to the prevailing party in a Title VII action. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). The prevailing plaintiff is ordinarily "to be awarded attorney's fees in all but special circumstances." Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n, 434 U.S. 412, 417 (1978); Metz v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 39 F.3d 1482, 1492 (10th Cir. 1994) (same). To obtain attorney fees, "a claimant must prove two elements: (1) that the claimant was the "prevailing party" in the proceeding; and (2) that the claimant's fee request is "reasonable." Robinson v. City of Edmond, 160 F.3d 1275, 1280 (10th Cir. 1998). To qualify as a prevailing party, a plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of her claim. See Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992). In other words, the plaintiff must obtain an enforceable judgment against the defendant from whom fees are sought. Id.

"The fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates." Case v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 233, 157 F.3d 1243, 1249 (10th Cir. 1998) (internal citations omitted); see also Mares v. Credit Bureau of Raton, 801 F.2d 1197, 1210 (10th Cir. 1986) (internal citation of quotation marks omitted) ("It is Plaintiff's burden to prove and establish the reasonableness of each dollar, each hour, above zero.") The amount of the fee award is committed to the district court's discretion, but the "lodestar"-the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate-is "presumptively reasonable." Jane L. v. Bangerter, 61 F.3d 1505, 1509 (10th Cir. 1995) (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984)); Anchondo v. Anderson, Crenshaw & Assocs., L.L.C., 616 F.3d 1098, 1102 (10th Cir. 2010).

The first step in calculating the lodestar is the determination of the number of hours reasonably spent by counsel. Case, 157 F.3d at 1250. The prevailing party bears the burden of proof in establishing this number "by submitting meticulous, contemporaneous time records that reveal, for each lawyer for whom fees are sought, all hours for which compensation is requested and how those hours were allotted to specific tasks." Id. Additionally, the prevailing party must exercise billing judgment and make a "good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission." Hensley 461 U.S. at 434. Where such an effort appears "inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly." Id. at 433; see also Carter v. Sedgwick County, Kan., 36 F.3d 952, 956 (10th Cir. 1994) (same).

The second step in calculating the lodestar is the determination of the reasonable rate per hour, that is, "what lawyers of comparable skill and experience practicing in the area in which the litigation occurs would charge for their time." Ramos v. Lamm, 713 F.2d 546, 555 (10th Cir. 1983), overruled on other grounds by Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 483 U.S. 711 (1987). The relevant market rate is the local market rate. Id. In making this determination, a district judge "may turn to her own knowledge of prevailing market rates as well as other indicia of a reasonable market rate." Bee v. Greaves, 910 F.2d 686, 689 n. 4 (10th Cir. 1990).

1. Calculating the appropriate hourly rate:

a. The appropriate market rate (both market and reasonable rate):

This calculation involves two steps: first, determining what the relevant community is; and second, determining the relevant market rate within the defined community.

The case in this matter was originally assigned to District Judge Robert Blackburn from the District of Colorado. Ultimately, the trial was conducted by Senior District Judge James Parker from the District of New Mexico. The jury trial occurred in Grand Junction with counsel for the Plaintiff from Grand Junction and Defense counsel from Montrose.

The United States District Court for the District of Colorado encompasses the entire State of Colorado. With the exception of the two part-time Magistrate Judges, all judicial officers for the court, which includes seven Article III Judges, five Senior Article III Judges, and six full-time Magistrate Judges, have Denver as their duty station. For a number of reasons, including distance, geography, weather, Federal land, and Tribal land, Magistrate Judges have long been stationed on the Western Slope in both Durango and Grand Junction. This is in keeping with the Court's mission: to serve the public by providing a fair and impartial forum that insures equal access to justice in accordance with the rule of law, protects rights and liberties of all persons, and resolves cases in a timely and efficient manner. While the District of Colorado has divided the State into four jury divisions, which insures participation by a maximum number of citizens in both grand and petit juries and simultaneously reduces travel time and expense, the District of Colorado is one unified District.

The question is how to determine the boundaries of the relevant community under such circumstances? Is the relevant community the entire District of Colorado, which has most of its work and presumably the highest legal rates in Denver, or is it each individual community? If it is each community, do we look to the community with the closest factual nexus to the case (Montrose), the community where the case was tried (Grand Junction), the community for the District Judge who was assigned to the case (Denver), the community for the District Judge who tried the case (Albuquerque), or some conglomeration of all these disparate communities? Should attorney's fees be subject to the vagaries of who tried the case, of where (within the District) an attorney might choose to live, [3] or where the District Judge presiding over the trial thought it most convenient to conduct the trial. The Federal Court has one courtroom in Grand Junction. What if that courtroom was busy and the trial was thus held in Denver, would that effect the attorney's fee calculation? What if the Court was held, as sometimes occurs in criminal cases, in a borrowed State courtroom in a smaller community such as Gunnison? It seems fundamentally unfair to subject litigants to this degree of uncertainty in the matter of attorney's fee calculation.

The District of Colorado is a unified District with one Clerk of Court, one set of Local Rules, and a unified CM/ECF filing system. The requirements to practice and standards of practice are no less stringent in Grand Junction than in Denver. This Magistrate Judge believes and recommends that the relevant community is most appropriately defined as the entire District of Colorado. It would be fundamentally unfair to give parties the opportunity to try cases in far flung areas of the District and then financially penalize or reward them based on which courtroom door they walk into for trial. It would be equally unfair to reward or punish parties in an attorney's fee dispute for their choice of abode or work[4] within the District while simultaneously requiring compliance with the same standards of practice and the same expertise necessary to litigate in Federal Court. See Coppedge v. Franklin County Bd. Of Educ., 345 F.Supp.2d 567 (E.D. N.C. 2004) (determining that the entire district was the relevant community in school desegregation litigation); see also Blissett v. Casey, 969 F.Supp. 118 (N.D.N.Y. 1997) ( certiorari denied 119 S.Ct. 2392) (prevailing community for determining rates is the district in which the court sits); and see also Sexcius v. Dist. Of Columbia, 839 F.Supp. 919 (D.D.C. 1993) (attorney's fees in civil rights litigation determined more broadly not based on some "submarket").

Having determined that the relevant community is the entire District of Colorado, the next determination is to decide the prevailing market rate within that community. "The prevailing market rates in the relevant community..." is that which is "[i]n line with those rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation." Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 286, 109 S.Ct. 2463, 105 L.Ed.2d 229 (1989). Plaintiff lists the following individuals as having worked on the case and requests the ...


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