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Barrington v. United Air Lines, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 1, 2018

JAYMEE BARRINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED AIR LINES, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Jaymee Barrington's Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Doc. # 113), the Defendant's Response (Doc. # 120), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. # 121). Plaintiff seeks $282, 830.00 in attorneys' fees. For the following reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's motion and awards Plaintiff $104, 649.00 in fees.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from an employment discrimination suit. Plaintiff asserted claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for (1) gender-based discrimination and (2) retaliation. (Doc # 1.) After a trial held on June 20-24, 2016, the jury rendered a verdict for Defendant on both claims. (Doc # 62.) Plaintiff then appealed the decision and the Tenth Circuit reversed. (Doc ## 65, 88.) In the second jury trial on December 11-15, 2017, Plaintiff succeeded on the retaliation claim and was awarded $5, 000 in monetary damages for back pay. (Doc # 108.)

         Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees wherein she seeks $282, 830 pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e)-5(k) for the work of her attorneys, Mr. Olsen and Ms. Brown, on her case. Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiff is entitled to recover reasonable attorneys' fees but disputes the amount requested. (Doc. # 120 at 2.) Defendant challenges the reasonableness of both the number of hours billed and the attorneys' billable rates. (Doc. # 120.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Determination of the amount and reasonableness of attorneys' fees is within the district court's discretion. Wright v. U-Let-Us Skycap Servs., Inc., 648 F.Supp. 1216, 1218 (D. Colo. 1986). When evaluating a motion for attorneys' fees, the court follows the three-step process set forth in Ramos v. Lamm, 713 F.2d 546 (10th Cir. 1983), overruled on other grounds by Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 483 U.S. 711, 725 (1987).

         First, the court determines the number of hours reasonably spent by counsel. Malloy v. Monahan, 73 F.3d 1012, 1017 (10th Cir. 1996); Ramos, 713 F.2d at 553. Factors considered in this reasonableness determination include: (1) whether the amount of time spent on a particular task appears reasonable in light of the complexity of the case, the strategies pursued, and the responses necessitated by an opponent's maneuvering; (2) whether the amount of time spent is reasonable in relation to counsel's experience; and (3) whether the billing entries are sufficiently detailed, showing how much time was allotted to a specific task. Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Boulder Cnty., No. 06-cv-00554, 2010 WL 3703224, at *2-3 (D. Colo. Sept. 13, 2010). Courts award attorneys' fees only for those hours that were reasonably expended and the burden is on plaintiff to demonstrate that his counsel used “billing judgment, ” winnowing down from actual expended hours to reasonable hours. Case v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 233, Johnson Cty., 157 F.3d 1243, 1249 (10th Cir.1998). “Counsel . . . should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983). Courts need not “identify and justify every hour allowed or disallowed, as doing so would run counter to the Supreme Court's warning that a ‘request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation.'” Malloy, 73 F.3d at 1018 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437); Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2216 (2011) (“The essential goal in shifting fees . . . is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection.”).

         Second, the court must determine a reasonable hourly rate of compensation, based on “what lawyers of comparable skill and experience [in the given practice area] would charge for their time.” Ramos, 713 F.2d at 555. “The party seeking the award has the burden of persuading the court that the hours expended and the rate sought are both reasonable.” LaSelle v. Public Serv. Co. of Colo. Severance Pay Plan, 988 F.Supp. 1348, 1351 (D. Colo. 1997); Malloy, 73 F.3d at 1018.

         Third, courts multiply the reasonable hourly rate with the number of hours reasonably expended to determine the “lodestar” amount. LaSelle, 988 F.Supp. at 1351; Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. REASONABLENESS OF FEES

         In its opposition to Plaintiff's attorneys' fee request, Defendant raises numerous objections including that Plaintiff's attorneys improperly block-billed; time entries are vague; the hours billed are excessive and/or unnecessary; and that Plaintiff's attorneys' hourly rates are unreasonable. (Doc. # 120 at 2, 4.) Having thoroughly reviewed Plaintiff's attorneys' billing records, Defendant's objections, and the Ramos factors, the Court agrees in part with Defendant's objections and finds that portions of Plaintiff's attorneys' requested fees are unreasonable.

         To begin, Plaintiff's attorneys failed to meet their burden of providing detailed records of how each billed hour was spent. Numerous time entry descriptions are vague. For example, in one entry, Plaintiff's counsel billed for 620 minutes (over ten hours) for “final preparation for trial.” (Doc # 113-2 at 61.) Other examples of vague descriptions for significant chunks of time include 550 minutes (over 9 hours) for “prep for trial”; 450 minutes (7.5 hours) for “final preparation for trial”; and 620 minutes (over 10 hours) again for “final preparation for trial.” (Id. at 37, 60.) Such general descriptions are not adequately descriptive. See Latin v. Bellio Trucking, Inc., 2016 WL 9725289, at *4-5 (D. Colo., Nov. 23, 2016) (finding general descriptions including “trial preparation” to be vague and warranting a reduction in hours); Carr v. Fort Morgan Sch. Dist. 4 F.Supp.2d 998, at 1003 (D. Colo. 1998) (same). By providing vague descriptions for significant chunks of time, Plaintiff's counsel made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to determine the amount of time attorneys spent on specific tasks and to evaluate their billing judgment. See Case, 157 F.3d at 1250 (finding that counsel for the party claiming fees bears the burden of showing how hours billed were allotted to specific tasks). The Court finds Plaintiff's attorneys' undescriptive, vague billing records warrant a reduction to the requested fees. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 (“Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.”); Case, 157 F.3d at 1250 (same).

         Furthermore, the timekeeping records submitted by Plaintiff's counsel include excessive and unnecessary hours. For example, on multiple occasions Plaintiff's attorneys charged for trial time that exceeds the time recorded by the Court. For June 22, 2016, Mr. Olsen billed 540 minutes (Doc # 113-2 at 39), but Court records show the total time in Court was 336 minutes.[1] (Doc # 55) On June 24, 2016, Mr. Olsen billed 180 minutes (Doc # 113-2 at 39) whereas Court records show the total time was 135 minutes.[2] (Doc # 58.) For the second trial, Mr. Olsen billed 360 minutes for attending the fifth day, December 15, 2017 (Doc #113-2 at 63), which court records show lasted only 179 minutes.[3] (Doc # 104.) Similarly, Mr. Olsen billed 40 minutes for appearing at a scheduling conference on June 10, 2015 (Doc #113-2 at 5) and 30 minutes for the final pretrial conference on April 19, 2016 (Id. at 28), but the Court records show the conferences lasted only 9 minutes and 5 minutes, respectively. (Doc ## 16, 32.)

         Plaintiff's attorneys also billed ten minutes ($83) “reviewing” routine, two-line text orders from the Court. Examples include, but are not limited to:

• May 29, 2015 CONSENT to Jurisdiction of Magistrate Judge by Defendant United Air Lines, Inc. Consent not achieved by parties. (O'Connell, William) (Entered: 05/29/2015);
• May 29, 2015 CASE REASSIGNED pursuant to 12 Consent to Jurisdiction of Magistrate Judge. Consent not achieved. This case is reassigned to Judge Christine M. Arguello. All future pleadings should be designated as ...

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