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Eisenhour v. Weber County

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

April 25, 2017

MARCIA EISENHOUR, an individual Plaintiff,
v.
WEBER COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Utah, CRAIG D. STOREY, CRAIG DEARDON, KENNETH BISCHOFF, and JAN ZOGMAISTER, in their official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AWARDING PLAINTIFF ATTORNEY FEES

          Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Eisenhour's motions to recover attorney fees against Defendant Craig Storey. (Dkt. Nos. 441 & 442.) Judgment was entered in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant Storey in the amount of $242, 871 on April 24, 2015. (Dkt. No. 315.) Upon post-trial motions, that judgment was vacated and a reduced judgment entered in the amount of $184, 444 for noneconomic damages against Storey and Plaintiff was found to be the prevailing party. (Dkt. No. 437.)[1] The court has carefully reviewed the motions and supporting evidence, and the opposition memoranda and evidence. The court now finds that Plaintiff shall recover from Defendant Storey the total amount of $238, 225.50 as attorney fees, as set forth in more detail in this decision. The court also awards Plaintiff costs in the amount of $4, 207.53.

         ANALYSIS

         In a federal civil rights action, “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. §1988(b). Section 1988 provides for attorney fees to be awarded to the prevailing plaintiffs in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2] The purpose of the statute is to encourage competent counsel to pursue civil rights cases to vindicate the rights of parties whose constitutional rights have been violated, but who would otherwise likely lack the financial means to protect those rights and seek an appropriate remedy for the violation. See City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 574-75 (1986). In considering a request for such an award, the court must determine what is a reasonable fee generally by beginning with a “lodestar” figure based on multiplying the hours counsel reasonably spent on the litigation times a reasonable hourly rate. Jane L. v. Baangerter, 61 F.3d 1505, 1509 (10th Cir. 1995). Both of these factors are to be judged by the complexity of the issues raised and the experience of counsel involved. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983). The request for attorney fees must be supported by detail specifying the dates, tasks accomplished, and the time spent on the various tasks. Jane L., 61 F.3d at 1510.

         Once the court determines the lodestar amount, the court may in its discretion adjust the fee to be awarded by taking into account the result achieved, the complexity of the litigation, the time required to bring the litigation to conclusion and other factors such as unnecessary duplication of effort, delay, and the importance of the rights being protected. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-36. In this case, Defendant Storey does not contest that attorney fees may be awarded, but does object to the amount of fees being requested, arguing that they are excessive and unreasonable under the facts of this case.

         The Lodestar Amount

         Plaintiff's attorneys claim approximately 1192.85 hours in attorney time from the commencement of this case through February 10, 2016. Plaintiff seeks $326, 213.50 for time billed by Hollingsworth Law Office, LLC and $20, 100 billed by Brenda Beaton, for a total of $346, 313.50. (Dkt. No. 442-1.) Plaintiff asserts that April Hollingsworth should be compensated at $350 per hour, her associate Ashley Leonard at $150 per hour, Matt Harrison at $150 per hour, and Brenda Beaton at $200 per hour. Recognizing that some time was spent by counsel pursuing claims against Weber County and its commissioners, against whom she did not prevail, Plaintiff has eliminated from the total hours spent approximately 38 hours as unnecessary had she not pursued claims against the Weber County Defendants.

         Defendant Storey's Objections and the Court's Adjustment to the Fees

         The amount of itemized lodestar fees included time spent in pursuing claims against both Defendant Storey and the Weber County Defendants. As noted, Plaintiff was not the prevailing party against the Weber County Defendants. Defendant Storey objects to the request for attorney fees, arguing that (1) the hourly rates are unreasonably high, (2) the claimed attorney hours are unreasonable, were not necessary, and are unsupported, and (3) Plaintiff is precluded from attorney fees and costs spent on the appeal to the Tenth Circuit because the Circuit did not grant her fees and costs on her appeal. Although Defendant Storey provides some examples of what he claims as excessive or unreasonable billings, he fails to provide the court with a detailed analysis of the requested fees and specific items that should be excluded. Defendant argues that of the hours Plaintiff claims, only 118.43 hours can fairly be attributed to work on the claims against him and that number should be further reduced by 59.22 hours for work attributable to the economic damages claim, on which Plaintiff did not prevail. (Dkt. No. 432.) Defendant Storey fails to provide sufficient detail of how he determines these amounts.

         Upon review of the supporting information and arguments of counsel, the court makes the following findings:

         1. Plaintiff has provided the court with supporting documentation, including billing records and supporting declarations. The detail provided, however, is in many instances incomplete or lacks sufficient detail for the court to determine whether the time was reasonable or whether the work advanced the prosecution of the prevailing claim. It is often impossible whether the time was spent on the claims against the Weber County Defendants or against Defendant Storey. For example, many of the entrees are simply “pc w/ client, ” or “Review of documents from defendants.” Some entries appear to be time spent on claims against the Weber County Defendants without any effort to reduce or eliminate those hours, for example, “Review commissioner minutes; deposition transcripts” or “Deposition of Craig Deardon.” In addition, and perhaps most significantly, Plaintiff fails to reduce any of the trial preparation or trial time to account for the fact that much of the effort and trial time was directed at the claims against the Weber County Defendants. Further, Plaintiff does not address whether some reduction of the claimed fees should be made to account for Plaintiff's failure to prevail on each of the claims asserted and the work associated with pursuing those claims. Nevertheless, the court can adjust the requested time to account for these deficiencies based upon the information Plaintiff has provided and the court's knowledge of the pretrial and trial proceedings.

         2. The court has determined that the hours claimed by Ms. Hollingsworth on Ex A1 (Dkt. No. 442-1) must be reduced by an additional 32.7 hours[3] for time that appears to be devoted to the claims and discovery against the Weber County Defendants and by 103.65 hours[4]as a 50% reduction for the trial preparation and trial time. Based on the court's familiarity with the trial, the number of witness called and the complexity of the issues, it is the court's judgment that both the trial time and the trial preparation time would have been reduced by 50% if only the claims against Defendant Storey had been pursued. Testimony from the commissioners, the county attorney, the county's personnel officers and comptroller would not have been necessary, or at least significantly reduced, to advance the claims against Defendant Storey. As adjusted, Ex A1 supports a total of 655.35 hours. Ms. Hollingsworth claims an hourly rate of $350 for this time. The Declaration of Elizabeth Peck she provides in support, however, states that Ms. Hollingsworth's billing rate for that period was $300 per hour. Ms. Peck further supports that $300 per hour, based on Ms. Pecks familiarity with Ms. Hollingsworth's work, is “reasonable and in line with her experience and expertise.” (Dkt. No. 442-3.) Ms. Hollingsworth does not claim otherwise, but requests the court to award $350 per hour to compensate for the period over which the case has been pending. The court declines this request and finds that an hourly rate of $300 for the time period supported by Ex. A1 is consistent with fees charged by attorneys with similar skill, education, and experience. The court awards $196, 605 as an attorney fee for work supported by Ex. A1.

         The court rejects Defendant Storey's argument that Plaintiff is precluded from an award of fees and costs for the time spent on the appeal. Plaintiff was not entitled to claim fees and costs until she was found to be a prevailing party. She was not a prevailing party at the conclusion of her successful appeal, but only had proven her right to a trial on the merits. She became a prevailing party upon entry of judgment in her favor against Defendant Storey and has timely moved for an award of attorney fees after entry of judgment. See, e.g., Bass v. Goodwill, 356 F.App'x 110, 117 n.2 (10th Cir. 2009) (unpublished) (denying fees on appeal without prejudice to refiling after trial and stating “[b]ecause Mr. Bass has only prevailed on this interlocutory appeal, he is not yet a ‘prevailing party' entitled to attorneys fees under [42 U.S.C. § 1988].”); Brezovski v. U.S. Postal Serv., 905 F.2d 334, 337 (10th Cir. 1990) (noting on reversal of dismissal for failure to timely serve a defendant that “because plaintiff has not yet ...


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