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Falica v. Advance Tenant Services

July 8, 2005

LEE FALICA, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ADVANCE TENANT SERVICES, INC., ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently before the Court is the plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs ("Pls.' Mot.") [D.E. #45] and the defendants' opposition to this motion.*fn1 Upon full consideration of the parties' submissions, the Court concludes that the plaintiffs are entitled to reasonable attorney's fees in the amount of $82,853.00 and expenses in the amount of $1,732.85.

I. Background

The plaintiffs, Lee Falica ("Falica"), Saba Gonzalez ("Gonzalez"), and Ernesto Lemus ("Lemus"), request that this Court award them attorney's fees in an action they initiated to recover unpaid back wages pursuant to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (2000), and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law ("MWPCL"), Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. under Article, § 3-501 et seq. (1999). See Second Amended Complaint ("Compl.") at 1. At the conclusion of a jury trial on November 10, 2004, judgment on the wage claims was entered for the plaintiffs in the amount of $324,143.36. See Judgment on the Verdict. The plaintiffs now request $87,639.00 in attorney's fees for 280.90 hours of legal services rendered over a two-year period, in addition to $1,732.85 in costs for their filings, service of process, copying, internet research, and translator fees, for a total of $89,371.85.

Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney's Fees & Costs ¶¶ 6, 10-11 ("Pls.' Mem."). The defendants oppose the plaintiffs' motion solely on the basis of the necessity and reasonableness of the hours expended in the plaintiffs' prosecution of this case. See Memorandum in Support of Defendants' Opposition to Plaintiffs['] Motion for Attorney's Fees ("Defs.' Opp'n"). For the reasons outlined below, only part of the fees requested will be awarded to the plaintiffs.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 54(d)(2)(B) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires plaintiffs who are requesting attorney's fees and costs to specify the judgment and the statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the moving party to the award, as well as the amount or a fair estimate of the amount being sought. Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(d)(2)(B). Here, the plaintiffs are seeking an award of attorney's fees pursuant to both the FLSA and the MWPCL. Pls.' Mem. at 1. In relevant part, the FLSA provides that in an action under the FLSA a court "shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and the costs of the action." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2000) (emphasis added). The award of counsel fees to an employee's attorney in FLSA cases is mandatory and unconditional. Nitterright v. Claytor, 454 F. Supp. 130, 141 (D.D.C. 1978); Foster v. Irwin, 258 F. Supp. 709, 713 (E.D. La. 1966).

By contrast, the MWPCL allows a plaintiff to recover from his employer "reasonable counsel fees and other costs." MWPCL § 3-507.1. An award of attorney's fees under the MWPCL "is discretionary, although . . . that discretion is to be exercised liberally in favor of allowing a fee." Friolo v. Frankel, 819 A.2d 354, 361 (Md. 2002). Accordingly, because the Court must award attorney's fees if the requirements of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) are satisfied, as opposed to being discretionary under MWPCL § 3-507.1, the Court will only address whether the award of attorney's fees under the FLSA is required.

In order for the Court to award attorney's fees under the FLSA, the plaintiffs must first demonstrate that they are the "prevailing" parties within the meaning set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2000). Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 889 (D.C. Cir. 1980). In Hensley, the Supreme Court set the standards for awarding attorney's fees when Congress authorized such an award to a prevailing party. 461 U.S. at 433. Although the Supreme Court was construing the "prevailing party" language of 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the Court noted that "[t]he standards set forth in [Hensley] are generally applicable in all cases in which Congress has authorized an award of fees to a 'prevailing party.'" Id. at 433 n.7. Hence, because Congress has authorized an award of fees pursuant to the FLSA, the plaintiffs are considered "'prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed[ed] on any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Id. (citing Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-279 (1st Cir. 1978)).

Once a plaintiff crosses the statutory threshold of establishing that he is a prevailing party, "[i]t remains for the district court to determine what fee is 'reasonable.'" Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. The Supreme Court has determined the reasonableness of a fee by analyzing "the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate" because this calculation provides an objective basis on which to make an initial estimate of the value of a lawyer's service. Id.; Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 746 F.2d 4, 12-13 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (aff'd in part, rev'd on other grounds); Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 572 F. Supp. 354, 361 (D.D.C. 1983). A former member of this Court developed a standard for assessing reasonableness, which was affirmed by the District of Columbia Circuit in Laffey, through the adoption of recoverable hourly rates. See Laffey, 572 F. Supp. at 371-75; Pls.' Mem. ¶ 5, Exhibit ("Ex.") 3 ("Laffey Matrix"). These hourly rates, illustrated in matrix form and commonly referred to as the "Laffey Matrix," are adjusted annually based on cost of living increases for the Washington, D.C. area. Ex. 3 ¶ 3. "The matrix is intended to be used in cases in which a "'fee-shifting' statute permits the prevailing party to recover 'reasonable' attorney's fees." Id. ¶ 1. This matrix reflects what are "'reasonable fees' . . . calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community, not according to the cost of providing legal services . . . ." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 886 (1984). Using this matrix as a guide, the Court must then exercise its discretion to adjust this sum upward or downward to arrive at a final fee award that reflects "the characteristics of the particular case (and counsel) for which the award is sought." Laffey, 572 F. Supp. at 361 (citing Copeland, 641 F.2d at 880; Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Furthermore, the Court should also assess the reasonableness of the attorney's fee award in light of the twelve factors set forth in Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974).*fn2 Hensley, 461 U.S. at 430.

Additionally, this court must determine whether the number of hours expended on the litigation is reasonable. Id. It does not necessarily follow that "the amount of time actually expended is the amount of time reasonably expended." Copeland, 641 F.2d at 891 (emphasis added). An attorney must use "billing judgment" when litigating cases, which requires that the attorney only bill hours to one's adversary that would properly be billed to the attorney's own client. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; Copeland, 641 F.2d at 891; Laffey, 572 F. Supp. at 361. Accordingly, "[c]counsel for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary . . . ." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434.

Because the defendants do not contest either the plaintiffs' prevailing party status under the FLSA or the reasonableness of the hourly rates requested by the plaintiffs, see generally Defs.' Opp'n, this opinion will solely address whether the number of hours expended on this litigation was reasonable.

III. Legal Analysis

Although the defendants concede that the plaintiffs' hourly rates are reasonable, they argue, however, that the number of hours requested by the plaintiffs was unnecessary and therefore unreasonable, and should accordingly be reduced. Defs.' Opp'n at 1. Specifically, the defendants challenge the reasonableness of the amount of time spent by the plaintiffs' attorneys preparing the following work products: (1) a motion to amend the complaint,*fn3 (2) a motion for judgment,*fn4 (3) a motion to strike affirmative defense, (4) a motion for liquidated damages, (5) the motion for attorney's fees, (6) the first amended complaint filed against the Advance Tenant Services, Inc., (7) a motion for entry of default, (8) the reviewing of the ...


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