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McDowell v. Government of the Dist. of Columbia

July 11, 2006

JUANITA MCDOWELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE GOVERNMENT OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Facciola United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

On February 9, 2006, I ordered plaintiff to submit to the court a detailed report identifying the amount of attorney's fees and costs she had expended since February 3, 2003, in trying to obtain various PD 163's. I also indicated that defendants would be allowed to file any objections to the reasonableness of the fees claimed. On March 1, 2006, plaintiff submitted her fee petition, claiming a total of $99,832.12 in fees and expenses. Defendants' objections were filed on March 22, 2006.

DISCUSSION

I. Defendant's Objections

In a nutshell, defendants' primary objection to the fee petition is that the scope of discovery changed over time and that defendants should not be penalized for not producing earlier what was not sought until later. The Defendant District of Columbia's Opposition to Plaintiff's Counsel's Report for Attorney's Fees and Costs and/or Motion for Relief From Judgment Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) at 4-5. While perhaps true, in the sense that the form of discovery sought did change over time, the rationale underlying my decision to award attorney's fees remains the same. But for defendants' failure to comprehend the capabilities of their own record-keeping system, plaintiff would have had the discovery she sought at a much earlier date.

On November 16, 2002, plaintiff propounded her first set of document requests, seeking hard copies of those PD 163's in which certain named officers were either the arresting officer or an assisting officer. See Plaintiff's Motion to Compel Defendant District of Columbia to Respond to Plaintiff's Document Production Requests, Incorporating Points and Authorities, Exhibit 2 at 15-16.

Defendants never responded to the request and on February 3, 2003, plaintiff moved to compel the information. Although defendants rightly point out that plaintiff did not initially request computerized data but rather hard copies of the PD 163's, plaintiff wouldn't have had to move to compel information about defendants' computer system if the documents had been produced when initially requested. In other words, plaintiff's first seeking information about the database and then seeking information in either an ascii-delimited or spreadsheet format did not impose any greater burden on defendants than already existed by virtue of the first document request. The paper copies of the PD 163's are kept in filing cabinets, where they are filed by district, arrest number or PD ID number. Thus, in order to comply with plaintiff's first document request, defendants would still have had to run a computerized query of its database in order to locate those responsive PD 163's for copying. The fact that defendants did not respond to plaintiff's initial document request and the fact that plaintiff had to move to compel the information justifies an award of attorneys fees dating back to February 3, 2003, even though the first time plaintiff actually sought the information in an ascii-delimited or spreadsheet format was November 22, 2004. Plaintiff wouldn't have had to seek the data in a computerized form if defendants had realized in November of 2002 that it was possible to run the relevant query of the CJIS system. Defendants did not acknowledge this fact until October 20, 2005, in a declaration by Thelma James, then-Acting Manager of the Applications Support Branch fo the Metropolitan Police Department. See The Defendants District of Columbia and Shanita Williams' Supplemental Arguments to Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions, Exhibit 1 at 1-2.

II. Fees Claimed by Plaintiff's Attorney William Claiborne

A. Claiborne's Hourly Rate

Claiborne claims an hourly rate of $475 under the fee schedule established in Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 572 F. Supp. 354 (D.D.C. 1983),*fn1 as updated by this court's decisions in Salazar v D.C., 123 F. Supp. 2d 8, 13-14 (D.D.C. 2003) and McDowell v. District of Columbia, No. 00-594, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4756, at *18 (D.D.C. June 5, 2001). Citing Salazar and McDowell, Claiborne seeks a significant premium over the Laffey rates as published by the U.S. Attorney's Office. The difference between those cases, however, and the case at bar is that those decisions were based on a significant evidentiary record. In other words, the parties in those cases presented the court with an evidentiary basis for awarding an hourly fee higher than that used in the U.S. Attorney's Office matrix.*fn2 In this case, no such argument was made and therefore the court will rely on the U.S. Attorney's Office version of the Laffey matrix.

According to the matrix, attorneys with between eleven and nineteen years of experience should be compensated at an hourly rate of $360 for the years 2005-2006.*fn3 See Laffey Matrix 2003-2006, available at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/dc/Divisions/Civil_Division/Laffey_Matrix_5.html. Accordingly, even though Claiborne has relevant experience in this area of the law and had prevailed in several high-profile cases, the work performed in this instance, that of seeking police arrest records in support of plaintiff's claim that her civil rights were violated, is simply not so remarkably complex as to warrant an award of fees greater than that suggested by the updated fee matrix.

In addition, even though Claiborne argues that his expertise in the area of e-discovery justifies a higher hourly rate, the very heart of the Laffey matrix takes into account an attorney's years of experience and compensates him accordingly, based on the rationale that an attorney's experience in a given area renders him more efficient. In this case, Claiborne's client received both the benefit of Claiborne's eighteen years of experience, including fifteen years of trial experience with a more recent specialization in the area of civil rights violations, and the benefit of the efficiency that comes from such experience, both of which will be adequately compensated at the hourly rate of $360. See Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Report for Attorney's Fees and Costs ("Plains. Reply") at Exhibit 1, pages 2-3.

B. Time Spent on Legal Tasks

Although the only disputed area of discovery concerned defendants' production of the spreadsheet and corresponding PD 163's, plaintiff's fee petition is unfortunately quite vague at times. Nevertheless, by examining the dates that correspond to the tasks described in the fee petition, in most instances the court has been able to determine what documents plaintiff was either responding to or drafting. As a result, the majority ...


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