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Bode & Grenier, L.L.P. v. Knight

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 25, 2014

BODE & GRENIER, L.L.P., Plaintiff,
v.
CARROLL L. KNIGHT, et al., Defendants

Page 112

For BODE & GRENIER, L.L.P., Plaintiff: Andre M. Gregorian, LEAD ATTORNEY, Randell Charles Ogg, BODE & GRENIER, LLP, Washington, DC.

For CARROLL L. KNIGHT, Defendant: Daniel J. Kelly, LEAD ATTORNEY, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, PC, Troy, MI; Vaughn W. Royal, LEAD ATTORNEY, VAUGHN W ROYAL, ATTORNEY AT LAW, Washington, DC.

For DELTA FUELS, INC., KNIGHT ENTERPRISES, INC., DELTA FUELS OF MICHIGAN, INC., Defendants: Daniel J. Kelly, LEAD ATTORNEY, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, PC, Troy, MI; Vaughn W. Royal, LEAD ATTORNEY, VAUGHN W ROYAL, ATTORNEY AT LAW, Washington, DC; Paul T. O'Neill, PRO HAC VICE, PAUL T. O'NEILL, ESQ., Detroit, MI.

For CARROLL L. KNIGHT, KNIGHT ENTERPRISES, INC., DELTA FUELS OF MICHIGAN, INC., DELTA FUELS, INC., Counter Claimants: Vaughn W. Royal, LEAD ATTORNEY, VAUGHN W ROYAL, ATTORNEY AT LAW, Washington, DC; Paul T. O'Neill, PRO HAC VICE, PAUL T. O'NEILL, ESQ., Detroit, MI.

For BODE & GRENIER, L.L.P., Counter Defendant: Andre M. Gregorian, LEAD ATTORNEY, BODE & GRENIER, LLP, Washington, DC.

Page 113

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Bode & Grenier, LLP, a law firm doing business in the District of Columbia, commenced this action against Defendants Carroll Knight, Delta Fuels, Inc., Delta Fuels of Michigan, Inc., and Knight Enterprises, Inc. " for damages arising out of Defendants' failure to pay Plaintiff for legal services that Plaintiff provided to Defendants." See Complaint and Jury Demand (Document No. 16). Defendants asserted a counterclaim against Plaintiff, alleging that Plaintiff violated its fiduciary duties by disclosing client confidences in its complaint. Defendants' Answer to Complaint, Affirmative Defenses, Counterclaim and Jury Demand (Document No. 2) at 8. The court (Roberts, C.J.), ruling on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, entered judgment for Plaintiff on Defendants' counterclaim, and denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims. Memorandum Opinion and Order (Document No. 64) at 21-22.

Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint (Document No. 65) asserting claims against all Defendants for breach of contract (Count I) and quantum meruit /unjust enrichment (Count II); as to Defendant Carroll Knight, for recovery pursuant to a guaranty (Count III) and

Page 114

piercing the corporate veil (Count IV); and for attorneys' fees as to all Defendants (Count V).

The parties consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for all purposes. Notice, Consent, and Reference of a Civil Action to a Magistrate Judge (Document No. 77); Referral to Magistrate Judge (Document No. 76). At the pretrial conference, the court granted Plaintiff's motion to dismiss Counts III and IV of its amended complaint. See Final Pretrial Order (Document No. 93) at 2. Following the pretrial conference, Defendants, in accordance with an order of the court, sought leave to amend their answer in order to assert additional affirmative defenses. The court denied Defendants' request, Memorandum Opinion and Order (Document No. 97), and trial commenced in accordance with the court's scheduling order.

After the jury was empaneled, the court granted in part a motion in limine filed by Plaintiff, and Defendants then withdrew their jury demand. 11/13/2012 Minute Entry. Accordingly, the jury was excused and the undersigned conducted a bench trial on Counts I, II, and V, the remaining counts. Id. Plaintiff withdrew Count II of its complaint, id., and the court granted Plaintiff's motion for judgment on Count I, Order (Document No. 108). With respect to Count I, the breach of contract claim, the parties stipulated that the reasonable value of the legal services rendered by Plaintiff for the benefit of Defendants is $70,000. See id. at 1. The parties further stipulated that they would address Count V, the request for attorneys' fees, in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d). See id. at 1-2. Accordingly, the court entered judgment against all Defendants in the amount of $70,000. Judgment in a Civil Action (Document No. 109).

In accordance with the parties' agreement, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Document No. 111) requesting $264,362.69 in fees and costs incurred in this matter, pursuant to a provision in the parties' contract. Plaintiff subsequently sought leave of the court to reduce its request to $262,507.69, representing that certain billings were " inadvertently repeated" resulting in $1,855 in " overstated" fees. Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Amendment/Correction to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees (" Motion for Leave to Amend" ) (Document No. 113) at 1. Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, the attached exhibits, and the entire record herein, the undersigned will grant Plaintiff's motion to amend and grant in part Plaintiff's amended motion for attorneys' fees.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2), Plaintiff moves for " attorneys' fees and expenses pursuant to the attorneys' fee and expense provision in the operative Retainer Agreement," contending that its request is reasonable. Amended Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees (" Plaintiff's Memorandum" ) (Document No. 113-2) at 1-2. More specifically, Plaintiff contends that the number of hours billed are based on " detailed, contemporaneous time records maintained by counsel in the ordinary course of business," and that the hours expended were " necessary to respond to the issues and arguments raised by Defendants and/or necessary to vindicate the rights of Plaintiff." [1] Id. at 8. With respect

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to the hourly rates charged, Plaintiff contends that " the billing rates for each [attorney] are accepted within the Laffey matrix as reasonable for similarly experienced and qualified attorneys and paralegals in the District of Columbia." Id. at 10. With respect to the costs claimed, Plaintiff avers that it " incurred reasonable costs of litigation" and thus seeks the " actual costs" that it expended. Id. at 11.

Defendants, in opposition to Plaintiff's motion, first contend that the parties' " Promissory Note and [] Retention Letter should be read together so as to constitute a single, incorporated contract." Defendants' Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees (" Opposition" ) (Document No. 114) at 7. Defendants thus contend that the court should apply Michigan law in evaluating the fee request, pursuant to a choice-of-law provision in the Promissory Note, and should " cap" the fee award at $45,000 pursuant to a provision in the Promissory Note limiting attorneys' fees to 15 percent of the sum of the note. Id. at 11-12. With respect to the hours billed, Defendants, relying on Michigan law, submit that the court cannot award fees for hours incurred by Plaintiff while it was representing itself in this matter, and must thus limit the fee award to hours billed by attorney Randell Ogg. Id. at 12-14. In the alternative, if the court does not deny the hours billed by Plaintiff, Defendants submit that Plaintiff cannot recover fees for defending against the counterclaim because " it does not arise out of, or relate to, the underlying contract." Id. at 14. Finally, Defendants request that the court deny the fees billed by attorney Mark Leventhal, contending that " the time that [he] spent on specific tasks was excessive and unreasonable." Id. at 17.

Plaintiff submits that the relevant contract is solely the Retainer Agreement, also referred to as the Retention Letter, and that the Promissory Note's provisions are not applicable because the two documents are not incorporated. Plaintiff's Reply to Defendants' Opposition to Motion for Attorneys' Fees (" Reply" ) (Document No. 115) at 7-10. Plaintiff maintains that District of Columbia law governs this matter, relying on choice-of-law analysis and the previous proceedings in this matter. Id. at 2-7. Plaintiff thus avers that under District of Columbia law, it is entitled to fees that it incurred while representing itself. Id. at 10-11. Plaintiff further avers that it can recover fees associated with litigating the counterclaim because it was " related to a defense in the contract claim which had to be overcome." Id. at 12. With respect to the fees billed by Mr. Leventhal, Plaintiff contends that Defendants failed to " identify specific time entries which they believe are excessive or unreasonable," id. at 14, and further contends that " [a] fair analysis of the time expended shows [it] was reasonable under the circumstances," id. at 15. Finally, Plaintiff seeks an additional $14,155 for the attorneys' fees that it incurred while preparing its reply brief. Id. at 2, 22.

APPLICABLE STANDARD

While the general rule in our judicial system is that a " prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee" from the opposing party, this rule can " be overcome by an enforceable contract allocating attorney's fees." Travelers Cas. & Sur. Co. of Am. v. Pac. Gas & Elec. ...


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