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Westfahl v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 22, 2016

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.



This case arrived in December 2011 with a bang: a multi-count civil-rights complaint accusing four District of Columbia police officers of assaulting and denying medical treatment to a World Bank protester merely for expressing his political views, and the District itself of encouraging the officers’ misconduct by ignoring widespread use of excessive force by its police. It ended four-and-a-half years later with more than a whimper perhaps, but far less fanfare than was heralded by the Complaint. After the Court granted summary judgment for Defendants on most of the claims-including that alleging systemic deficiencies in the District’s handling of police-misconduct complaints-a jury found one officer liable for overzealously securing Plaintiff Shawn Westfahl’s otherwise-lawful arrest, and awarded him $10, 000. The task now before the Court is to fashion an award of fees to Westfahl’s attorneys that fairly accounts for the relative success of their endeavors. They seek roughly $368, 000 in fees and $12, 000 in costs. For the reasons explained below, the Court will award them $98, 475.42 in fees and $6, 418.57 in costs.

I. Background

The facts of the case are fully set forth in the Court’s December 12, 2014 opinion granting summary judgment to Defendants on most of Westfahl’s claims, see Westfahl v. Dist. of Columbia, 75 F.Supp.3d 365 (D.D.C. 2014), and its November 4, 2015 opinion declining to upset the jury’s partial verdict in Westfahl’s favor, see Westfahl v. Dist. of Columbia, No. 11-cv-02210, 2015 WL 6746479 (D.D.C. Nov. 4, 2015). They need not all be repeated here. In short, Westfahl participated in a protest march against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on October 9, 2010. Later that night, members of a Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) bike squad attempted to cordon a handful of residual protesters onto a sidewalk after they had become unruly. Most of the marchers complied. Westfahl, however, who was leading the way with a protest flag, tried to walk past the officers. A brief scuffle broke out and Westfahl was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. The officers claimed Westfahl hit one of them with his flagpole and resisted their efforts to detain him. Westfahl denied resisting the officers’ commands and insisted that they roughed him up for no good reason after he released the pole voluntarily. Westfahl suffered only minor abrasions in the tussle. While later in custody, however, he claimed to have suffered an asthma attack brought on because the police had confiscated his inhaler at the scene and refused to allow him to use it at the jail.

Westfahl filed suit in the District of Columbia Superior Court against four MPD officers and the District. Defendants removed the case to this Court and Westfahl proceeded to twice amend his Complaint during a lengthy discovery period. The Second Amended Complaint, filed in May 2013, contains ten counts, which coalesce around three distinct sets of factual allegations. The first set involves the altercation and Westfahl’s arrest. These events gave rise to a First Amendment free speech claim (Count I); a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim (Count II); and common law claims for false arrest and false imprisonment (Count V), assault and battery (Count VI), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VII), abuse of process (Count IX), and defamation (Count X). The second set of allegations surrounds the confiscation of Westfahl’s inhaler and his subsequent asthma episode. Westfahl pursued a Fifth Amendment Monell[1] claim (Count IV) and a negligence claim (Count VIII) against the District based on those events. The final set of allegations pertains to MPD’s use of force generally and the District’s supposedly inadequate response to complaints of excessive force employed by MPD. This was the basis for a second Monell claim against the District (Count III).

As noted, in December 2014 the Court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Defendants. Specifically, it dismissed the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment claims and the assault and battery claim as to some Defendants, and it dismissed the Monell and abuse of process claims in their entirety. Westfahl withdrew his claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence, see Pl.’s Mem. Opp’n Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. 50; his defamation claim as to two of the Defendants, id. 17 n.2; and his abuse of process claim as to one of the Defendants, id. 23 n.3.

Westfahl proceeded to trial against Officers Todd Cory and Robert Robinson, as well as the District. On July 31, 2015, the jury returned a verdict against Officer Robinson on Westfahl’s Fourth Amendment excessive force claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and against both Robinson and the District (based on respondeat superior liability) on his assault and battery claim. It found against Westfahl on all of his claims against Officer Cory. See Verdict Form, ECF No. 120. The jury proceeded to award Westfahl $10, 000 in damages. See id. The Court upheld the verdict over the District and Robinson’s objections. See Westfahl, 2015 WL 6746479.

Westfahl was represented by three lawyers over the course of the case. His lead attorney throughout was Jeffrey L. Light, a 2004 law school graduate who works as a solo practitioner specializing in civil rights litigation. Mr. Light received sporadic assistance over the course of the litigation from Daniel E. Schultz, a 1966 law school graduate, who is a partner in a three-lawyer firm and a veteran personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer. And at trial, Mr. Light was joined by Tamara L. Miller, a 1985 law graduate and former Air Force and Justice Department attorney. Ms. Miller is the managing partner of a three-lawyer medical-malpractice and employment-law firm. Mr. Schultz and Ms. Miller each employed a paralegal to assist with the case.

Westfahl has moved for attorneys’ fees based on his successful § 1983 claim against Officer Robinson. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (providing for the award of “a reasonable attorney’s fee, ” in the court’s discretion, to a prevailing party in “any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [42 U.S.C. §] 1983”). In support of the motion, Mr. Light and his co-counsel have submitted declarations attesting to their experience and billing practices along with billing records setting forth the hours they worked on the case. Mr. Light submits that he billed a total of 335.40 hours, but is seeking reimbursement for 302.70 hours, after eliminating time spent inefficiently and on claims that he acknowledges were unrelated to those on which Westfahl prevailed. See Decl. Jeffrey L. Light (“Light Decl.”) 10. Mr. Schultz attests that he billed 21.40 hours, which he characterizes as a “very conservative” estimate of his time based on a reconstruction of the activities he undertook. See Decl. Daniel E. Schultz 3. (As a contingency-fee lawyer, he claims not to keep contemporaneous billing records. See id.) He also attests that his paralegal billed 234.40 hours. See id. at 9. Finally, Ms. Miller’s billing records reflect that she spent 71.45 hours and that her paralegal spent 53.40 hours on the case, for a total of 124.85 hours.[2] See Decl. Tamara L. Miller (“Miller Decl.”) 7-9.

Westfahl urges the Court to calculate the lodestar fee award by multiplying the number of hours that each of his lawyers spent on the case by a billing rate taken from the “LSI-adjusted Laffey matrix, ” Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice (“CREW”), 80 F.Supp.3d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2015)-a version of the rate table that judges in this district frequently use to determine prevailing hourly rates for “complex federal litigation” services, as adjusted for inflation using an index for prices of legal services nationwide, see Eley v. Dist. of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 104 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1110 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). Defendant Robinson counters that the Court should apply billing rates from the 2015-2016 version of the Laffey matrix maintained by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which uses a different inflation adjustment factor from that of the LSI-adjusted matrix.

II. Legal Standard

In 1976, Congress authorized “the district courts to award a reasonable attorney’s fee to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983) (citing Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, amending 42 U.S.C. § 1988). “The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure ‘effective access to the judicial process’ for persons with civil rights grievances.” Id. (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1558, at 1 (1976)). District courts are instructed to determine the amount of the award based “on the facts of each case.” Id. Where, as here, a plaintiff prevails on only some of his claims, the Court must allocate fees based on the relative degree of the plaintiff’s success. Hensley “provided for a two-step inquiry” to guide this determination: “First, did the plaintiff fail to prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded? Second, did the plaintiff achieve a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award?” George Hyman Constr. Co. v. Brooks, 963 F.2d 1532, 1535 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quoting Sierra Club v. EPA, 769 F.2d 796, 801 (D.C. Cir. 1985)) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434).

The first inquiry “requires a trial court . . . to conduct an examination of the hours counsel expended on each claim in the case, weeding out work done on unrelated unsuccessful claims from any award” because “a plaintiff should not be able to force his opponent to pay for the legal services involved in bringing groundless claims simply because those unsuccessful claims were brought in a lawsuit that included successful claims.” Id. (quoting Sierra Club, 769 F.2d at 801) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court must then consider, under the second inquiry, “whether the success obtained on the remaining claims is proportional to the efforts expended by counsel, ” bearing in mind that, “[w]hen a party achieves ‘only partial or limited success, ’ . . . compensation for all of the ‘hours reasonably expended on the litigation as a whole . . . may be an excessive amount.’” Id. (second omission in original) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436).

Prior to assessing the plaintiff’s level of success and whether that success is proportional to the fees claimed by her attorney, however, the “most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee, ” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, is the “lodestar figure, which is the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate, ” Murray v. ...

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