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Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France in United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 24, 2016

SAIMA ASHRAF-HASSAN, Plaintiff,
v.
EMBASSY OF FRANCE IN THE UNITED STATES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

         Saima Ashraf-Hassan, a French citizen of Pakistani origin, recently obtained a favorable verdict after a bench trial in her workplace-discrimination suit against the Embassy of France, her former employer. She now seeks attorney fees and costs totaling $271, 786.15, which accounts for many - but not all - of the hours and expenses her attorneys incurred over five years of litigation. The Embassy opposes those fees, both because it believes the verdict to be in error and because it views the fees as unwarranted for various reasons. Concluding that Plaintiff has met her burden of proving that the fees and costs are reasonable, the Court will award the full sum requested.

         I. Background

         Because the fees cover numerous stages of this protracted suit, the relevant background facts largely consist of its procedural history. The Court will also identify the different attorneys who represented Plaintiff throughout the litigation, as their hours and rates form the basis of her fee calculation.

         A. Procedural History

         Ashraf-Hassan is a Muslim woman who was born in Pakistan, moved to France as a child, and obtained French citizenship in the 1990s. See Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France (Ashraf-Hassan VI), No. 11-805, 2016 WL 2626833, at *2 (D.D.C. May 6, 2016) (reciting the Court’s oral findings of fact). In the early 2000s, she obtained a job at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., and arrived in the United States on an A-2 visa in October of 2001 to begin working as an intern. Id. After her probationary period ended in February 2002, she was hired as a local employee and became an intern-program coordinator under the supervision of Chantal Manes, the head of the Embassy’s cultural program. Id. According to Plaintiff, over the next four years, she suffered ill treatment and harassment from her supervisors. Late in 2006, the Embassy informed her that her contract would not be renewed, requiring her departure at the end of January 2007. Id. at *4.

         Over four years later, in April 2011, Plaintiff brought suit in this court, alleging a throng of wrongful-termination and hostile-work-environment claims under Title VII - on the basis of race, religion, national origin, pregnancy, or retaliation for her engaging in protected activity. See generally Am. Compl. The Embassy subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court granted as to four counts (pertaining to Plaintiff’s termination) but denied as to the remaining four counts (which raised hostile-work-environment claims). See Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France (Ashraf-Hassan I), 878 F.Supp.2d 164, 175 (D.D.C. 2012).

         After several months of discovery, the Embassy moved for summary judgment in the summer of 2013, arguing that it was entitled to prevail as a matter of law given the record adduced by the parties. See ECF No. 32. It claimed that Plaintiff had failed to develop sufficient proof of a hostile work environment and that its various affirmative defenses entitled it to judgment. See Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France (Ashraf-Hassan II), 999 F.Supp.2d 106, 113-17 (D.D.C. 2013). The Court denied that motion in full in November 2013, id. at 117, and scheduled a bench trial for mid-April 2014. See Minute Order of 12/17/2013. The Embassy moved for reconsideration, see ECF No. 38, which the Court also denied on January 16, 2014. See ECF No. 45 (Ashraf-Hassan III).

         Having not achieved success on the substance of the dispute, the Embassy next took a different tack, filing an eve-of-trial motion to dismiss in which it argued - for the first time - that the Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. See ECF No. 51. The Court promptly denied that motion, concluding that the case fell “squarely within multiple exceptions to the [FSIA].” Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France (Ashraf-Hassan IV), 40 F.Supp.3d 94, 97 (D.D.C. 2014). Defendant then filed an interlocutory appeal with the D.C. Circuit, see ECF No. 59 (Notice of Appeal), which affirmed this Court’s opinion in a summary unpublished order on May 1, 2015, approximately one year after the Embassy filed the appeal. See Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France (Ashraf-Hassan V), 610 F. App’x 3 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         After the mandate issued, this Court held a three-day bench trial in January 2016, which proceeded apace notwithstanding an ongoing snowstorm. See Minute Order of 1/25/16. On February 11, 2016, the Court reconvened the parties to deliver its oral verdict. See Minute Order of 2/11/16. It provided its findings of fact and conclusions of law, ultimately holding that Plaintiff had succeeded on her hostile-work-environment claim. See Verdict Trans. at 15:8-17. It next considered her damages claim, awarding her $30, 000. See id. at 18:19-20. The Court then addressed Plaintiff’s counsel on the issue of attorney fees, pointedly requesting that they file a “careful and thoughtful” petition. Id. at 19:1.

         Shortly after the verdict was announced, the Embassy filed two post-trial motions, one seeking to amend the judgment and add new findings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(b), see ECF No. 86, and a separate “Motion for Estoppel and, in the Alternative, Motion for a New Trial.” ECF No. 87. A central focus of both was Defendant’s position that Plaintiff had misled the Court by providing inconsistent testimony on the date of one event that the Court concluded was a contributing factor in her hostile work environment. See Ashraf-Hassan VI, 2016 WL 2626833, at *3. The Court ultimately denied the motions, concluding that the Embassy had identified no “clear errors in [its] factual findings, ” and that “no ‘manifest injustice’ or prejudice was worked on the Embassy as a result of Plaintiff’s testimonial inconsistency, ” which had already been taken into account by the Court in its factual findings. See id. at *1, *7. All matters of substance having been decided, the Court is free to move on to fees.

         B. Ashraf-Hassan’s Representation

         Plaintiff has been represented by counsel since the filing of her Complaint. On March 5, 2011, she contacted the Law Firm of Gary M. Gilbert and Associates, P.C. (GMGA) and signed a deferred-fee retainer agreement. See Mot. for Fees, Exh. E at Bates Nos. 1-4 (Initial Retainer Agreement). From 2011 to 2015, Plaintiff was represented primarily by two attorneys: Zachary Wright, a newly barred GMGA associate, and Ari Wilkenfeld, a more seasoned practitioner. See Mot., Exh. H (Affidavit of Zachary L. Wright); id., Exh. F (Affidavit of Ari Wilkenfeld). Another then-GMGA attorney, Rosalind Herendeen, also contributed to Plaintiff’s representation. See Mot. at 4.

         In 2013, Wilkenfeld and Herendeen left GMGA to start the Wilkenfeld Law Group, which subsequently became Wilkenfeld Herendeen Law. See Wilkenfeld Aff., ¶ 4; Mot., Exh. J (Affidavit of Rosalind Herendeen), ¶ 4. The new firm joined GMGA as co-counsel for Ashraf-Hassan in February 2014. See Mot., Exh. E at Bates Nos. 14-20 (Co-Counsel Agreement) at 20.

         After the Embassy brought its interlocutory appeal, Gary M. Gilbert, GMGA’s principal, assigned one of his then-junior associates, Katherine Atkinson (formerly Katherine Atkinson Dave), to argue the case before the D.C. Circuit, with assistance from GMGA senior counsel Valencia Rainey. See Mot., Exh. G (Affidavit of Katherine R. Atkinson), ¶ 16; Mot., Exh. I (Affidavit of Gary M. Gilbert), ¶ 10. Prior to oral argument, Wright left GMGA, and Atkinson took over as co-lead counsel with Wilkenfeld. See Atkinson Aff., ¶¶ 16-18. Atkinson then took the helm in preparing for trial in 2016, with Wilkenfeld and, to a lesser extent, Gilbert providing supervisory assistance. See id., ¶¶ 16-17; Gilbert Aff., ¶ 9; Wilkenfeld Aff., ¶ 10. These three attorneys were present throughout the trial. See ...


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