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Craig v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 15, 2016

JOANNE T. CRAIG, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants. Document Nos. 149, 150

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR FEES AND COSTS AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF’S BILL OF COSTS.

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Joanne Craig brought an employment discrimination action against Defendant the District of Columbia under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. (“DCHRA”). Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Craig, awarding her $20, 000.00 in compensatory damages against the District. See Verdict Form, ECF No. 141. With the judgment now final, Ms. Craig seeks reimbursement of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in pursuing her successful claim. See Pl.’s Corr. Mot. Reas. Att’y’s Fees, Costs & Exp. at 1-4, ECF No. 149 (“Pl.’s Mot.”); see also Pl.’s Reply Def.’s Opp’n Mot. Reas. Att’y’s Fees & Costs at 1-2, ECF No. 158 (“Pl.’s Reply”). The District opposes Ms. Craig’s motion on the ground that the requested award is unreasonable and excessive. See Def.’s Opp’n Pl.’s Corr. Mot. Reas. Att’y’s Fees, Costs & Exp. at 1-12, ECF No. 151 (“Def.’s Opp’n”). Upon consideration of the parties’ filings, the Court concludes that only some of Ms. Craig’s requested fees and costs are reasonable. In this opinion, the Court will also address the District’s objections to Ms. Craig’s bill of costs, and concludes that Ms. Craig has failed to justify certain aspects of her request. Accordingly, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Ms. Craig’s motion for fees and costs and will grant in part and deny in part Ms. Craig’s bill of costs.

         II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Ms. Craig brought this action after being subjected to a series of sexually charged and inappropriate comments over the course of her employment with the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department.[1] See Compl. at 2, ECF No. 1. After initially proceeding pro se, Ms. Craig retained counsel on October 26, 2011. See Cobbina Decl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 149-1. Thereafter, Ms. Craig filed her second amended complaint and set forth various employment discrimination claims under Title VII and the DCHRA. See 2d Amend. Compl. at 1-19, ECF No. 26.

         In response, Defendants moved to dismiss the second amended complaint. The Court granted the motion as to Ms. Craig’s claims for unliquidated damages under the DCHRA and her Title VII claims against Commander Maupin. See Craig v. District of Columbia, 881 F.Supp.2d 26, 36 (D.D.C. 2012). The following claims remained: (1) sex discrimination by the District in violation of Title VII and the DCHRA, (2) sex discrimination by Commander Maupin in violation of the DCHRA, (3) retaliation by the District in violation of Title VII and the DCHRA, and (4) retaliation by Commander Maupin in violation of the DCHRA. See Craig v. District of Columbia, 74 F.Supp.3d 349, 359 (D.D.C. 2014). After discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment and prevailed on all claims except Ms. Craig’s discriminatory hostile work environment claim against the District under Title VII and the DCHRA. See id.

         In May 2015, the case proceeded to trial. On the third day of trial, the Court declared a mistrial because of a medical emergency that arose with Ms. Craig’s counsel. See May 20, 2015 Minute Entry. In January 2016, a second trial commenced. See Jan. 11, 2016 Minute Entry. Ultimately, Ms. Craig prevailed at trial against the District and the jury awarded her $20, 000.00 in damages. See Verdict Form.

         Ms. Craig’s counsel has now filed a motion seeking attorney’s fees and costs for 985.30 hours of work in connection with litigating and trying this case through entry of the judgment.[2]Ms. Craig’s counsel seeks $559, 650.40 in fees based on an hourly rate of $568.00 per hour. See Pl.’s Reply Ex. 1 at 24, ECF No. 158-1. Ms. Craig’s initial fee motion failed to attach supporting documentation and billing invoices to support the requested fee award. See Pl.’s Mot. at 1-5. Thereafter, the District filed its opposition, emphasizing that omission. See Def.’s Opp’n at 1, 5-12. Despite Ms. Craig’s error, the Court accepted Ms. Craig’s reply to the District’s opposition, which included the necessary documentation and evidence to support her fee request, and sua sponte granted the District leave to file a surreply.[3] See Mar. 7, 2016 Minute Order.

         Separately, Ms. Craig submitted a bill of costs, seeking payment of $10, 802.83[4] in costs for the following: $350.00 in filing fees, $7, 567.91 in deposition transcripts and pretrial transcripts, $679.92 in witness fees, and $2, 205.00 for summons and subpoena fees. See Bill of Costs, ECF. No. 150.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Resolving Ms. Craig’s motions requires an analysis of two distinct requests: her requests for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, and her bill of costs. The Court will consider each in turn.

         A. Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees and Costs

         1. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) requires a party seeking attorney’s fees and “related nontaxable expenses” to file a motion with the court. Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d)(2)(A). The motion must “specify the judgment and the statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the movant to the award.” Id. It must also state the amount or provide a fair estimate of the award sought. Id.; see also Does I, II, III v. District of Columbia., 448 F.Supp.2d 137, 139-40 (D.D.C. 2006).

         Under Title VII, the court is authorized, in its discretion, to award “the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney’s fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e- 5(k). Generally, “[a] reasonable fee is one that is adequate to attract competent counsel, but that does not produce windfalls to attorneys.” West v. Potter, 717 F.3d 1030, 1033 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 897 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In awarding appropriate attorney’s fees, the court’s determination is based on a two-step inquiry. Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 140.

         First, the court must determine whether the plaintiff is the prevailing party. Id. Plaintiffs are considered prevailing parties, and thus entitled to attorney’s fees, “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Harvey v. Mohammed, 951 F.Supp.2d 47, 53 (D.D.C. 2013) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). A litigant need not succeed at every step of the litigation in order to be a prevailing party for the purpose of Title VII; indeed, “a litigant who is unsuccessful at a stage of litigation that was a necessary step to her ultimate victory is entitled to attorney’s fees even for the unsuccessful stage.” Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of Fr. in the U.S., No. CV 11-805 (JEB), 2016 WL 3014615, at *3 (D.D.C. May 24, 2016) (quoting Air Transp. Ass’n of Can. v. FAA, 156 F.3d 1329, 1335 (D.C. Cir. 1998)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Second, the court must determine whether the plaintiff’s fee request is reasonable. Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 140. In calculating a reasonable fee award, a district court must determine: (1) the reasonable hourly rate (or “lodestar”) for the services rendered by the plaintiff’s attorney, (2) the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation, and (3) whether the plaintiff has offered specific evidence demonstrating that this is one of the rare cases where a lodestar enhancement or multiplier is appropriate. See Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Heller v. District of Columbia, 832 F.Supp.2d 32, 38 (D.D.C. 2011). “The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. With respect to the number of hours expended, the court must exclude hours that are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 140 (quoting Palmer v. Rice, No. CIV.A.76-1439, 2005 WL 1662130, at *9 (D.D.C. July 11, 2005)).

         Ultimately, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing both her entitlement to attorney’s fees and the reasonableness of the fees she seeks. See Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107; Turner v. D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics, 354 F.3d 890, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2004). A plaintiff can satisfy this burden by submitting evidence of: “the attorneys’ billing practices; the attorneys’ skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. Once the plaintiff has provided such information, a presumption arises that the hours billed are reasonable and the burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the plaintiff’s showing. Id. at 1109-10.

         2. Analysis

         Although Ms. Craig prevailed and is therefore entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees, the District argues that Ms. Craig’s requested fees are excessive and lack the requisite specificity to justify the number of hours reasonably expended.[5] See Def.’s Opp’n at 1; Mem. P. & A. Supp. Def.’s Sur-Reply at 4-13, ECF No. 163 (“Def.’s Sur-Reply”). Specifically, the District requests that the Court reduce Ms. Craig’s counsel’s request by eighty percent. Def.’s Sur-Reply at 15.

         a. Reasonableness of Hourly Rate

         Ms. Craig’s counsel seeks fees at a rate of $568 per hour-which matches the United States Attorneys’ Office Laffey rate for an attorney with thirty-one or more years of experience. See Pl.’s Mot. at 3. To determine whether an hourly rate is reasonable, the court considers three sub-elements: “(1) the attorney[’s] billing practices, (2) the attorney[’s] skill, experience, and reputation and (3) the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, although the District fails to rebut any of these elements, the Court must still determine whether Ms. Craig satisfied her burden to justify her requested rate. See Ashraf-Hassan, 2016 WL 3014615, at *4 (“[B]ecause the burden lies with Plaintiff to justify the rate, the Court must nonetheless determine for itself whether she has done so.”). Specifically, Ms. Craig must “produce satisfactory evidence-in addition to [her] attorney’s own affidavits-that [her] requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 105 (emphasis omitted) (quoting Blum, 465 U.S. at 895 n.11).

         After reviewing the record, the Court finds that Ms. Craig’s counsel’s requested rate of $568 per hour is consistent with his customary billing practices and supported by counsel’s skill, experience, and reputation. With respect to customary billing practices, Ms. Craig’s counsel attests that the rate reflects “[m]y current normal and customary rate I charge clients.” Cobbina Decl. ¶ 5. Additionally, Ms. Craig’s counsel’s affidavit details his extensive relevant experience. See id. ¶¶ 2-4. Mr. Cobbina has practiced law as a member of the District of Columbia bar since 1981. See Id. ¶ 2. He also asserts that “[o]ver the course of more than 30 years, my practice has been varied but always included the representation of plaintiffs, particularly employees who have become the focus of my practice.” See Id. ¶ 3. In addition to Ms. Craig’s counsel’s own declaration, Ms. Craig’s counsel attaches several affidavits from other attorneys who practice employment law corroborating his extensive experience and remarking on his favorable reputation. See, e.g., Cashdan Decl. ¶ 11, ECF No. 158-2; Leckar Decl. ¶¶ 5-6, ECF No. 158-3; Karl Decl. ¶¶ 17, 22, ECF No. 158-4. Accordingly, counsel’s requested rate need not be adjusted downward to account for any deficiency in skill or experience.

         With respect to the prevailing market rate, Ms. Craig seeks reimbursement for attorney’s fees at hourly rates set forth in the standard Laffey Matrix published by United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia [hereinafter “USAO Matrix”]. See Pl.’s Mot. ¶ 4; Cobbina Decl. ¶ 5. Courts in this district customarily apply the USAO Matrix in determining the “lodestar” reasonable hourly rate for attorney’s fees in complex civil litigation. See Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 354, 371 (D.D.C. 1983), aff’d in part, rev’d in part on other grounds, 746 F.2d 4 (D.C. Cir. 1984), overruled in part on other grounds en banc by Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel, 857 F.2d 1516 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Indeed, courts in this district have been reluctant to depart from the USAO Matrix “absent a strong showing that such a departure is justified by the nature and complexity of the litigation.” Am. Lands All., 525 F.Supp.2d at 150. In this circuit, courts have concluded that Title VII cases are sufficiently complex to merit Laffey rates, and the District does not contest the complexity of Ms. Craig’s Title VII litigation claim. See Hansson v. Norton, 411 F.3d 231, 236 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (acknowledging that a reasonable hourly rate is guided by the Laffey matrix in Title VII actions); Makray v. Perez, No. CV 12-520, 2016 WL 471271, at *9 (D.D.C. Feb. 8, 2016) (declining to engage in a determination of the “complexity of litigation” because defendant did “not contest that the plaintiff’s successful Title VII gender discrimination lawsuit amount[ed] to complex federal litigation” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         In advocating in favor of the Laffey rate, Ms. Craig’s counsel attests that his requested rate is consistent with other attorney’s rates in this market. Specifically, Ms. Craig’s counsel attaches the affidavits of several other attorneys who claim that the requested rate is consistent with, or even understates, prevailing market rates for Title VII litigation in Washington, D.C. See, e.g., Cashdan Decl. ¶ 8 (“[My] hourly market rate range for my services is $540-$570.00, and clients . . . are regularly billed in this range.”); Leckar Decl. ¶ 4 (“My current hourly billing rate is between $515.00-$575.00 per hour for commercial litigation matters.”); Karl Decl. ¶ 12 (“My current hourly rate for employment cases is $700.”). These supporting affidavits also assert that similarly qualified attorneys-those with “50 years” or “30 plus years” experience- who engage in employment discrimination cases customarily charge rates comparable to those proposed in Ms. Craig’s counsel’s present request. See, e.g., Cashdan Decl. ¶¶ 3, 8; Leckar Decl. ¶¶ 2-4. The attached affidavits also confirm a consistent practice of billing at or near Laffey matrix rates in Title VII cases in this market. See, e.g., Cashdan Decl. ¶¶ 8, 10; Leckar Decl. ¶¶ 4, 7; Karl Decl. ¶¶ 12, 22. Thus, the Court concludes that the attached affidavits and explanations provide adequate justification to employ the USAO Matrix in calculating Ms. Craig’s counsel’s fee award. See Ashraf-Hassan, 2016 WL 3014615 at *4 (concluding that plaintiff’s counsel’s affidavit and several other affidavits, including two attorneys not affiliated with plaintiff’s counsel, justified awarding a reasonable rate guided by the Laffey matrix in a Title VII action); see also Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 139-40 (awarding fees based on the Laffey Matrix in a Title VII action).

         For its part, the District provides no counter-evidence that would justify departing from the Laffey rate. See Def.’s Opp’n at 5-8; Def.’s Sur-Reply at 5-6. Beyond objecting on the ground that this material was not initially included in Ms. Craig’s fee request-a ground the Court has already rejected, see supra note 3-the District’s surrreply provides no legal or evidentiary support for deviating from the Laffey rate. See Def.’s Sur-Reply at 5. Therefore, the Court will award Ms. Craig’s counsel attorney’s fees based on his requested rate of $568 per hour.[6]

         b. Number of Hours Reasonably Expended

         The Court turns to the reasonableness of Ms. Craig’s counsel’s request for fees covering 985.30 hours of work. An attorney seeking fees must “maintain contemporaneous, complete and standardized time records which accurately reflect the work done by each attorney.” See Heller, 832 F.Supp.2d at 50 (quoting Nat’l Ass’n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec’y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). The District argues that the recorded hours are excessive because Ms. Craig “has fallen short of meeting her burden of proof that the hours she expended were reasonable.” See Def.’s Sur-Reply at 6. Specifically, the District objects to the reasonableness of both the number of hours expended and the specificity, or lack thereof, of counsel’s billing invoices. Id. at 9, 13. In addition to considering the District’s argument, the Court will address whether a reduction is warranted due to the limited success of Ms. Craig’s claims.

         i. The Reasonableness and Detail of Expended Hours

         The District submits a list of objectionable entries from Ms. Craig’s counsel’s invoice and argues that certain recorded entries were not reasonably expended or adequately detailed. See Def.’s Sur-Reply at 6-13. In response, Ms. Craig attests that the work reflected in the time entries was reasonable and necessary for the prosecution of this case. See Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Sur-Reply Filed Opp’n Pl.’s Mot. Att’y Fees, Costs, & Exp. at 2-8, ECF No. 165 (“Pl.’s Sur-Surreply”). Regarding the contested entries, the district observes that because “[c]ases may be overstaffed, and the skill and experience of lawyers vary widely, ” the prevailing party’s counsel “should make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Castle v. Bentsen, 872 F.Supp. 1062, 1066 (D.D.C. 1995) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434). To satisfy the burden of justifying a reasonable fee, Ms. Craig’s “supporting documentation must be of sufficient detail and probative value to enable a court to determine with a high degree of certainty that such hours were actually and reasonably expended.” Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 970 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted) (quoting In re Olson, 884 F.2d 1415, 1428 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (per curiam)). Satisfactory documentation consists of “contemporaneous time records of hours worked . . . plus a detailed description of the subject matter of the work with supporting documents, if any.” Ashraf-Hassan, 2016 WL 3014615, at *5 (quoting In re Donovan, 877 F.2d 982, 994 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (per curiam)). “Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. A fixed, percentage reduction may be warranted when a large number of billing entries suffer from one or more deficiencies. Role Models Am., Inc., 353 F.3d at 973.

         The District first objects to an award of fees covering the time Ms. Craig’s counsel spent preparing for the first trial, which ended in a mistrial. See Def.’s Sur-Reply at 8. Specifically, the District argues that it should not be “penalized” for Ms. Craig’s counsel’s illness, which necessitated the mistrial. Id. The D.C. Circuit has not specifically addressed whether a plaintiff who prevails after multiple trials should be awarded the reasonable fees incurred in preparing for each trial. However, several other circuits allow an award of attorney fees for multiple trials, so long as “the plaintiff’s unreasonable behavior did not cause the need for multiple proceedings and as long as counsel’s time was reasonably expended.” Waldo v. Consumers Energy Co., 726 F.3d 802, 826 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Abner v. Kan. City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 381-82 (5th Cir. 2008)); accord Flitton v. Primary Residential Mortg., Inc., 614 F.3d 1173, 1177 (10th Cir. 2010); O’Rourke v. City of Providence, 235 F.3d 713, 737 (1st Cir. 2001); Gierlinger v. Gleason, 160 F.3d 858, 877-78 (2d Cir. 1998); Jaffee v. Redmond, 142 F.3d 409, 416 (7th Cir. 1998). These circuits have eschewed a bright-line, categorical rule declining to award fees for multiple trials, concluding, instead, that “[t]he question of whether a party ‘prevailed’ and whether a fee award is ‘reasonable’ is not one to parse too thinly . . . [based on] the number of trials required to reach a result.” Waldo, 726 F.3d at 826 (quoting Abner, 541 F.3d at 382). This principle includes additional trials necessitated by a mistrial: “where a party is not at fault for causing mistrial, an award of attorneys’ fees may be merited.” Abner, 541 F.3d at 381 (mistrial declared where jury was unable to reach a verdict in first trial); cf. Gierlinger, 160 F.3d at 878 (affirming fees awarded by the district court after sua sponte declaring a mistrial due, in part, to publicity, and even though the district court concluded that “plaintiff’s attorney is not blameless for [the] mistrial”). The mere fact that two trials were necessary to obtain a favorable result is not dispositive, although the court’s reasonableness analysis should, of course, ...


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