United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
RANDOLPH D. MOSS United States District Judge.
matter is before the Court on the Plaintiffs' motion for
default judgment. Dkt. 10. In their complaint, Plaintiffs
Christopher Swanson and Jeff Printz seek judgment in the
amount of $195, 000, plus attorneys' fees and costs,
against Defendant Marina Martins for an alleged breach of
contract. Dkt. 1 at 3. For the reasons explained below, the
Court will enter judgment against Martins in the amount $195,
400, but will defer ruling on the Plaintiffs' request for
attorneys' fees pending the submission of further
October 29, 2014, Printz and Swanson entered into a contract
with Martins for the sale of real property located at 1375
Maryland Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002. Id.
at 2; see Dkt. 1-1. The contract fixed the sale
price at $6, 500, 000, with a three percent “initial
earnest money deposit, ” ($195, 000), which could be
forfeited in the case of default by the Defendant. Dkt. 1 at
2, ¶¶ 8(a), (b), (d). Martins failed to make the
down payment. Id. On February 5, 2015, the parties
agreed to a General Addendum to the contract, which
stipulated that if Martins failed to close on the property by
5:00 p.m. on March 25, 2015, she would to pay three percent
earnest money as a “non-refundable fee.” Dkt.
1-2. Martins again failed to uphold her end of the bargain,
and Printz and Swanson filed the present action on October 6,
was served with a copy of the summons and complaint on April
20, 2016. Dkt. 10 at 1; Dkt. 5. She failed to respond within
the twenty-one days allowed under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(a)(1)(A), and, as a consequence, the Clerk of
the Court entered a default on May 24, 2016. Dkt. 9. The
Plaintiffs filed the present Motion for Default Judgment on
June 9, 2016. Dkt. 10. Martins has yet to enter an
appearance, to answer or respond to the complaint, or to
respond to the motion for a default judgment.
and Swanson seek a total of $209, 805, which includes $195,
000 in contractual liquidated damages, $14, 405 in
attorneys' fees, and $400 in costs for this action. Dkt.
10 at 2.
a default judgment requires two steps. At the first step, the
plaintiff requests the Clerk of the Court to enter a default.
If the Clerk determines that the “party against whom a
judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead
or otherwise defend, and that failure is shown by affidavit
or otherwise, the [C]lerk must enter the party's
default.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a) (emphasis added). At the
second step, the plaintiff must apply for a default judgment,
either to the Clerk “for a sum certain or a sum that
can be made certain by computation, ” or to the Court
in “all other cases.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(1), (2).
Upon entry of the default, the factual allegations of the
complaint are deemed admitted, which usually establishes the
defendant's liability. See, e.g.,
Robinson v. Ergo Solutions, LLC, 4 F.Supp.3d 171,
178 (D.D.C. 2014); Int'l Painters & Allied Trades
Indus. Pension Fund v. Auxier Drywall, LLC, 531
F.Supp.2d 56, 57 (D.D.C. 2008). But, unless the sum at issue
is certain, the Court must “make an independent
determination of the sum to be awarded.” Int'l
Painters, 239 F.Supp.2d at 57. To determine damages, the
Court may conduct a hearing, see Fed. R. Civ. P.
55(b)(2), but need not do so, and may instead rely on
“detailed affidavits or documentary evidence, ”
Ventura v. L.A. Howard Const. Co., 134 F.Supp.3d 99,
103 (D.D.C. 2015) (internal citation and quotation marks
omitted); see also Robinson, 4 F.Supp.3d at 178.
Here, the Plaintiffs have properly obtained a default from
the Clerk of the Court. See Dkt. 9. The only
remaining question, accordingly, is the sum to be awarded.
original contract and the subsequent addendum set out the
basis for the Plaintiffs' claim. The contract set the
sales price for the property at $6, 500, 000, Dkt. 1-1 at 1,
¶ 3, and required a “deposit” of “3%
of sales price” with an escrow agent, id. at
2, ¶ 4. The contract further provided that, if the
“[p]urchaser fail[ed] to complete [s]ettlement for any
reason other than [d]efault by [s]eller, . . . the [d]eposit
may be forfeited as liquidated damages.” Id.
at 5, ¶ 23. The “General Addendum, ” which
Martins executed on February 5, 2015, further provided that
“[a]ll parties agree that if the buyer is unable to
close on this property by 5 PM EST, March 25th, 2015, then
the buyer will agree to give her 3% earnest money deposit as
a non-refundable fee to be paid directly to the
seller.” Dkt. 1-2 at 1. And, finally, the contract
specified that its “interpretation” would be
governed by the law of the District of Columbia, where the
property was located. Dkt. 1-1 at 7, ¶ 31.
D.C. law, a plaintiff states a claim for breach of contract
by alleging “(1) a valid contract between the parties;
(2) an obligation or duty arising out of the contract; (3) a
breach of that duty; and (4) damages caused by the
breach.” Coon v. Wood, 68 F.Supp.3d 77, 83
(D.D.C., 2014). The factual allegations of the
Plaintiffs' complaint, which are deemed admitted, satisfy
this standard. They establish that Martins executed both the
original contract and the addendum, Dkt. 1 at 2, ¶¶
7, 10; that she then failed to pay the earnest money deposit,
id. at 3, ¶ 12; that she “conducted
herself as if the contract was in full force and effect,
” id. at 2, ¶ 9; that she failed to close
on the property by the required date, id. at 3,
¶¶ 11, 13; and that she failed to pay the
non-refundable fee provided for in the addendum, id.
at 3, ¶ 14. The determination of damages, moreover, is
straightforward. Martins agreed to pay liquidated damages
equal to 3% of the $6, 500, 000 sales price-or, in other
words, $195, 000. That is precisely the amount of damages
sought in the complaint, and the Court, accordingly, will
award this amount.
addition to paying damages, Martins is also liable to the
Plaintiffs for the expenses that they have incurred in
bringing this matter. The contract provided that, if one
party breaches the agreement and the other “retains
legal counsel to enforce its rights” under the
contract, the non-breaching party “shall be entitled to
recover . . . all of its reasonable Legal Expenses incurred
in enforcing its rights under this Agreement.” Dkt. 1-1
at 5, ¶ 21(A). “Legal Expenses, ” in turn,
are defined to include “attorney fees, court costs, and
litigation expenses.” Id. at 7, ¶ 26(J).
The Plaintiffs seek reimbursement for both their costs and
respect to their costs, the Plaintiffs' request is both
modest and well-supported. They seek only the $400 filing fee
that they paid when the case was commenced. They have
submitted a declaration attesting to the fact that their
counsel paid the fee, Dkt. 10-5 at 2, and the docket reflects
that the $400 fee was paid. That expense is manifestly
reasonable, and the Court will, accordingly, award this
amount as well.
then, leaves only the Plaintiffs' claim for
attorneys' fees. Under the contract, they are entitled to
collect “reasonable” legal expenses, including
attorneys' fees, Dkt. 1-1 at 5, ¶ 21(A), and,
according to the Plaintiffs, they have incurred $14, 805 in
attorneys' fees. They have supported this claim,
moreover, with a declaration of counsel and billing records
reflecting the numbers of hours worked by lead counsel and
his staff and the hourly rates of the lawyers, law clerks,
and administrative staff who worked on the matter.
See Dkt. 10-5 (Valkenet Decl.); Dkt. 10-6 (invoices
for legal services). The Court has reviewed the redacted
invoices attached to the motion for default judgment, Dkt.
10-6, and concludes that they provide sufficient detail as to
the hours worked and tasks completed and indicate that work
was delegated, where possible, to the more junior attorney or
to legal assistants to reduce costs. The litigation,
moreover, presented significant hurdles in serving Martins.
See Dkt. 4. The Court is thus satisfied that the
Plaintiffs' have justified the number of hours (50.2)
expended by attorneys and paralegals in this case.
of whether the relevant billing rates are reasonable,
however, is more complicated. As an initial matter, the Court
notes that the billing rates for the Plaintiffs' counsel
and staff are lower than the rates provided in the U.S.
Attorney's Office's Laffey Matrix for
2015-2016, which is “[t]he most commonly used . . .
schedule of prevailing rates . . . for lawyers who practice
‘complex federal litigation.'” Eley v.
District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015).
Thomas Valkenet, for example, has been practicing law since
1987 and charged $400 per hour. See Dkt. 10-5 at 1,
¶¶ 1, 5 (Valkenet Decl.). In contrast, the
Laffey rate for a lawyer with this level of
experience-21-30 years'-is $530 per hour. Dkt. 10-7
(2015- 2016 Laffey Matrix). Likewise, Ian Valkenet
has been practicing law since 2012 and charged $250 per hour.
Dkt. 10-5 at 2, ¶¶ 7, 8 (Valkenet Decl.). And, in
contrast, the Laffey rate for a lawyer with this
level of experience-4-5 years-is $325 per hour. Dkt. 10-7
(Laffey Matrix). Law clerks at the firm charged $150
per hour, Dkt. 10-5 at 2, ¶ 9 (Valkenet Decl.), slightly
below the Laffey rate for paralegals and law clerks
of $154 per hour, Dkt. 10-7 (Laffey Matrix). The
Supreme Court ...