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Smith v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 6, 2017

GREGORY SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, etal, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER.

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Gregory Smith, brought this civil rights action under to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the District of Columbia Department of Corrections ("DOC") unlawfully detained him for twenty-three days after a court ordered that he was to be released from custody. Amend. Compl. [Dkt. # 36] at 1. In connection with a discovery dispute, plaintiff filed a Motion for Costs and Fees against the District, arguing that defendant violated Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(a)(1), 28(e), 37(c)(1), and 37(d), and seeking "to recover costs and fees incurred as a result of a misrepresentation by [defendant] about the existence of documents during the course of discovery." Pl's Mot. for Costs & Fees [Dkt. # 39] ("Pl's Mot."); Pl's Statement of P. & A. in Supp. of Pl's Mot. [Dkt. # 39-1] ("Pl's Statement") at 1. Defendant denied violating any discovery rules and argued that any costs and fees incurred by plaintiff "are the normal costs of litigation only to be reimbursed should [p]laintiff prevail, at the end of the case . . . ." Def District of Columbia's Mem. of P. & A. in Opp. to Pl's Mot. [Dkt. # 40] ("Def.'s Opp.") at 1.

         The Court referred the motion to a Magistrate Judge for a decision pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.2. Min. Order Referring Case (June 13, 2016). On December 6, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued an order granting the motion in part and denying it in part. Order [Dkt. # 53]. The Magistrate Judge found that defendant had committed two discovery violations and awarded plaintiff attorneys' fees in the amount of $18, 428.30: $12, 545.40 for 30.9 hours of Mr. Klaproth's time at $406 per hour, and $5, 882.90 for 8.9 hours of Mr. Akulian's time at $661 per hour. Mem. Op. re Pl's Mot. [Dkt. # 54] ("Mem. Op.") at 19.

         The only objection raised to the Magistrate Judge's ruling relates to the amount of attorneys' fees - in particular, the hourly rate used to calculate the fees. Def's Obj. to Magistrate Judge's Dec. 6, 2016 Ruling [Dkt. # 58] ("Def's Obj."); Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def's Obj. [Dkt. # 58] ("Def's Obj. Mem."). Defendant argues that the Magistrate Judge committed clear error when she applied the higher Legal Services Index ("LSI") Laffey rates rather than the United States Attorney's Office ("USAO") Laffey rates. Def's Obj. Mem. at 1-5. Plaintiff contends that the use of the higher rate scale was justified because the case involves complex federal litigation. Pl's Resp. to Def's Obj. [Dkt. # 59] ("Pl's Resp.") at 1-4. Defendant's objections to the Magistrate Judge's ruling are now before the Court.

         The Court concludes that the Magistrate Judge committed clear error in calculating the fees, and therefore, it will order defendant to pay plaintiff attorneys' fees corresponding to the rates set forth in the USAO Laffey Matrix for a total payment of $15, 579.90. While the D.C. Circuit has authorized the use of the higher matrix in complex federal litigation in general, plaintiff has failed to meet his burden to establish that the rates are reasonable in this case in particular, and therefore the Magistrate Judge's determination was contrary to law.

         BACKGROUD

         "The Laffey Matrix sets out a general guideline for awarding attorneys' fees based on experience." Salazar ex. rel. Salazar v. District of Columbia, 809 F.3d 58, 62 (D.C. Cir. 2015). But the rates are thirty years old and must be adjusted for inflation. Id. As a result, updated Laffey matrices have been developed, including the two at issue here: (1) the "LSI Laffey Matrix, " updated in accordance with the Legal Services Index of the Nationwide Consumer Price Index, and (2) the "USAO Laffey Matrix, " which is maintained by the United States Attorney's Office and adjusts rates to account for inflation by using the All-Items Consumer Price Index for the Washington, D.C. area. See id.; Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 101-02 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (elaborating on the differences between the two matrices).

         Plaintiff sought attorneys' fees calculated at the rates set out in the LSI Laffey Matrix, pointing out that the use of the rates was affirmed recently by the D.C. Circuit in Salazar, 809 F.3d at 62, a case involving federal civil rights litigation. Reply Br. in Supp. of Pl's Mot. [Dkt. #41] ("Pl's Reply") at 12-13. Defendant argued that plaintiffs requested rates were "excessive, unreasonable, and would constitute a windfall for [p]laintiff s counsel, " and that the Magistrate Judge should calculate the rates based on the USAO Laffey Matrix. Def's Opp. at 11-14.

         In her ruling, the Magistrate Judge stated at the outset that the "district court has broad discretion in determining the size of an expense award under Rule 37, " Mem. Op. at 16, quoting Beckv. Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc., 289 F.R.D. 374, 382 (D.D.C. 2013), and that "the [c]ourt uses the lodestar method, multiplying a reasonably hourly rate by the number of hours expended" to determine the size of the award. Id. In reliance upon the holding in Salazar that "an award of the LSl-Iaffey rates in a civil rights action was not an abuse of the [d]istrict [c]ourt's discretion, " id. at 17, citing Salazar, 809 F.3d at 64, the Magistrate Judge found that plaintiff had presented enough evidence to establish that the "LSI-Laffey rates are the prevailing rates for this type of complex federal litigation." Id. The Magistrate Judge also concluded that defendant "fail[ed] to present sufficient evidence to rebut the reasonableness of the LSI-Laffey rates requested by [p]laintiff." Id Defendant had submitted the Statement of Interest of the United States which the District had previously submitted to the district court in Eley v. District of Columbia, 201 F.Supp.3d 150 (D.D.C. 2016), and which argues that USAO Laffey rates should be the highest rates awarded for attorney fees. See Mem. Op. at 17; Ex. 2 to Def's Opp. [Dkt. # 40-2]. But the Magistrate Judge stated that she would accord the Statement of Interest from Eley "relatively little weight" because it "predates Salazaf and "deals mainly with rates for fees subject to a fee-shifting statute rather than Rule 37 sanctions . . . ." Mem. Op. at 17. Without other evidence to rebut a finding that the LSI Laffey rates were reasonable, the Magistrate Judge exercised her discretion "to award [p]laintiff attorneys' fees corresponding to the hourly rate set forth in the LSl-Laffey matrix." Id.

         Defendant has objected to the Magistrate Judge's decision to apply the hourly rates contained in the LSI Laffey Matrix instead of the less generous USAO Laffey fee schedule. Def's Obj. at 1. It contends that plaintiff did not produce sufficient evidence to establish that the hourly rates were reasonable, and that the Magistrate Judge erred in applying the LSI Laffey rate schedule. Def's Obj. Mem. at 3-5. The Court agrees. After reviewing the Magistrate Judge's decision under the deferential standard set out by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a) and Local Civil Rule 72.2(c), the Court concludes that the Magistrate Judge's fee award was clearly erroneous and contrary to law.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court may refer nondispositive matters, including a motion for attorneys' fees, to a Magistrate Judge for resolution pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a) and Local Rule 72.2. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); LCvR 72.2(a); see also New Life Evangelistic Ctr., Inc. v. Sebelius, 847 F.Supp.2d 50, 51-52 (D.D.C. 2012). Upon referral, the Magistrate Judge "must promptly conduct the required proceedings and, when appropriate, issue a written order stating the decision." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); see also LCvR 72.2(a). Once the Magistrate Judge issues her decision, any party may raise objections to that decision within fourteen days "after being served with the order." LCvR 72.2(b); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). Failure to enter a timely objection will result in a waiver. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a).

         The district court shall review "timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). "A court should make such a finding when the court 'is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" New Life Evangelistic Ctr., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d at 53, quoting Am. Soc'y for ...


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