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Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Associates, P.C.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 19, 2017

DEMETRA BAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
MITCHELL RUBENSTEIN & ASSOCIATES, PC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the Court on remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In accordance with the Circuit's opinion of May 30, 2017, the Court must now determine the appropriate amount of attorney's fees to be awarded to plaintiff in this case.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 17, 2013, plaintiff Demetra Baylor brought this case against defendant Mitchell Rubenstein & Associates, P.C., alleging that defendant violated various provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., the D.C. Debt Collection Law, D.C. Code § 28-3814 et seq., and the D.C. Consumer Protection and Procedures Act, D.C. Code § 28-3901 et seq. Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶¶ 28-48. On February 7, 2014, while defendant's motion to dismiss was pending, plaintiff accepted defendant's Rule 68 offer of judgment on the federal claim "in the amount of $1, 001.00, plus costs and expenses together with reasonable attorney fees for all claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act." Pl.'s Notice of Acceptance of Def's Rule 68 Offer of J. [Dkt. #11];see also J. on Offer & Acceptance [Dkt. #14].

         In response to defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a number of the D.C. claims were dismissed. See Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 55 F.Supp.3d 43, 55 (D.D.C. 2014). Plaintiffs claims under sections 28-3814(f)(5) and 28-3814(g)(5) of the D.C. Debt Collection Law survived, though, and the parties engaged in discovery.

         In August 2015, defendant moved for summary judgment on those two claims, and plaintiff cross-moved for partial summary judgment. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 84]; Pl.'s Partial Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 91]. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant after finding that there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to whether defendant acted willfully in connection with any inaccurate communications covered by the Debt Collection Law. Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 174 F.Supp.3d 146, 149 (D.D.C. 2016). This judgment was upheld on appeal. See Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 857 F.3d 939, 951 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

         In other words, plaintiff has succeeded on one claim in her three-count complaint. On March 12, 2014, after the resolution of the federal claim, plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees under the fee-shifting provision of the FDCPA for her counsel's work on that claim. Pl.'s Mot. for Award of Att'y's Fees & Costs [Dkt. # 15] ("Pl.'s 1st Fee Mot."); Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Award of Att'y's Fees & Costs [Dkt. # 15-1] ("Pl.'s 1st Fee Mem."). The motion originally sought $155, 700.00 in attorney's fees and $442.95 in costs for 346 hours of work. Pl.'s 1st Fee Mot. at 2. Plaintiff amended her request for fees multiple times thereafter, arriving ultimately at a request for $220, 712.00 in attorney's fees and $442.95 in costs.

         The Court referred the matter to a Magistrate Judge for preparation of a Report and Recommendation under Local Civil Rule 72.2. Order Referring Mot. for Att'y's Fees [Dkt. #18]; see LCvR 72.2 ("At the request of the district judge to whom the case is assigned, a magistrate judge may hear and determine any pretrial motion or matter . . . ."); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a) (permitting referral of nondispositive matters to a magistrate judge and providing for modification where report is "clearly erroneous or is contrary to law"). After reviewing the matter, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the award be reduced to a total of $41, 989.80 because the requested fees were significantly higher than reasonable. Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., No. 13-01995, 2014 WL 7014280, at *6 (D.D.C. Oct. 24, 2014). The Magistrate Judge also recommended awarding plaintiff all requested costs and postjudgment interest. Id.

         Both parties objected to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. Def.'s Objs. to R & R. [Dkt. #46] ("Def.'s Objs."); Pl.'s Objs. to R. & R [Dkt. # 47] ("Pl.'s Objs"). The Court, applying the "clearly erroneous standard" set out in Local Rule 72.2, observed that the award was "quite generous, " but it upheld the award under that standard. Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 77 F.Supp.3d 113, 121 (D.D.C. 2015); see also LCvR 72.2(c) ("[A] district judge may modify or set aside any portion of a magistrate judge's order . . . found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law."). Both sides appealed the Court's decision - plaintiffs counsel claimed the award was too low, and defendant claimed it was too high.

         On appeal, the D.C. Circuit determined that since Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2)(D) provides that a Court "may refer a motion for attorney's fees to a magistrate judge under Rule 72(b) as if it were a dispositive pretrial matter, " a ruling on a motion for attorney's fees must be evaluated under Rule 72(b)'s standard, "which requires that a district judge 'determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to.'" Baylor, 857 F.3d at 945, quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The matter was then remanded to this Court to undertake a de novo review of the request for attorney's fees.

         Upon a thorough reconsideration of the original motion for attorney's fees and supporting materials, the amendments to the original motion, all of the oppositions and replies on the docket, the materials submitted to the Court by both parties challenging the Magistrate Judge's decision, and the entire record in this case, the Court has determined in an exercise of its discretion that defendant must pay attorney's fees in the amount of $17, 000.00, plus postjudgment interest, and

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provides, in pertinent part, that "in the case of any successful action [by a person] to enforce [a debt collector's liability under the Act], " the debt collector "is liable to such person . . . [for] the costs of the action, together with a reasonable attorney's fee as determined by the court." 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a). Ordinarily, courts utilize the "lodestar" method for calculating an initial estimate of fees, which requires multiplying "the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation [] by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983).[1]

         The party seeking fees has the burden of establishing the reasonableness of any fee request. Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995). The party must establish a reasonable hourly rate by providing information regarding the attorney's billing practices, the attorney's skill, experience, and reputation, as well as the prevailing market rates in the relevant community. Id. And the party must demonstrate that the hours expended on the litigation were reasonable by showing that the time was productive and not duplicative. See Envtl. Def. Fund, Inc. v. Reilly, 1 F.3d 1254, 1258 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

         In making the initial fee calculation, the court "should exclude . . . hours that were not 'reasonably expended, '" such as for work that is "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. Further, the court may consider a variety of factors to determine if the overall fee award should be adjusted "upward or downward, including the important factor of the 'results obtained.'" Id.[2] "There is no precise rule or formula for making these determinations. The district court may attempt to identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or it may simply reduce an award to account for the limited success. The court necessarily has discretion in making this equitable judgment." Id. at 436-37.

         ANALYSIS

         For years, as this Court has noted previously, attorney's fees have been the tail wagging the dog in this case. Counsel filed a complaint and secured for her client the $1001.00 statutory damages on plaintiffs federal claim, but she was completely unsuccessful with respect to all of the other claims. The majority of plaintiff s state law claims were dismissed, and only her claims under sections 28-3814(f)(5) and 28-3814(g)(5) of the D.C. Debt Collection Law survived defendant's motion to dismiss. See Baylor, 55 F.Supp.3d at 55. Discovery, which should have been relatively circumscribed given the limited nature of the remaining allegations, was wide ranging and marked by extraordinary contentiousness, all of which does little to alleviate the impression that the litigation was largely driven by fees.

         There is no doubt that counsel invested time and effort at the outset to vindicate the rights of her client, and that therefore, under the statute, she is entitled to some compensation for the work she performed to draft the complaint and some of the effort to either settle or litigate the matter thereafter. But the Court agrees completely with the concurring opinion filed by the Circuit Judge in this case that the fee request was not reasonable. See Baylor, 857 F.3d at 955 (Henderson, J., concurring). It is clear from this Court's January 2015 decision adopting the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that while the Court was aware of the scope of a judge's discretion when awarding fees, it felt constrained by its understanding at the time that it was required to apply a clearly erroneous standard and reduce the award only if it was contrary to law. See Baylor, 77 F.Supp.3d at 118-19. But those constraints no longer apply.

         Looking at the matter de novo, though, the Court finds that the fee request was excessive in light of the limited work that was necessary to achieve plaintiffs minimal success in this case. Therefore, the fees will be reduced substantially. Moreover, the Court does not find it to be a reasonable exercise of its discretion to require the defense to pay for the time counsel chose to invest in pursuing the excessive fees, and therefore, while ...


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