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Service Employees International Union National Industry Pension Fund v. Jersey City Healthcare Providers, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 3, 2019

SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION NATIONAL INDUSTRY PENSION FUND, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
JERSEY CITY HEALTHCARE PROVIDERS, LLC, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs, Service Employees International Union National Industry Pension Fund and the Fund's Trustees, bring this action against Defendant, Jersey City Healthcare Providers, LLC, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). See 29 U.S.C. § 1001. On February 13, 2019, the Court granted Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and awarded Plaintiffs $34, 383.66 in outstanding contributions, liquidated damages, interest, and audit testing fees. See Feb. 13, 2019 Order, ECF No. 21. In the Order granting summary judgment, the Court indicated that, “[a]s Plaintiffs have prevailed on their Motion for Summary Judgment, they may move for attorneys' fees and costs as well as any additional interest that accrued subsequent to filing their Complaint.” Id. That motion is currently before the Court.

         Defendant does not contest Plaintiffs' entitlement to accrued interest, eligibility for attorneys' fees, or Plaintiffs' counsel's billing rates. Instead, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs requested amount of attorneys' fees is unreasonable given the nature of the case.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record for purposes of this motion, the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs' [23] Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs and Additional Interest. The Court concludes that the amount of attorneys' fees is reasonable given the circumstances of this case. Therefore, the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs' request as to a total of $18, 824.00 in attorneys' fees (including fees on fees), $495.00 in costs, and $3, 904.43 in additional accrued interest and awards those amounts. As no other issues remain, this case is dismissed in its entirety.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual background of this case is laid out in detail in the Court's February 13, 2019 Memorandum Opinion, ECF No. 22, 2-6. For purposes of deciding Plaintiffs' pending Motion, the Court adopts and incorporates the factual background from the Court's prior Memorandum Opinion.

         In summary, on August 15, 2017, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit under ERISA to collect unpaid contributions, interest, liquidated damages, and audit testing fees. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. The parties subsequently engaged in discovery. See generally Joint Discovery Plan, ECF No. 15. Plaintiffs then moved for summary judgment, and on February 13, 2019, the Court granted Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment. Feb. 13, 2019 Order, ECF No. 21. The Court ordered Defendant to pay Plaintiffs $34, 383.66 in outstanding contributions, liquidated damages, interest, and audit testing fees. Id. Because Plaintiffs prevailed in their ERISA suit, they have now moved for attorneys' fees and costs as well as additional accrued interest.

         II. DISCUSSION

         ERISA provides that the defendant must pay the reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred by the plaintiff in an action seeking delinquent contributions. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2)(D). “D.C. courts recognize that the ‘usual method of calculating reasonable attorney's fees is to multiply the hours reasonably expended in the litigation by a reasonable hourly fee, producing the ‘lodestar' amount.'” Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 562 F.Supp.2d 159, 175 (D.D.C. 2008), rev'd on other grounds, 610 F.3d 747 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Bd. of Trs. of the Hotel & Rest. Emples. Local 25 v. JPR, Inc., 136 F.3d 794, 801 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). Plaintiffs, as the party seeking fees, bear the burden of establishing the reasonableness of their request. Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 970 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

         Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys' fees. Additionally, Defendants do not dispute the hourly rates charged by counsel. Plaintiffs' counsel charged the following rates for the legal services provided in this case: partners billed at $220.00 per hour, associates billed at $195.00 per hour, and paralegals billed at $120.00 per hour. Bardes Dec., ECF No. 23-1, ¶ 12. These rates are lower than those approved of by the Laffey matrix maintained by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. Under the USAO Laffey matrix, the following market rates would apply: $352.00 per hour for Diana Bardes and Lauren McDermott, two partners with seven years' experience; $602.00 per hour for John Mooney, a partner with 34 years' experience; $346.00 per hour for Matthew Watts, an associate with four years' experience; and $164.00 for Caitlin Cooper, a paralegal. Id. at ¶ 17.[2] Additionally, Plaintiffs introduced evidence that counsel's billing rates were less than those charged by other firms of reasonable comparable skill, experience, and reputation in this geographical area that have an employees' benefits practice. Id. at ¶¶ 18-19 (comparing the billing rates of other firms). Based on the evidence produced by Plaintiffs, as well as the lack of opposition by Defendant, the Court concludes that counsel's billing rate was fair, and the Court's analysis will focus instead on the reasonableness of the number of hours billed.

         Plaintiffs' counsel had five members completing work on matters for this case. Ms. Bardes, a partner with seven years' experience, billed 57.2 hours; Ms. Cooper, a paralegal, billed 20.2 hours; Mr. Watts, an associate with four years' experience, billed 5.8 hours; Ms. McDermott, a partner with seven years' experience, billed 2.2 hours; and Mr. Mooney, a partner with 34 years' experience, billed 0.7 hours. Id. at ¶¶ 6-10. In total, Plaintiffs' counsel billed 86.1 hours in connection with this case. These hours were primarily spent: (1) researching the collective bargaining agreement and Defendant; (2) preparing and filing the Complaint; (3) completing discovery and depositions; (4) preparing and filing Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and Reply in support of that Motion; (5) communicating with Defendant and defense counsel regarding the unpaid contributions. Id. at ¶ 15.

         Defendant has two primary arguments as to why Plaintiffs' counsel billed an unreasonable number of hours. First, Defendant contends that much of the content in Plaintiffs' filings was boilerplate and copied from filings in other, similar cases that Plaintiffs' counsel has litigated. Second, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs' counsel inappropriately shifted work onto its senior legal staff who billed at a higher rate. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         First, Defendant contends that Plaintiffs' counsel is not entitled to its full requested compensation because much of the information in its filings was boilerplate and taken from previous cases. In its Opposition, Defendant claims to have conducted a random tracking of paragraphs in Plaintiffs' Complaint and found nearly word-for-word similarities between the Complaint in this case and complaints that Plaintiffs' counsel previously filed in similar cases. Def.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 24, 2-4. Defendant did the same for Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment, finding nearly word-for-word similarities between the Motion for Summary Judgment in this case and motions that Plaintiffs' counsel has made in other ERISA matters. Id. at 4-11. Defendant contends that, because Plaintiffs' counsel was traveling down a “well-worn path” throughout this case, the fee request should be reduced. Boivin v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 446 F.3d 148, 151 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         The Court agrees with Defendant that certain language from both Plaintiffs' Complaint and Motion for Summary Judgment has been used in prior litigation. However, given the nature of this “boilerplate” ...


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