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Vargas v. Howell

United States District Court, D. Nevada

February 27, 2018

DANIEL VARGAS, Plaintiff(s),
AMBER HOWELL, et al., Defendant(s).


         Presently before the court is plaintiff Daniel Vargas's motion for attorney's fees. (ECF No. 92). Defendants Shaun Briley, Richard Gloeckner, James Goodson, Amber Howell, Deborah Knotts, Steve McBride, John Olson, and Russel Taylor filed a response (ECF No. 99), to which plaintiff replied (ECF No. 102).

         I. Facts

         Plaintiff is a civil rights litigant who challenged defendants' treatment of him at the Nevada Youth Training Center (“NYTC, ” a center for juvenile delinquents). (ECF No. 10). The parties are well aware of the allegations in the underlying complaint, which the court detailed in its order on defendants' motions for summary judgment. (ECF No. 49).

         Plaintiff was initially represented by Al Lasso of Lasso Injury Law and Paola Armeni, who was then working for Gordon Silver.[1] (ECF No. 92). On November 13, 2015, Christiansen Law Offices (“CLO”) associated as counsel for plaintiff. Id.

         Plaintiff sought damages between $1, 136, 453.62 and $1, 541, 833.62, exclusive of emotional distress, future medical expenses, disability services, and pain and suffering from the date of the incident. (ECF No. 100 at 160). Plaintiff's damages calculation included alleged past medical expenses of $119, 651.62. Id.

         The parties settled the case on March 9, 2017, for $99, 999. (ECF No. 101 at 184). The settlement included a clause stating that plaintiff was the prevailing party and his attorney could move for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Id. The settlement did not contain an admission of fault by defendants or request injunctive relief. Id. at 183-190.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2) allows a party to file a motion for attorney's fees if it: (1) is filed within 14 days after judgment is entered; (2) identifies the legal basis for the award; and (3) indicates the amount requested or an estimate thereof.

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) authorizes a court to exercise its discretion whether to allow a prevailing party in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case “reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.” Reasonable attorney's fees are based on the “lodestar” calculation set forth in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The court must first determine a reasonable fee by multiplying “the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation” by “a reasonable hourly rate.” Id. “The district court . . . should exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were ‘not reasonably expended.'” Id. at 433-34. Thus, the “court has discretion to ‘trim fat' from, or otherwise reduce, the number of hours claimed to have been spent on the case.” Edwards v. Nat'l Bus. Factors, Inc., 897 F.Supp. 458, 460-61 (D. Nev. 1995).

         After calculating the lodestar amount, the court can further adjust the lodestar calculation by considering the following factors:

(1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly, (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case, (5) the customary fee, (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent, (7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances, (8) the amount involved and the results obtained, (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys, (10) the ‘undesirability' of the case, (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client, and (12) awards in similar cases.

Kerr v. Screen Extras Guild, Inc., 526 F.2d 67, 70 (9th Cir. 1975), abrogated on other grounds by City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557 (1992); see also Stetson v. Grissom, 821 F.3d 1157, 1166-67 (9th Cir. 2016). A court's explanation of an attorney's fees award “need not be elaborate, but it must be comprehensible.” Moreno v. City of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1111 (9th Cir. 2008). “As Hensley described it, the explanation must be concise but clear.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

         III. Discussion

         a. Request for attorney's fees

         Plaintiff's motion seeks $254, 361.58 in attorney's fees. (ECF No. 92 at 9). The fee breakdown attributes $197, 675.00 to CLO, $32, 120.00 to Lasso Injury Law, and $24, 566.58 to Gentile Cristalli Miller Armeni Savarese (“GCMAS”).[2]

         Defendants argue that plaintiff's problems with his case were knowable ex ante, and plaintiff's attorneys pursued unwise litigation strategies in attempts to artificially inflate the importance of the case.[3] Defendant asserts that the majority of plaintiff's hours spent on this case were unreasonable, and plaintiff's request should be cut by 90%. (ECF No. 99 at 21).

         The Ninth Circuit has described a reasonable number of hours in the context of civil rights litigation as “[t]he number of hours . . . [that] could reasonably have been billed to a private client.” Moreno, 534 F.3d at 1111. “Lawyers might reasonably spend $148, 000 worth of time to win $234, 000. But no reasonable person would pay lawyers $148, 000 to win $34, 000.” McGinnis v. Kentucky Fried Chicken of Cal., 51 F.3d 805, 810 (9th Cir. 1994).

         When using the lodestar method, “court[s] [are] not required to set forth an hour-by-hour analysis of the fee request.” Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1399 (9th Cir. 1992). Courts can “make across-the-board percentage cuts either in the number of hours claims or in the final lodestar figure as a practical means of [excluding unreasonable hours] from a fee application.” Id. When performing such reductions, the court should explain its reasoning. Gonzalez v. City of Maywood, 729 F.3d 1196, 1203 (9th Cir. 2013).

         i. The propriety of the request as related to Christiansen Law Offices

         Here, plaintiff requests $197, 675.00 in attorney's fees based on the work performed by attorneys at Christiansen Law Offices. Attorney Terry, the senior lawyer, billed 334.8 hours at $550 an hour. Attorney Barrett, a junior associate, billed 21.80 hours at $450 an hour. Attorney Perdue, a first-year associate at the time, billed 10.50 hours at $350 an hour. Virginia Cano, a law clerk, billed 0.5 hours at $100 an hour.

         Plaintiff argues that counsel “exercised judgment in structuring the work on this matter to maximize efficiencies, and the hours listed in the fee request are neither duplicative, unnecessary, or excessive.” (ECF No. 92 at 10). Plaintiff's primary counsel chose to have its senior attorney, who bills $550 an hour to private clients, spend 335 hours on this case and only delegate 32 hours to junior associates. (ECF No. 92 at 9). The senior attorney spent an inordinate amount of time conducting tasks that could have been delegated to an attorney with less experience (and a lower billing rate) or to a paralegal.[4] (See ECF No. 92 at 26-35). These tasks include discovery review, creating a timeline of events, preparing stipulations and notices, and conducting extensive legal research, amongst others. See Id. Plaintiff's motion, affidavit, and billing entries do not demonstrate appropriate judgment in structuring workload to maximize efficiencies.

         Further, plaintiff's itemization of work contains numerous redundancies and demonstrates that counsel spent an unreasonable amount of time getting up to speed on the case, conducting discovery review, and drafting motions. Id. Additionally, defendants note a filing on August 19, 2016, related to a motion for reconsideration might be ...

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