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Lee v. City of Chicago

December 18, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. George W. Lindberg


Before the court is plaintiff Walter Lee's ("Lee") motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Plaintiff is the undisputed prevailing party in this case and his counsel is requesting an award of $82,190.00 in attorneys' fees. Defendants object to that request, claiming plaintiff's attorneys are only entitled to $15,346.50 in fees. For the reasons set forth more fully below, the motion for attorneys' fees is granted in part and denied in part. The final fee award is $37,402.50.

I. Relevant Facts

This was a rather straightforward civil rights case filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. At the time plaintiff accepted defendants' offer of judgment for $20,001.00, the parties were still responding to written discovery requests and had only taken one deposition-plaintiff's. Despite resolving this case prior to conducting significant oral discovery, filing motions for summary judgment or preparing for trial, plaintiff's counsel devoted more than 330 hours to this case. Defendants claim that some of plaintiff's counsels' hourly billing rates and hours spent on this case are excessive and the Court agrees.

II. Legal Analysis

To put this fee petition into perspective, the Court looks to a Judge Pallmeyer's order in Santiago v. Rodriguez, 04 C 7677 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 28, 2008). Similar to Lee's case, Santiago involved alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, Santiago was considerably more complex than the instant case. Santiago was a consolidated case with three plaintiffs, four defendants and more than ten disputed claims. After a six-day jury trial, the jury returned a split verdict and awarded $10,000 to one plaintiff and $9,000 and another plaintiff. The final fee award in that case, after a six-day jury trial and extensive oral discovery, was $81,706.92. A fee award in this case similar to the one in Santiago does not seem appropriate or reasonable. Fee award determinations are inherently fact-intensive and the Court's determination of the award is accorded significant deference. Robinson v. City of Harvey, 489 F.3d 864, 872 (7th Cir. 2007).

A. Counsel's Hourly Rate

Plaintiff's counsel seeks fees for three attorneys and various paralegals. Plaintiff's lead counsel, Lawrence Jackowiak, seeks an hourly rate of $325, which defendants do not contest and the Court finds reasonable. Defendants also do not object to a paralegal hourly rate of $100. The Court also finds that rate reasonable. Two associates at Mr. Jackowiak's firm, Daniel Kiss and Louis Meyer, also worked on this case. Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer seek hourly rates of $275 and $225, respectively. The defendants object to both rates and argue that reasonable hourly rates for Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer are $200 and $170, respectively.

In order to determine reasonable hourly rates for Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer, the Court considers "the rate that lawyers of similar ability and experience in their communities normally charge their paying clients for the type of work in question." Harper v. City of Chicago Heights, 223 F.3d 593, 604 (7th Cir. 2000)(quoting Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 555 (7th Cir. 1999)). For Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer, who recover fees on a contingency basis and through court-awarded fees, the Court looks "to rates charged by other attorneys of similar abilities and experience, fee awards in previous cases, and the attorneys' credentials" to determinate a reasonable hourly rate. Santiago v. Rodriguez, 04 C 7677 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 28, 2008)(citing People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. Of Educ., Sch. Dist. No. 205, 90 F.3d 1307, 1311-13 (7th Cir. 1996)). Plaintiff's counsel bear the burden of establishing that their requested rates are reasonable and appropriate. Harper, 175 F.3d at 604. Affidavits by Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer, without more, are not sufficient to meet their burden. Id.

Mr. Kiss is a 1998 law school graduate who began practicing civil rights law in 2007. Prior to joining Mr. Jackowiak's firm in 2007, Mr. Kiss served as a Cook County public defender and gained extensive criminal trial experience. In support of his request for $275 an hour, Mr. Kiss cites to his own affidavit in which he states that his "billing rate is $275 per hour" and that he "believes [that] rate is reasonable." Mr. Kiss does not provide any evidence that he actually billed clients at a rate of $275 per hour, or that any court has ever awarded him such a rate. He states that he tried two jury trials in the Northern District of Illinois this year, but he did not prevail in their case. In the reply brief in support of the instant motion, Mr. Kiss included an affidavit from another civil rights attorney, Mr. Kasbohm, but all Mr. Kasbohm states is that he believes the $275 rate is reasonable. Mr. Kasbohm does not state that an attorney with Mr. Kiss's experience has actually been awarded such a rate.

Mr. Meyer's support for his requested hourly rate of $225 is similarly scant. Mr. Meyer is a 2006 law school graduate, who has served as trial counsel in six civil rights jury trials in the Northern District of Illinois. Because Mr. Kiss and Mr. Meyer did not provide the court with any evidence regarding what hourly rates they, or any other attorneys with similar experience to them, have actually received from paying clients or through a court award, the court looks to the award Judge Pallmeyer granted in Santiago. Judge Pallmeyer awarded attorney Amanda Yarusso, a 2003 law school graduate who tried four cases, $200 per hour. Using that award as a guide, the Court finds that $175 per hour is a reasonable rate for Mr. Meyer and $225 is a reasonable rate for Mr. Kiss.

B. Counsel's Billable Time

Now, the Court turns to the reasonableness of expending 330 hours in a straightforward, civil rights case before the parties even began extensive oral discovery. In ruling on the pending fee petition, the Court is expected to exclude hours that are "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Hensley v. Echerhard, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983). However, the Court is not required to perform a "line by line" review of the hours plaintiff's counsel billed. See Divane v. Krull Elec. Co., 319 F.3d 307, 317 (7th Cir. 2003).

The court is very familiar with this case and the slow pace at which it progressed. There was more than a six month delay in identifying potential defendant police officers, attributable to both sides. Plaintiff's counsel also caused an additional three month delay by neglecting to serving three defendant officers due to a "clerical error" in their office. ...

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