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Riddle v. National Security Agency

April 23, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Geraldine Soat Brown United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown

District Judge Ronald Guzman


Following the entry of a stipulated judgment against defendants, plaintiffs filed the present motion seeking an award of $77,812.21 in attorneys' fees and $2,230.81 in costs. (Pls.' Mot. at 2.) [Dkt 173.]*fn1 The motion was referred here for decision. [Dkt 178.] For the reasons set forth herein, the motion is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiffs are awarded fees in the amount of $23,061.04 and costs in the amount of $739.30.


Plaintiffs Linda Riddle and Ricardo Woods filed this action in October 2005, alleging putative class claims for fraud and for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act ("IWPCA"). (Compl.) [Dkt 1.] On September 13, 2007, a portion of the FLSA claim was certified as a collective action, although supplemental jurisdiction over the other two claims was declined. [Dkt 107.]

In 2009, the parties reached a settlement, and a stipulated judgment was subsequently entered providing for specific payments to the two named plaintiffs and 17 opt-in plaintiffs. (Stip. J.) [Dkt 172.] The court retained jurisdiction to adjudicate the issue of attorney's fees pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 54. (Id.) Counsel for the parties subsequently conferred pursuant to Northern District of Illinois Local Rule 54.3, trying to reach a compromise about the fees to be awarded to plaintiffs' counsel.

Because the parties were unable to agree on fees, plaintiffs filed the present motion for an award of fees and costs. (Pls.' Mot.) Pursuant to Local Rule 54.3(e), the parties also submitted a joint statement of the fees and costs at issue. (Joint Stmt.) Defendants filed their response to the motion (Defs.' Resp.) [dkt 181], and plaintiffs filed their reply (Pls.' Reply) [dkt 183].

When the motion was first referred, the court assumed that it could be resolved quickly -- as attorney's fees petitions should be. But the parties' disputes have made this a much longer and more complex process than anticipated. "A request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983).


I. Attorney's Fees

Attorney's fees awards in FLSA cases The FLSA provides that, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff(s), "[t]he court . . . shall . . . allow a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). "Prevailing plaintiffs, which may include plaintiffs who favorably settle their cases, are entitled to reasonable attorney's fees under the FLSA." Small v. Richard Wolf Med. Instruments Corp., 264 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2001). Here, plaintiffs have prevailed by virtue of the stipulated judgment entered in their favor. See Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 550 (7th Cir. 1999). Defendants do not oppose that conclusion, although they challenge the degree of plaintiffs' success.

The court has discretion in determining the appropriate amount of an attorney's fee award to a prevailing party. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id. at 433. That initial figure is commonly referred to as the lodestar amount. Spegon, 175 F.3d at 550. The party seeking the fee award bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of the hours worked and the hourly rates claimed. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 436. In submitting a request for fees, counsel should exercise billing judgment: "Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission." Id. at 434. Similarly, the district court has the obligation to exclude from this initial calculation any hours that are inadequately documented or that were not reasonably expended on the litigation. Id. at 433-34; Spegon, 175 F.3d 550; People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., 90 F.3d 1307, 1314 (7th Cir. 1996).

Once the lodestar amount is determined, the court may then adjust the award for a number of factors, "including the important factor of the 'results obtained.'" Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; Spegon, 175 F.3d at 550; Spanish Action Comm. of Chicago v. City of Chicago, 811 F.2d 1129, 1138 (7th Cir. 1987). "This factor is particularly crucial where a plaintiff is deemed 'prevailing' even though he succeeded on only some of his claims for relief." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. When considering a fee award where the plaintiff has been partially successful, the court must determine whether the unsuccessful claims were unrelated to the successful claims, or whether the unsuccessful claims stemmed from a common core of facts or legal theories related to the successful claims. Id. at 434-35. Time spent on related claims that ultimately prove unsuccessful should not automatically be excluded from the fee calculation. Instead, the focus should be "on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation." Id. at 435; accord Spanish Action Comm., 811 F.2d at 1133. "The standard is whether the fees are reasonable in relation to the difficulty, stakes, and outcome of the case." Gastineau v. Wright, 592 F.3d 747, 748 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Connolly v. Natl. School Bus Serv., Inc., 177 F.3d 593, 597 (7th Cir. 1999)).

Local Rule 54.3 and the Parties' Submissions

Local Rule 54.3 imposes on counsel for the parties the obligation to "confer and attempt in good faith to agree on the amount of fees or related nontaxable expenses that should be awarded," and to exchange certain specified information. N.D. Ill. L.R. 54.3(d). The rule is designed to enable the parties to exchange sufficient information so that they may attempt to reach a compromise about the fees to be awarded. Jones v. Ameriquest Mortg. Co., No. 05 C 0432, 2008 WL 4686152 at *2 (N.D. Ill. May 19, 2008). If a compromise cannot be reached, the party seeking fees may file a motion, attaching a joint statement prepared by both parties. N.D. Ill. L.R. 54.3(e). The joint statement must specify, inter alia, the total amount of fees or related expenses sought, the total amount which the responding party believes should be awarded, and "a brief description of each specific dispute remaining between the parties as to the fees or expenses." Id. "Rule 54.3 was adopted by the district court as a means of reducing the time spent on fee disputes." Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Menard, Inc., No. 01 C 9843, 2004 WL 2423964 at *1 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 23, 2004). Following the rule compels the parties to focus on specifics, and should result in the presentation of "discrete objections to specific items in the fee petition that can be ruled upon with relative dispatch." Id.

According to plaintiffs, counsel for the parties met "face to face twice and mutually exchanged required time and work records." (Pls.' Mot. at 2.) Despite those efforts, the parties agreed on very little. In fact, the parties do not even agree on what was agreed. Plaintiffs seek $77,812.21 in fees and $2,230.81 in costs. (Joint Stmt., Ex. A.) Defendants "declined to specify an acceptable fee amount" and "contest all claimed attorney hours . . . not marked with an X" on a summary table defendants prepared which is attached as Exhibit B to the parties' joint statement. (Joint Stmt. at 2; id., Ex. B.) On that summary table, defendants listed plaintiffs' counsel's time entries and their respective objections, marking a number of entries with an "X." Although defendants state that the total of entries so marked is 23 hours, by the court's calculation the total in the joint statement is several hours more. (Joint Stmt., Ex. B.)*fn2 Plaintiffs fare no better in describing the agreed hours, first as 23 (Pls.' Mot. at 2) and then as 29 (Pls.' Mot. at 8). Even as to this small number of hours -- less than 10% of what plaintiffs seek -- defendants argue that the time only "is perhaps partially compensable" due to plaintiffs' limited success. (Joint Stmt. at 2) (emphasis added.) Defendants do not, however, offer a suggested amount to which they would agree, and instead urge the court to deny plaintiffs' request entirely. (Defs.' Resp. at 15.)

Plaintiffs argue that defendants' objections to the requested fees are so broad as to be frivolous and ask that they be overruled in their entirety. (Pls.' Reply at 1, 15.) Plaintiffs' argument has some force; plaintiffs prevailed in the litigation, and common sense suggests that some attorney time was necessary to do so. On the other hand, plaintiffs' submission is plainly overbroad, too. It does not appear to reflect an effort to exercise billing judgment and remove excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours, as Hensley directs. On the contrary, plaintiffs' lead counsel states that, in his professional judgment, "all attorney time" shown on the time records was reasonable and necessary. (Fuoco Aff. ¶ 17.)

Further complicating matters, plaintiffs' and defendants' submissions are not consistent, either internally or when compared with each other. Defendants oppose an award of attorney's fees based on a variety of objections, and they support those objections with no less than 15 exhibits, including 13 categorical charts (each based on the subject matter of the objection), a "recap" chart of objections, and a "chronological response" to plaintiffs' time entries. (Defs.' Resp., Exs. 1-15.) Defendants' recap chart shows objections of more than 375 hours, notwithstanding the fact that plaintiffs seek an award of 342.4 hours (less the previously granted fee award). (Id., Ex. 1.)*fn3 This is so because defendants object to certain time entries on more than one basis. If a time entry is not compensable, however, it can only be removed from the calculation once. Defendants also submitted a chronological response to plaintiffs' billing records, but that response is neither a marked-up copy of plaintiffs' submitted records nor an identical transcription of those records.*fn4

What is more, defendants' objections on their chronological response are not identical to their objections set forth in the categorical charts.*fn5

Hensley and its progeny require the court to assess the fee request to determine whether the hours sought should be awarded. Here, the parties' submissions complicated the court's analysis of the ancillary issue of attorney's fees disproportionately to the scope and nature of the underlying litigation.

A. Initial Lodestar Amount

Plaintiffs seek an award of $77,812.21 for the time spent by three attorneys involved in this case.*fn6 Included in the request are: 298.80 hours expended by their lead counsel, Steven C. Fuoco; 41.90 hours expended by attorney Kimberly Carpenter; and 1.70 hours expended by attorney Tanya Petermann. (Joint Stmt., Ex. A.) Plaintiffs request a billing rate of $245 per hour for Mr. Fuoco, $190 per hour for Ms. Carpenter, and $100 per hour for Ms. Petermann, and they submit evidence in support of the requested rates. (Id.; Fuoco Aff.; id. Exs. 1, 3, 4.) Defendants do not object to the hourly rates claimed for any of plaintiffs' attorneys. Once plaintiffs provide evidence of their counsel's billing rate, the defendants bear the burden of demonstrating "why a lower rate ...

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