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Montanez v. Simon

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 18, 2014

ANDY MONTANEZ, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JOSEPH SIMON, VINCENT FICO, and CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendants-Appellees

Argued November 1, 2013

Page 548

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 549

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 10 C 4708 -- Sheila Finnegan, Magistrate Judge.

For Andy Montanez, Plaintiff - Appellant: Brendan Shiller, Attorney, Shiller Preyar, Chicago, IL.

For JOSEPH SIMON, Officer, Star #16497, VINCENT FICO, Star #6284, City of Chicago, Defendants - Appellees: David DeCelles, Attorney, City of Chicago Law Department, Chicago, IL.

Before POSNER, FLAUM, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 550

Sykes, Circuit Judge

Andy Montanez won a small jury verdict--just $2,000--in this straightforward excessive-force case against two Chicago police officers, but his lawyers racked up enormous legal fees during the course of the litigation. Invoking the fee-shifting statute applicable in civil-rights cases, 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), they submitted a request for more than $400,000 in fees, but the district court awarded only a fraction of that amount. The award will be paid by the City of Chicago, and although it's much less than requested, it's still a huge sum--almost $110,000--in part because the City adopted a scorched-earth defense strategy. This simple civil-rights claim, overlitigated by both sides, took on all the protracted complexity of high-stakes commercial litigation, replete with hard-fought discovery battles and even a mock trial.

The main issue on appeal is whether the City should be required to pay a larger portion of Montanez's legal fees than the district court ordered. The court trimmed the fee request by striking hours as unnecessary or improperly documented, reducing the lawyers' billing rates, and slashing the resulting " lodestar" figure in half to account for the limited success on the merits.

We review an award of attorney's fees deferentially. Trial judges are in a better position to determine what fees are " reasonable" in a given case. See § 1988(b) (allowing " a reasonable attorney's fee" to the prevailing party in a successful suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983). This is especially true when the plaintiff is only partially successful; setting a reasonable fee for limited success is necessarily imprecise. We find no abuse of discretion in the district court's painstaking analysis of the billing records or in its lodestar reduction; the court's approach reflects the perfectly sensible conclusion that the case was overstaffed

Page 551

and much of the billed time was unjustified.

We take this opportunity to remind trial judges that where a fee-shifting statute is in play, the court has the opportunity and the discretion to check runaway attorney's fees while the litigation is underway, not just when reviewing a fee request after the case has concluded. Early and active use of the court's case-management authority can help prevent excessive fees before they accrue.

I. Background

Andy Montanez sued the City of Chicago and Police Officers Vincent Fico and Joseph Simon, alleging that Fico used excessive force while arresting him (for drinking on a public way) and Simon failed to intervene to stop it. He sustained minor injuries during the arrest, for which he sought damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights) and several state-law theories. He also brought a claim against the City based on its duty to indemnify the police officers. The case was assigned to a magistrate judge, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and the state-law claims were dismissed as time-barred. The City conceded its obligation to indemnify, so only the § 1983 claims proceeded to trial. Officer Fico was found liable, Officer Simon was cleared, and the jury awarded $1,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000 in punitive damages.

Having secured this $2,000 judgment for their client, Montanez's lawyers submitted a bill for more than $426,000 in attorneys' fees and about $6,500 in costs and expenses. The City challenged most of the request as unreasonable. The judge resolved the dispute by meticulously scrutinizing the bill line by line, striking entries that she determined were unnecessary, duplicative, excessive, or improperly documented.

Seven lawyers had billed approximately 1,021 hours on the case. Three of the lawyers were only tangentially involved, cumulatively billing less than 10 hours; the judge excluded their time entirely. Carefully reviewing the remaining hours, the judge discounted entries where more than one partner oversaw the same activities, or where the lawyers researched or drafted motions that were never filed. She also excluded the hours the lawyers spent on a full-day mock trial. She struck entries related to matters that were essentially administrative--such as time spent deciding which attorneys would handle the lawsuit and hours billed for " trying to find" Montanez--on the rationale that the City should not be billed for these case-management problems. The judge discounted or disallowed other vaguely or improperly billed entries, such as time spent by partners on tasks that could have been delegated to paralegals, unspecified " call[s] to client" and his family, and more than three hours a partner billed while shopping for clothes for a witness.

The judge also reduced the hourly billing rates. The two lead lawyers--partners in the firm with nine and thirteen years' experience, respectively--sought a rate of $400 per hour for the first two years of work on the case, $425 per hour for the third year, and $450 per hour for the last year. The judge concluded that these rates could not be justified by reference to the billing rates of comparably qualified lawyers in the Chicago market for ยง 1983 litigation. After conducting her own assessment of the market, the judge settled on an hourly rate of $385 for the two lead ...


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