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Gracia v. Sigmatron International, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 23, 2016

MARIA N. GRACIA, Plaintiff,
v.
SIGMATRON INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Edmond E. Chang United States District Judge.

         Maria Gracia filed this lawsuit against her former employer, SigmaTron International, Inc., alleging workplace harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.[1] See R. 1, Compl.[2]On December 18, 2014, after a three-day trial, a jury returned a verdict for Gracia on her retaliation claim. R. 184, 12/18/14 Minute Entry. Gracia now moves under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs as permitted by Title VII and 28 U.S.C. § 1920. See R. 280, Pl.'s Fee Mot.; see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). SigmaTron in turn seeks to keep specified portions of Gracia's motion under seal. See R. 281, Def.'s Mot. to Seal. For the reasons stated below, Gracia's motion for attorneys' fees and costs is granted in part and denied in part, and SigmaTron's motion to maintain the seal is denied.

         I. Background

         The Court has previously detailed the facts of this case in its summary judgment opinion, R. 87, 10/25/13 Opinion, and its post-trial opinions, R. 204, 4/21/15 Opinion; R. 222, 9/17/15 Opinion, so only the most pertinent facts are set forth here.

         Gracia worked for SigmaTron from 1999 to 2008. In late 2008, Gracia told SigmaTron and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she was being harassed by her immediate supervisor. Shortly after she complained, SigmaTron fired Gracia, and in October 2011, Gracia filed this lawsuit, alleging workplace discrimination and hostile work environment on the basis of gender and national origin (Count One) and retaliation (Count Two) in violation of Title VII. See Compl.

         Following three years of litigation and a three-day trial, a jury returned a verdict for Gracia on her retaliation claim.[3] 12/18/14 Minute Entry. The jury awarded Gracia $57, 000 in compensatory damages and $250, 000 in punitive damages. Id. SigmaTron thereafter moved for a new trial, judgment as a matter of law, and remittitur of the damages award. See R. 196. The Court denied SigmaTron's motions for judgment as a matter of law and a new trial, but granted SigmaTron's motion for remittitur only to lower the compensatory damages award to $50, 000 so that the overall damages award would not exceed the statutory cap of $300, 000, see 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D). See 4/21/15 Opinion. The Court later determined that Gracia was also entitled to $74, 478.14 in equitable damages. See 9/17/15 Opinion. Final judgment-in the amount of $374, 478.14-was entered on September 17, 2015, see R. 223, and SigmaTron timely appealed to the Seventh Circuit, [4] R. 228.

         Gracia has since filed a bill of costs and a motion for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), 28 U.S.C. § 1920, and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). See Pl.'s Fee Mot.; R. 233, Bill of Costs; R. 286-2, Am. Bill of Costs. Gracia seeks $262, 500.00 in attorneys' fees, $5, 574.97 in non-taxable expenses, and $7, 216.24[5] in taxable costs. See Pl.'s Fee Mot. at 1; Am. Bill of Costs. SigmaTron in turn has objected to the bulk of the costs that Gracia seeks, as well as to the hourly rate requested for Gracia's attorneys, see R. 266, Def.'s Obj. to Bill of Costs; R. 285, Def.'s Fee Mot. Resp., and has filed a motion to keep certain information in Gracia's fee motion under seal, Def.'s Mot. to Seal.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party [in a Title VII action] . . . a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.” Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(1) allows a prevailing party to recover costs other than attorneys' fees unless a federal statute, federal rule, or court order states otherwise.

         III. Analysis

         Gracia seeks to recover $262, 500.00 in attorneys' fees, $5, 574.97 in non-taxable costs, and $7, 216.24 in taxable costs from SigmaTron.[6] See Pl.'s Fee Mot. at 1; Am. Bill of Costs. With regard to attorneys' fees, SigmaTron agrees that the hours billed by Gracia's attorneys, Kathryn Korn and Hall Adams, were reasonable. See R.280-1, 12/4/15 Letter from SigmaTron at 1 (“In the spirit of Local Rule 54.3, SigmaTron will not object to the number of hours Plaintiff is seeking for Hall Adams's time . . . or to the number of hours Plaintiff is seeking for Kathryn Korn's time . . . .”). SigmaTron objects, however, to the hourly rate that Gracia seeks for both Korn and Adams. See Def.'s Fee Mot. Resp. With regard to costs, SigmaTron claims that (1) the taxable expenses sought via the bill of costs cannot be recovered because the bill of costs was not accompanied by an affidavit or any substantiating documentation, see Def.'s Obj. to Bill of Costs; Def.'s Fee Mot. Resp. at 14-15, and (2) the majority of the non-taxable expenses sought cannot be recovered because they should have been included in the bill of costs or were not reasonable or necessary, see Def.'s Fee Mot. Resp. at 12-14. SigmaTron also seeks to keep portions of Gracia's fee motion sealed-in particular, all references to the number of Howard & Howard attorneys that represented SigmaTron, the Howard & Howard attorneys' hourly rates, and the total amount of attorneys' fees SigmaTron paid Howard & Howard for its defense. See Def.'s Mot. to Seal at 2-3. The Court addresses each of SigmaTron's objections, as well as SigmaTron's motion to maintain the seal, in turn.

         A. Hourly Rate

         To determine a reasonable attorney's fee, district courts use the lodestar method, “multiplying the ‘number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation . . . by a reasonable hourly rate.'” Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 639 (7th Cir. 2011) (Pickett II) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). Here, SigmaTron does not object to the time billed by Gracia's attorneys, see 12/4/15 Letter from SigmaTron at 1, so the Court need only determine what constitutes a reasonable hourly rate for both Korn and Adams. “A reasonable hourly rate is based on the local market rate for the attorney's services.” Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 553 (7th Cir. 2014). To figure out the market rate, there is ideal evidence and (absent the ideal evidence) next-best evidence:

The best evidence of the market rate is the amount the attorney actually bills for similar work, but if that rate can't be determined, then the district court may rely on evidence of rates charged by similarly experienced attorneys in the community and evidence of rates set for the attorney in similar cases.

Id. As between the two “next-best” alternatives, the Seventh Circuit has “indicated a preference for third party affidavits that attest to the billing rates of comparable attorneys.” Pickett II, 664 F.3d at 640. That said, “conclusory affidavits from attorneys ‘merely opin[ing]' on the reasonableness of another attorney's fee-unlike affidavits describing what ‘comparable attorneys charge for similar services'-have little probative value.” Montanez, 755 F.3d at 554 (quoting Pickett II, 664 F.3d at 647).

         The party seeking the fee award bears the burden of establishing the market rate for their attorneys' services. Montanez, 755 F.3d at 553. Should the party fail to carry that burden, the Court can independently determine the appropriate hourly rate. Id. Once the party seeking the award has met their burden, however, the opposing party has the burden of demonstrating why a lower rate should be awarded. People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., Sch. Dist. No. 205, 90 F.3d 1307, 1313 (7th Cir. 1996). That said, if the Court “decides that [a] proffered rate overstates the value of an attorney's services, it may lower [the rate] accordingly.” Mathur v. Bd. of Trs. of S. Ill. Univ., 317 F.3d 738, 743 (7th Cir. 2003); see Chrapliwy v. Uniroyal, Inc., 670 F.2d 760, 767 (7th Cir. 1982) (“A judge may well approach high rates with skepticism, and he may exercise some discretion in lowering such rates.”).

         1. Hall Adams

         Gracia asks the Court to award Adams a billing rate of $500 per hour in this matter. See Pl.'s Fee Mot. at 3. In support of this request, Gracia has supplied billing records from another case in which Adams billed a different client $500 per hour. R. 280-5 at Exh. A, Hall Adams's Invoices. Although it is true that the invoices do not explicitly say what type of case these bills are for, see Def.'s Fee Mot. Resp. at 10-11, the descriptions of the services rendered prove that it is a civil litigation matter and that Adams billed this client for his services as a litigator. See R. 280-5 at Exh. A, Hall Adams's Invoices at 6, 8, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 (referencing work preparing a complaint and a motion for summary judgment, responding to a motion for summary judgment, reviewing a Seventh Circuit employment-law case, and attending status hearings). What's more, some of the billing entries show that the subject matter is employment related: Adams billed time to the client to review a Seventh Circuit employment-law case, Hess v. Bresney, 784 F.3d 1154 (7th Cir. 2015), and to hold a telephone conference and correspond about resignation agreements. R. 280-5 at Exh. A, Hall ...


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