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Christian Assembly Rios De Agua Viva v. City of Burbank, Illinois

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

May 2, 2018

CHRISTIAN ASSEMBLY RIOS DE AGUA VIVA, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BURBANK, ILLINOIS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          SARA L.ELLIS, United States District Judge

         After years of litigation over Plaintiff Christian Assembly Rios de Agua Viva's (the “Church”) failed attempt to purchase property in the City of Burbank, Illinois (the “City”) with the intent to use that property for religious purposes, the parties reached a settlement on January 8, 2018 on the eve of a damages trial. The Court had previously found that the City's prior zoning ordinance violated the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, and that the Church could recover damages on this specific claim. See Doc. 113 at 16-24. Pursuant to the terms of the settlement, the City agreed to pay the Church $176, 000, with the Court resolving the matter of attorneys' fees and costs. The parties further agreed that the Church would only seek fees related to the litigation of the case in federal court, and not its state court component, and that the Church could recover fees for litigating the fee petition. The Church filed its fee petition on February 8, 2018, requesting $747, 025.00 in attorneys' fees and $10, 202.45 in costs. Having reviewed the Church's petition and the City's objections, the Court finds reasonable a reduced award of $234, 627.75 in attorneys' fees, with additional fees for the litigation of the fee petition and costs to be determined upon the submission of additional documentation.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court may, in its discretion, award reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in an RLUIPA action. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). In deciding the reasonable award of attorneys' fees, the Court begins by calculating the lodestar amount. Johnson v. GDF, Inc., 668 F.3d 927, 929 (7th Cir. 2012). The lodestar amount is calculated by multiplying the hours reasonably expended by the plaintiff's attorneys by their reasonable hourly rates. Id. The Court may then adjust the lodestar amount depending on a variety of factors, including the degree of success, the novelty and difficulty of the issues, awards in similar cases, and the relationship between the lodestar amount and the damages awarded. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 430 n.3, 434, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Lodestar

         A. Attorney Billing Rates

         “A reasonable hourly rate is based on the local market rate for the attorney's services, ” with “[t]he best evidence of the market rate . . . the amount the attorney actually bills for similar work.” Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 553 (7th Cir. 2014). If not available, then the 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. “The fee applicant bears the burden of ‘producing satisfactory evidence-in addition to the attorney's own affidavits-that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community.'” Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 640 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984)). If the fee applicant does not satisfy its evidentiary burden, then “the district court can independently determine the appropriate rate.” Montanez, 755 F.3d at 553.

         Here, the City does not challenge the Church's requested rates, but the Court nevertheless examines them to determine whether the Church has adequately met its evidentiary burden. The Church has submitted the affidavits of its attorneys, setting forth their experience, but these affidavits alone are not sufficient to establish the market rates. See Harper v. City of Chicago Heights, 223 F.3d 593, 604 (7th Cir.2000) (“[A]n attorney's self-serving affidavit alone cannot establish the market rate for that attorney's services[.]”). It also submits a declaration from Daniel Dalton, another attorney who litigates RLUIPA cases. As another court in this district recently concluded, however, Dalton's declaration has “little value” in establishing that the attorneys' rates in this case are reasonable, particularly in light of the fact that he himself has been awarded much lower rates in RLUIPA cases than he claims in his declaration. See World Outreach Conference Ctr. v. City of Chicago, 234 F.Supp.3d 904, 911 (N.D. Ill. 2017). The Court briefly examines each attorney's requested rate to determine the appropriate hourly rates, taking into consideration rates awarded in similar cases. See People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., Sch. Dist. No. 205, 90 F.3d 1307, 1312 (7th Cir. 1996) (“[R]ates awarded in similar cases are clearly evidence of an attorney's market rate.”).

         1. John W. Mauck

         The Church requests $650 per hour for Mr. Mauck's work. The Court, however, finds that the submitted documentation and prior fee awards for Mr. Mauck support a rate of $600 per hour for Mr. Mauck. Most recently, a court in this district found $600 to be a reasonable rate for Mr. Mauck in 2017. Id. at 912. Although Mr. Mauck submits in his declaration that he recently billed $750 per hour in representing a limited partnership in its sale of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, that rate has no relevance to determining the reasonable rate for his services in this case or the rate charged by similarly experienced attorneys practicing RLUIPA litigation. See Id. at 911 (finding Mr. Mauck's tendering of the $750 per hour rate “inapplicable” and “not indicative of a reasonable rate in the relevant community”). Although the Court acknowledges that in setting hourly rates, courts typically use the attorney's current hourly billing rate, see Pickett, 813 F.3d at 647, the Court finds no basis for the requested $50 increase from the amount awarded in World Outreach and so will use the $600 rate for Mr. Mauck's time.

         2. Richard C. Baker

         The Church requests $500 for Mr. Baker's hourly rate, which the Court finds reasonable. Mr. Baker sets forth his experience in church zoning litigation in his declaration and indicates that, in 2010, a client paid him $550 per hour for reviewing an administrative law claim in litigation pending in New Jersey. The Court finds Mr. Baker's request for a lower rate eight years later reasonable. See World Outreach, 234 F.Supp.3d at 913 (finding $500 per hour rate for Mr. Baker reasonable).

         3. Noel W. Sterett

         The Church requests that Mr. Sterett be compensated at a $500 hourly rate. The Court finds the $400 rate awarded to Mr. Sterett in World Outreach reasonable instead. See Id. at 912- 13. Although Mr. Sterett's submitted declaration demonstrates significant experience with RLUIPA litigation, Mr. Sterett does not provide any support for the requested $100 increase from the rate awarded in 2017, and so the Court finds it appropriate to use that previously awarded rate in this case as well.

         4. ...


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