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Adams v. Board of Education Harvey School District 152

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

July 23, 2019

DR. DENEAN ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION HARVEY SCHOOL DISTRICT 152, GLORIA JOHNSON, in her individual capacity, BETTY JOHNSON, in her individual capacity, DR. KISHA MCCASKILL, in her individual capacity, JANET ROGERS, in her individual capacity, TYRONE ROGERS, in his individual capacity, LINDA HAWKINS, in her individual capacity, FELICIA JOHNSON, in her individual capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHARON JOHNSON COLEMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Dr. Denean Adams brought this action against Defendants Board of Education Harvey School District 152 and its individual members, alleging retaliation in violation of her First Amendment and due process rights. The Court granted summary judgment to Defendants on Count III for First Amendment retaliation based on the filing of this lawsuit. Pursuant to Defendants' Rule 50(a) Motion, the Court granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of Defendants on Count II, the Due Process claim. Following trial, the jury found in favor of Adams on the remaining claim for First Amendment retaliation based on Adams' police reports, awarding $400, 000 in compensatory damages. Currently before the Court is Adams' post-trial Petition for Attorney's Fees and Bill of Costs. For the following reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Adams' Amended Petition for Attorney's Fees [196] and Bill of Costs [194].[1]

         Background

         Pursuant to the Court's Order Regarding Fee Petition (Dkt. 174), Adams sent Defendants her fee and costs information and Defendants timely responded with their objections and provided their billing records shortly thereafter. Adams did not respond to Defendants' argument on this point, so it is unclear whether the billing records were timely provided. Although the Court cautions Defendants regarding the importance of abiding by all Court deadlines, the Court notes that the possibility of a slightly delayed response does not warrant any sanction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 11. Adams moves for attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), and Local Rule 54.3. Adams seeks $552, 887.50 in attorney's fees for 1005.25 hours of work. Defendants object, proposing that the Court reduce Adams' counsel's hourly rate and drastically decrease the number of hours of work for which he receives fees.

         Adams requests an hourly rate of $550 for her attorney Jerome Davis. In support, Adams has provided the Court with an affidavit from Davis stating that he has represented clients in civil rights matters since 2003 and worked almost exclusively on civil rights cases since 2013. (Dkt. 196 at 8-9 ¶¶ 4, 7.) Davis represents that he has charged and been paid $265/hour in recent cases, with time spent in transit billed at half the hourly rate. (Id. at 9 ¶ 8.) For this case, Davis states that Adams and Davis agreed to a modified contingency agreement whereby Adams paid the $265 rate and expenses and Davis would seek to have his fees paid through a fee petition if successful at trial. Davis notes that approximately 80% of his attorney's fees in the matter remain unpaid. (Id. at 9 ¶ 9.) Adams also seeks $8, 515.17 in costs.

         Legal Standard

         No precise formula exists for determining a reasonable fee, although the Court “generally begins by calculating the lodestar-the attorney's reasonable hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours reasonably expended.” Schlacher v. Law Offices of Phillip J. Rotche & Assocs., P.C., 574 F.3d 852, 856 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-37, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983)). The Court has an obligation to “exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were not reasonably expended” on the litigation. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. The party seeking the fee award must prove the reasonableness of the hours worked and the hourly rates claimed. Id. at 433. However, the Court is “not obligated to conduct a line-by-line review of the bills to assess the charges for reasonableness.” Rexam Beverage Can Co. v. Bolger, 620 F.3d 718, 738 (7th Cir. 2010).

         The lodestar figure is the starting point, which the court may then adjust to reflect various factors, including the complexity of the legal issues involved, the degree of success obtained, and the public interest advanced by the litigation. Thorncreek Apartments III, LLC v. Mick, 886 F.3d 626, 638 (7th Cir. 2018). Downward adjustment may be appropriate if a plaintiff achieved “only partial or limited success.” Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 556 (7th Cir. 2014). Where a court uses its discretion to adjust a fee award, it must “provide a concise but clear explanation of its reasons.” Small v. Richard Wolf Med. Instruments Corp., 264 F.3d 702, 708 (7th Cir. 2001).

         Pursuant to Rule 54(d)(1), “costs . . . should be allowed to the prevailing party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d)(1). A court awarding costs asks first “whether the cost imposed on the losing party is recoverable” and “if so, whether the amount assessed for that item was reasonable.” Majeske v. City of Chicago, 218 F.3d 816, 824 (7th Cir. 2000). Recoverable costs include: (1) fees of the clerk and marshal, (2) fees for transcripts, (3) witness fees and expenses, (4) fees for copies of papers necessarily obtained for use in the case, (5) docket fees, and (6) compensation for court-appointed experts and interpreters. See Republic Tobacco Co. v. N. Atl. Trading Co., Inc., 481 F.3d 442, 447 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1920). Although a district court has discretion when awarding costs, the “discretion is narrowly confined because of the strong presumption created by Rule 54(d)(1) that the prevailing party will recover costs.” Graham v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 247 Fed.Appx. 26, 31 (7th Cir. 2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Analysis

         A reasonable hourly rate is to be “derived from the market rate for the services rendered.” Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 640 (7th Cir. 2011). The Seventh Circuit has “indicated a preference for third party affidavits that attest to the billing rates of comparable attorneys.” Id. Adams requests an hourly rate of $550 for her attorney Jerome Davis. Adams submits an affidavit from Davis stating his hourly rate of $265, but did not submit any invoices from Davis' prior clients or third-party affidavits. Adams contends that her counsel should receive a bonus to compensate for the difficulty of and the amount of time he dedicated to the case and that the rate he seeks is within the market rate. Defendants raise a series of objections, including that the Court should reduce Davis' rate to $200/hour, the case was not novel and does not warrant a bonus or rate increase, and Davis did not devote so much time to the case that he could not take on other cases.

         The Court finds that $265 is the appropriate hourly rate for Davis. Although the evidence submitted by Adams is limited, Davis has filed a sworn affidavit stating that he has been paid this amount in this case and for similar work. Additionally, $265 is an appropriate market rate in light of the rate awarded to counsel in civil rights cases that the parties presented to the Court. For example, in Smith v. City of Chicago, this Court awarded counsel hourly rates of $400, $200, and $175/hour. See 9-cv-4754 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 29, 2011), ECF No. 226 (Coleman, J.). The Court awarded $400/hour for lead trial counsel with extensive civil rights experience and $200/hour for an experienced associate. Id. In Spina v. Forest Pres. Dist. of Cook Cty., the court awarded $325/hour and $350/hour for court time to the lead attorney because plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to substantiate the billing rates, including counsel's own affidavit, affidavits of three well-known civil rights attorneys, and evidence of fees awarded to the counsel in other cases. No. 98-C-1393, 2002 WL 1770010, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 31, 2002) (Keys, M.J.).

         Here, Davis' evidence does not support the higher rate that he requests, but the comparator cases demonstrate the $265 rate that Davis contends he has been paid by Adams and other clients is appropriate and in line with the market and Davis' litigation experience and shorter term focus on civil rights cases. The Court finds that no bonus is appropriate. The Court agrees with Defendants' suggestion that the number of hours billed left sufficient time for Davis to pursue other cases alongside his representation of Adams. The blended contingency rate that Adams and Davis agreed to also does not support increasing Davis' rate. See Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 94, 109 S.Ct. 939, 103 L.Ed.2d 67 (1989). Moreover, this case was not so novel or difficult that it warrants an increase to Davis' established billing rate, especially where two of the counts were dismissed late in the litigation at the summary judgment and Rule 50(a) motion junctures.

         The Court next considers the reasonableness of the requested time. A fee applicant is expected to exercise “billing judgment” in deciding which hours should be billed to defendants. See Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 552 (7th Cir. 1999). Defendants object that Davis bills for a number of inappropriate items and request that the Court make the following reductions: strike 34.4 hours of unrelated work; strike 94.95 hours of unsuccessful ...


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