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Morris v. BNSF Railway

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

September 13, 2019

RON MORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Ron Morris prevailed at trial against his former employer BNSF Railway on his claim that he was terminated because of his race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Morris has moved to recover attorney's fees and costs. In addition, his former attorney who represented him at an earlier stage of the case has moved to enforce an equitable lien. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants both motions but modifies the amounts of the requested awards.

         Discussion

         The Court assumes familiarity with this case's factual background and procedural history, which are summarized in the Court's previous written opinions. See Morris v. BNSF Railway Co. (Ruling on Post-Trial Motions), No. 15 C 2923, 2019 WL 3956231 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 22, 2019); Morris v. BNSF Railway Co. (Summary Judgment Ruling), No. 15 C 2923, 2018 WL 4742105 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 2, 2018). Having prevailed at trial, Morris now seeks an award of attorney's fees and expenses. His former attorney, Chiquita Hall-Jackson, who represented Morris for about eight months in 2017 and 2018, has also filed a motion to recover a portion of Morris's award in connection with services she provided in his case.[1]

         As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that contrary to the parties' repeated characterizations, Hall-Jackson cannot directly recover an attorney's fee or costs from BNSF; only Morris, the prevailing party in the litigation, may do so. See Venegas v. Mitchell, 495 U.S. 82, 87-88 (1990) (explaining that "it is the party, rather than the lawyer," eligible for a discretionary award of attorney's fees). As the Court will discuss, Hall-Jackson's equitable remedy is quantum meruit, which permits her to recover against Morris in particular. See Elusta v. City of Chicago, 696 F.3d 690, 694-95 (7th Cir. 2012). The Court will therefore consider the motion for attorney's fees and costs- including those incurred by Hall-Jackson-before determining what Hall-Jackson may recover from Morris.

         A. Motion for attorney's fees and costs

         The prevailing party in an employment discrimination case under Title VII or section 1981 may recover "a reasonable attorney's fee." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k); 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). "The award's size is a function of three numbers: the hours worked, the hourly rate, and any overall adjustments up or down." Sommerfield v. City of Chicago, 863 F.3d 645, 650 (7th Cir. 2017). The product of "the hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate" yields a "lodestar" amount. Id. "[A] plaintiff who achieves excellent results should receive the entire lodestar." Id.

         Morris has moved to recover an attorney's fee of $123, 525 for work performed by Garrett Browne and Edward Fox, the attorneys who represented him at trial. This figure is based on the hours Browne and Fox expended (totaling 268.75) at hourly rates of $450 and $500, respectively. Morris also seeks $3, 106.58 in costs related to their representation. BNSF has not objected to the suggested lodestar calculation for Browne and Fox or to their requested costs. The Court deems the fee request reasonable in terms of both the number of hours worked and the attorneys' hourly rates, which accord with the rates they have been awarded in prior cases. See Fox Decl., Morris's Ex. B., dkt. no. 280-2, ¶ 10; Browne Decl., Morris's Ex. C, dkt. no. 280-3, ¶¶ 10, 12. No. departure from the lodestar amount is called for in light of Morris's overwhelming success in this case. See Sommerfield, 863 F.3d at 650. The Court therefore awards Morris a total of $126, 631.58 in fees and costs in connection with Fox and Browne's representation.

         Morris also seeks fees and costs incurred by his previous attorney, Chiquita Hall-Jackson. Hall-Jackson represented Morris from about October 2017 to June 2018. Morris has moved to recover a fee totaling $54, 945 for 226.3 hours of Hall-Jackson's work, in addition to $382.90 in costs. BNSF objects to about $20, 000 of the total request. It does not contest Hall-Jackson's hourly rate of $275, but it cites particular categories of attorney time and expenses that it contends are not properly recoverable. The Court discusses each such category below.

         1. Administrative tasks and work performed by law student interns

         BNSF objects to $2, 392.50 in fees for 8.7 hours that Hall-Jackson spent on administrative tasks related to preparing exhibits to file with Morris's response to BNSF's summary judgment motion. Morris, citing Pouncy v. City of Chicago, No. 15 C 1840, 2017 WL 8205488 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 11, 2017), contends that it was appropriate for Hall-Jackson to perform those tasks because they were important to the case. See Id. at *11 (holding that it was reasonable to have a paralegal, rather than a non-professional, perform certain important administrative tasks). But he does not explain why it is appropriate to bill for that work at her regular rate of $275 per hour, rather than at a paralegal rate that more accurately reflects the nature of the work performed. See Gibson v. City of Chicago, 873 F.Supp.2d 975, 988-89 (N.D. Ill. 2012) (reducing an attorney's hourly rate because certain tasks "are more appropriately reimbursed at a paralegal rate").

         BNSF also contends that Morris has not provided evidence to substantiate a rate of $137.50 per hour for work performed by a law student intern in Hall-Jackson's office who interviewed witnesses and conducted legal research. Morris provides no evidence, analysis, or authority supporting this billing rate. Instead, he contends that the obligation to provide evidence to demonstrate the appropriateness of a billing rate extends only to attorneys, not to paralegals. But this argument contradicts Supreme Court precedent. See Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 288 (1989) (holding, in the analogous fee-shifting context of 42 U.S.C. § 1988, that a paralegal's work is compensable at "the prevailing rates for such services").

         The Court concludes that the time Hall-Jackson spent on administrative tasks and the hours logged by the law student intern are appropriately billed at a paralegal rate of $100 per hour. See Blackwell v. Kalinowski, No. 08 C 7257, 2012 WL 469962, at *9 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 13, 2012); Gibson, 873 F.Supp.2d at 989. Applying that reduced rate to the time Hall-Jackson spent on administrative tasks and the hours worked by the law student intern, Morris is entitled to only $1, 750 for work in this category, not the requested award of $3, 602.50.

         2. ...


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