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Cloutier v. Gojet Airlines, LLC

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

October 17, 2019

JOHN CLOUTIER, Plaintiff,
v.
GOJET AIRLINES, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         John Cloutier prevailed at trial against his former employer, GoJet Airlines, LLC, on claims that GoJet interfered with his exercise of rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and terminated him in retaliation for exercising his FMLA rights. Cloutier has moved to recover attorneys' fees and costs. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motion but reduces the amount of the requested award.

         Background

         Cloutier, an airline pilot, sued GoJet for violations of the FMLA, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Cloutier asserted 13 claims, all related to his leave and eventual termination from his job after he was diagnosed with, and began taking medication for, diabetes. The Court dismissed one FMLA claim, Cloutier v. Trans States Holdings, Inc., No. 16 C 1146, 2016 WL 3181708, at *1 (N.D. Ill. June 8, 2016) (Der-Yeghiayan, J.), and later granted summary judgment in favor of GoJet on some of Cloutier's other FMLA claims, Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines, LLC, 311 F.Supp.3d 928, 930 (N.D. Ill. 2018). The parties jointly stipulated to dismissal of the sole ADEA claim.

         At trial, a jury considered Cloutier's remaining claims for interference and retaliation under the FMLA and for failure to accommodate a disability and termination due to that disability under the ADA. The jury found in Cloutier's favor on both FMLA claims and in GoJet's favor on both ADA claims. With respect to the FMLA claims, the jury found that GoJet acted in good faith only on the retaliation claim; it did not find good faith on the interference claim. Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines, LLC, 357 F.Supp.3d 675, 679 (N.D. Ill. 2019). Consequently, Cloutier was not entitled to liquidated damages on the retaliation claim. Id. at 677. The Court awarded him damages in the amount of $426, 493.46. Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines, LLC, No. 16 C 1146, 2019 WL 316807, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 24, 2019). Both parties filed post-trial motions, which the Court denied. Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines, LLC, No. 16 C 1146, 2019 WL 1762899, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 21, 2019)

         Cloutier was represented at trial by two law firms: Maduff & Maduff, LLC, which is based in Chicago, Illinois, and Smith Law Firm, which is based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sixteen attorneys and paralegals from those firms worked on his case. Five attorneys did most of the work: Aaron B. Maduff and Walker R. Lawrence of Maduff & Maduff, and Joseph Arthur Smith, III ("Smith"), Joseph Arthur Smith, IV, and Rob Schmidt of Smith Law Firm.

         Cloutier now seeks an award of attorneys' fees and expenses. He originally requested $488, 941.26 in attorneys' fees but later reduced his request to $474, 312.76. This figure is based on 988.17 of the 1, 116.20 hours that attorneys and paralegals spent on the litigation; they have waived fees as to remainder of the time. GoJet objects to that award and contests Smith's hourly rate, the reasonableness of certain hours expended by Cloutier's attorneys, and the appropriate overall amount of fees based on Cloutier's level of success at trial. Cloutier also seeks to recover $1, 765.96 in costs related to the litigation, and GoJet does not object to those costs.

         Discussion

         The prevailing party in a case under the FMLA shall recover "a reasonable attorney's fee." 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(3); see also Franzen v. Ellis Corp., 543 F.3d 420, 430 (7th Cir. 2008). "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). "Although there is no precise formula for determining a reasonable fee," a district court generally begins by multiplying the hourly rate by the hours worked to calculate a "lodestar" amount. Schlacher v. Law Offices of Phillip J. Rotche & Assocs., P.C., 574 F.3d 852, 856 (7th Cir. 2009); see also Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The district court may then adjust the lodestar figure to account for various considerations, including the degree of success obtained by the plaintiff. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434 ("[The degree of success] is particularly crucial where a plaintiff is deemed 'prevailing' even though he succeeded on only some of his claims for relief.")

         A. Lodestar amount

         1. Hourly rates

         GoJet initially disputed Maduff's and Smith's requested hourly rates of $675, but it has since dropped its objections to Maduff's requested hourly rate. GoJet argues that Smith is entitled to $350 per hour, which is his established rate in his regular practice in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cloutier contends that an out-of-town lawyer's rate should be commensurate with the rate charged by similarly-experienced attorneys practicing in the forum where the litigation occurred. He argues that a Chicago-based attorney with Smith's experience would charge $675 for a similar case.

         An attorney's reasonable hourly rate is "based on the local market rate" for his services. Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 553 (7th Cir. 2014). "The best evidence of the market rate is the amount the attorney actually bills for similar work." Id. If a district court cannot determine the attorney's typical billing rate, 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 Court concludes that Smith is entitled to the rate he charges clients for employment cases: $350 per hour. Cloutier has shown no reason, such as Smith's use of contingent fee agreements, for the Court to depart from the presumption that his standard hourly rate is his market rate. Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 640 (7th Cir. 2011) (when an attorney uses contingent fee agreements, courts may rely on evidence other than his standard hourly rates due to "the difficulty of determining the hourly rate of an attorney who uses" such agreements); Gusman v. Unisys Corp., 986 F.2d 1146, 1151 (7th Cir. 1993) ("A judge who departs from this presumptive rate must have some reason other than the ability to identify a different average rate in the community."); see also Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 556 (7th Cir. 1999) (the fee applicant bears the burden of establishing his attorney's market rate). Because the Court presumes that Smith's standard rate is his market rate, the Court declines to give any significant weight to the affidavits discussing a reasonable rate for someone of his skill, experience, and reputation. Cf. Pickett, 664 F.3d at 641 (discussing the use of affidavits to establish market rates for contingent-fee-earning attorneys).

         Cloutier cites to only two cases applying a forum's rate to an out-of-state attorney who charges a lower standard rate; neither is binding precedent. See Garmong v. Montgomery County, 668 F.Supp. 1000, 1007 (S.D. Tex. 1987); Donnell v. United States, 682 F.2d 240, 251 (D.C. Cir. 1982). The cases in this Circuit addressing out-of-state attorneys' fees generally involve the inverse scenario: an out-of-state attorney with a standard rate higher than the forum's average rate seeking fees based on the attorney's standard rate. E.g., Chrapliwy v. Uniroyal, Inc., 670 F.2d 760, 768 (7th Cir. 1982). In Chrapliwy, the Seventh Circuit found that courts may award an out-of-state attorney's higher rate where doing so would encourage talented attorneys to take on complex or specialized cases for which local attorneys lack the requisite availability or skills. Id. The court did not approve of giving out-of-state attorneys more than their standard rates. See Id. Further, Chrapliwy's rationale for allowing higher rates does not apply to this case because there is no indication that local attorneys lack the availability or skills to take on cases such as Cloutier's. Indeed, applying Smith's typical hourly rate to his work in this litigation aligns with the purpose of fee-shifting statutes by ensuring that he does not receive a windfall. See City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 580 (1986) (Congress intended for fee-shifting statutes in civil rights litigation to give litigants access to competent counsel without producing windfalls to attorneys).

         Because GoJet no longer challenges Aaron Maduff's requested rate of $675, the Court need not address the point. The Court adopts that rate based on GoJet's implicit concession that it is appropriate.

         In sum, the Court concludes that Smith's reasonable hourly rate is $375. Applying that rate to Cloutier's fee request, the Court finds that the baseline amount for Cloutier's fee request is $423, 893.06.

         2. Hours reasonably expended

         In calculating the lodestar amount, a court must exclude hours that were not "reasonably expended," including "hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. GoJet contests particular categories of attorneys' hours that it contends are not ...


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