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Latiolais v. Griffith

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette-Opelousas Division

June 23, 2015

RESA LATIOLAIS,
v.
BRADLEY GRIFFITH, ET AL

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION (DOC. 243)

PATRICK J. HANNA, Magistrate Judge.

Currently pending before the undersigned, on referral from the district judge for review, report, and recommendation in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636 and the standing orders of this Court, is Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees [Rec. Doc. 243]. The motion is opposed by the defendants. After considering the applicable law, the written submissions and arguments of the parties, and for the following reasons, the undersigned recommends that the motion be granted and that attorney fees be awarded to Resa Latiolais as prevailing party plaintiff.

Background

Resa Latiolais filed the instant law suit on January 1, 2009, asserting claims under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. §1983 and Louisiana state law against Bradley Griffith, Officer Roylis Gallow, the City of Opelousas, and Donald Cravins, Sr., in his capacity as a Louisiana state senator. Latiolais alleged that the named defendants conspired with one another and with other individuals to deprive her of her constitutionally protected liberty interest in the companionship, care, custody, and management of her child. She also alleged that the defendants are liable in solido for the damages caused by their conspiracy pursuant to Louisiana tort law.

On March 30, 2011, the district court granted the motion for summary judgment filed by the City of Opelousas and Roylis Gallow, in his official capacity as a police officer, as to Latiolais' §1983 claims, and those claims were dismissed. Similar motions by Griffith, Cravins, and the Estate of Officer Gallow (for individual capacity claims) were denied. [Rec. Doc. 114]. In February, 2013, Latiolais voluntarily settled and dismissed all of her claims against Bradley Griffiths, reserving her rights against the remaining defendants. [Rec. Doc. 130-131].

The matter proceeded to jury trial on August 13-16, 2013. At the close of the plaintiff's case in chief, Cravins was dismissed. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and against Claudette Gallow, as surviving spouse of Roylis Gallow, and against Bradley Griffith, as a jointly and severally liable tortfeasor who settled with the plaintiff prior to trial. The plaintiff prevailed on none of her federal law claims; the verdict and resulting judgment addressed only the state law claims. [Rec. Doc. 192]. Plaintiff's post-trial motions for new trial and for amendment of the judgment were denied, and Latiolais appealed. The Fifth Circuit considered the appeal and ordered that the trial judgment be vacated and the cause remanded for a new trial after reassignment to a different judge. [Rec. Doc. 205]. Pursuant to the mandate, the matter was reassigned to Judge Donald E. Walter on September 5, 2014.

The case was retried on December 8-10, 2014, and the jury returned a verdict for Latiolais against Claudette Gallow, as surviving spouse of Roylis Gallow, on the individual capacity claims under § 1983 against Gallow; the City of Opelousas, as employer of Roylis Gallow on the state law claims; Donald Cravins, on both the federal and state law claims; and Bradley Griffith, as a solidarily liable tortfeasor. Latiolais was awarded $200, 000.00 in compensatory damages resulting from constitutional deprivations; plus $50, 000.00 in punitive damages against Gallow and $50, 000.00 in punitive damages against Cravins. [Rec. Doc.242]. On the state law claims, Latiolais was awarded $100, 000.00 in compensatory damages. In the judgment the defendants received a reduction of the total compensatory damages award by one-third, as credit for the pre-trial settlement by Griffith. [Rec. Doc. 242]. As to the §1983, judgment was entered in the amount of $133, 333.33 (calculated as 2/3 of $200, 000.00), plus punitive damages in the amounts of $50, 000.00 against Gallow and $50, 000.00 against Cravins. Latiolais was also awarded an additional $66, 666.66 (calculated as 2/3 of $100, 000.00) in damages on the state tort claims.

Thus, the plaintiff's total award on her federal law claims is $233, 333.33, and therefore, Resa Latiolais is a prevailing party as to her §1983 claims against the defendants cast in judgment on those claims. As such, she is entitled to recover her reasonable attorney fees under provisions of 42 U.S.C. §1988.

The Motion before the Court and the Positions of the Parties:

In the motion before this Court, Latiolais seeks recovery of attorneys' fees in the total amount of $365, 279.50. Attorney Julie Felder has submitted attorney fee billing entries for 502.5 hours at $275.00/hour for a requested total of $138, 187.50. The law firm of Huval, Veazey, Felder & Renegar, LLC has submitted attorney billing entries for 767 hours at $275.00/hour for a requested total of $210, 925.00 and paralegal/legal assistant billing entries for 190.2 hours at $85.00/hour for a requested total of $16, 167.00.

In opposition to the motion Cravins asserts that Latiolais failed to meet her burden to show that the hourly rate requested for her attorneys is consistent with the prevailing rate in her community and that the court should therefore make its own determination of the prevailing rate. [Rec. Doc. 251]. Cravins has also pointed to billing record entries which are argued to be duplicative, vague, excessive, and unrelated to the outcome of the case. Other entries are challenged as clerical tasks, and others are argued to constitute excessive, vague, and unacceptable block billing. Cravins also argues that Latiolais failed to present evidence of reasonable billing judgment, warranting a fixed percentage reduction of the attorney fee award. Finally, Cravins argues that the court should apply a credit to any attorney fee award, to account for the joint and several liability of the settling defendant Griffith, in a percentage consistent with that applied to the damage award.

Applicable Law and Analysis

The general rule in the American legal system is that each party must pay its own attorney's fees and expenses. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983). Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. §1988 in order to ensure that federal rights are adequately enforced, providing that a prevailing party in certain civil rights actions, including actions under §1983, may recover "a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. §1988(b). The statute does not explain what Congress meant by a "reasonable" fee, and therefore the task of identifying an appropriate methodology was left to the courts. In the Fifth Circuit, the "lodestar" method is used to calculate reasonable attorneys' fees. In re Fender, 12 F.3d 480, 487 (5th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1143, 114 S.Ct. 2165, 128 L.Ed.2d 888 (1994). The "lodestar" analysis involves a two-step procedure. Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. Kelistrom, 50 F.3d 319, 324 (5th Cir. 1995) ( citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). Initially, the district court must determine the reasonable number of hours expended on the litigation and the reasonable hourly rates for the participating lawyers. Then, the court must multiply the reasonable hours by the reasonable hourly rates. Id. The product is the "lodestar, " which the court either accepts or adjusts upward or downward, depending on the circumstances of the case, assessing the factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974). The Johnson factors are: (1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the issues; (3) the skill required to perform the legal services properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount involved and results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the undesirability of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) the awards in similar cases. Id. Three of the factors-the complexity of the issues, the results obtained, and the preclusion of other employment-are fully reflected and subsumed in the lodestar amount. Heidtman v. County of El Paso, 171 F.3d 1038, 1043(5th Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has barred any use of the sixth factor, i.e., whether the fee is fixed or contingent. Walker v. United States Dept of Housing & Urban Dev., 99 F.3d 761, 772 (5th Cir. 1996), citing City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 567(1992). Additionally, "the court should give special heed to the time and labor involved, the customary fee, the amount involved and the result obtained, and the experience, reputation and ability of counsel." Migis v. Pearle Vision, Inc., 135 F.3d 1041, 1047(5th Cir. 1998).

Ultimately, the court has discretion to fashion a reasonable attorneys' fee. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. at 436-37. When making its determination, the court must provide a concise but clear explanation of its reasons for the fee award, making subsidiary factual determinations regarding whether the requested hourly rate is reasonable, and whether the tasks reported by counsel were duplicative, unnecessary, or unrelated to the purposes of the lawsuit. Hensley v. Eckhart, 461 U.S. at 437-39. The Fifth Circuit has noted that its "concern is not that a complete litany be given, but that the findings be complete enough to assume a review which can determine whether the court has used proper factual criteria in exercising its discretion to fix just compensation." Brantley v. Surles, 804 F.2d 321, 325-26 (5th Cir. 1986).

Hourly Rates Claimed

Typically, parties seeking to recover reasonable attorney fees submit the affidavit(s) of the attorneys who represented the prevailing party, describing the experience of the involved attorneys, verifying the submitted billing entries, and producing satisfactory evidence of prevailing rates in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation, and, if available, actual rates paid in similar lawsuits. The relevant community' for the purpose of awarding attorney fees is the judicial district in which the litigation occurred, in this case the Western District of Louisiana. A rate determined in this way is normally deemed to be reasonable, and is referred to-for convenience-as the prevailing market rate. Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 896 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 1547 n. 11(1984). Mere testimony that a given fee is reasonable is not satisfactory evidence of market rate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 439 n. 15; St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, 2015 WL 3444897, at *6 (E.D.La. May 27, 2015). Further, the appropriate hourly rate is not that which "lions at the bar may command, " but a rate that is adequate to attract competent counsel. Leroy v. City of Houston, 906 F.2d 1068, 1079(5th Cir. 1990); Powell v. Hill, 2008 WL 4933983, at *3(W.D.La. Nov. 13, 2008).

No such affidavits have been submitted by Latiolais' attorneys in this case, though both Julie and Brad Felder signed the Motion for Attorneys' Fees indicating that each billed her/his time at the rate of $275.00/hour. [Rec. Doc. 243, ¶4]. The Felders have not set out their qualifications, years of practice, or experience in handling §1983 litigation, nor have the attorneys submitted any evidence of the rates charged by other civil rights attorneys in this community. An attorney name query in the record of the United States Western District of Louisiana documents Brad Felder's involvement in two §1983 actions, including the instant case, which is the last filed. A similar query regarding Julie Felder reveals only the instant matter. The Court recognizes that §1983 litigation is a specialized area of the law which may command a higher rate than applicable to other types of civil litigation. However, Latiolais has offered no evidence of specialized skill or experience of her attorneys, as is her burden. The billing statement from the Huval, Veazey, Felder & Renegar firm includes the same $275.00/hour rate for other attorneys who worked on the case doing primarily legal research. No information is provided regarding the skill/experience levels of those attorneys.

Cravins argues that the Court should not accept the attorney-requested hourly rate in the lodestar analysis since Latiolais has not met her burden to show that the rate is in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation, and the Court should make its own determination of the prevailing rate. Based on the lack of evidence in the record regarding the qualifications and civil rights litigation experience of the lead attorneys for the plaintiff in this matter, the Court has looked to attorney fee awards from other civil rights cases in this district and neighboring districts in an effort ...


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