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McIntyre v. Gilmore

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 8, 2015




Before the Court is Defendant Sieglinde Chambliss's ("Chambliss") "Motion to Fix Attorney's Fees and Costs."[1] Local Rule 7.5 of the Eastern District of Louisiana requires that memoranda in opposition to a motion be filed eight days prior to the date set for hearing on the motion. No opposition to the pending motion, which was set for hearing on June 24, 2015, was submitted, timely or otherwise. Accordingly, this motion is deemed unopposed. District courts may grant an unopposed motion as long as the motion has merit.[2]

I. Background

On May 13, 2015, the Court granted Chambliss's "Special Motion To Strike, Motion To Dismiss Or, Alternatively, Motion For Summary Judgment" ("Article 971 Motion")[3] and dismissed all of Plaintiff Ronald McIntyre's ("Plaintiff") causes of action against her.[4] The Court additionally granted Chambliss attorney's fees and costs pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure article 971(B), which provides that "[i]n any action subject to Paragraph A of this Article, a prevailing party on a special motion to strike shall be awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs." Courts applying this provision have determined that, under Article 971(B), a prevailing party may only recover attorneys' fees associated with the motion to strike, but not fees associated with defending the entire lawsuit.[5] Accordingly, the Court ordered Chambliss to provide the Court with a calculation of attorney's fees and costs associated with the preparation of her Article 971 Motion.

II. Law and Analysis

"Determining a reasonable attorney's fee is a matter that is committed to the sound discretion of a trial judge, ... but the judge's discretion is not unlimited."[6] The burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the amount of attorney's fees, including any adjustment or enhancement.[7] "A fee applicant seeking an enhancement must produce specific evidence that supports the award."[8] A court abuses its discretion when it awards attorney's fees without "a reasonably specific explanation for all aspects of a fee determination, including any award of an enhancement."[9]

Courts in the Fifth Circuit engage in a two-step process to assess attorney's fees. First, a lodestar is calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by an appropriate hourly rate in the community for such work.[10] "[T]here is a strong presumption that the lodestar figure is reasonable."[11] However, after calculating the lodestar, a district court may decrease or enhance the amount of attorney's fees "based on the relative weights of the twelve factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc ." [12] The lodestar may not be adjusted due to a Johnson factor, however, if the creation of the lodestar award already took that factor into account. Such reconsideration is impermissible double-counting.[13]

A. Calculating a Reasonable Hourly Rate

The first step in calculating the lodestar amount is determining the reasonable hourly rate. In the Fifth Circuit, a reasonable hourly rate is derived by "consider[ing] the attorneys' regular rates as well as prevailing market rates."[14] When an attorney's billing rate is not contested, it is prima facie reasonable.[15] The district court's "determination of a reasonable hourly rate' is a finding of fact... reviewable under the clearly-erroneous rubric."[16]

Here, Chambliss seeks to recover fees for services provided by attorneys at the law firm of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, L.L.C. ("Stone Pigman") in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chambliss contends that her defense against this lawsuit was handled by Rachel W. Wisdom ("Wisdom"), a partner with more than 24 years of experience, and Lesli D. Harris ("Harris"), a partner with more than 11 years of experience.[17] Chambliss contends that both Wisdom and Harris charged an hourly rate of $250 in this matter. Attached to the pending motion is a declaration from Harris, wherein she attests to defense counsel's skill and competence and to the correctness of the invoices that were generated in this matter. Additionally, the declaration states that the rates charged by Harris and Wisdom in this matter are discounted from their customary hourly rates of $350 and $450, respectively.[18] Harris also attests that, to her knowledge, a rate of $250 per hour for partner time is reasonable for the New Orleans legal market according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2014 Rate Survey and Peer Monitor reports for February 2015.[19] No affidavits from other practitioners within the New Orleans area have been submitted.

A review of caselaw demonstrates that the hourly rates charged by defense counsel in this matter are consistent with rates approved by other courts in this district.[20] Considering that Harris and Wisdom have already discounted their standard billing rates, and that Plaintiff has not challenged the reasonableness of the rates charged by defense counsel, the Court finds that the rate of $250 per hour is reasonable for partners in the New Orleans legal market.

B. Calculating the Reasonable Hours Expended

The Court must next determine the number of hours reasonably expended by defense counsel in connection with the Article 971 Motion. The party seeking attorney's fees bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of the fees by submitting adequate documentation and time records of the hours reasonably expended and proving the exercise of "billing judgment."[21] Attorneys exercise "billing judgment" by excluding time that is unproductive, excessive, duplicative, or inadequately documented when seeking fee awards.[22]

Chambliss contends that defense counsel expended a total of 55.7 hours in connection with the Article 971 Motion. Specifically, she states that Harris expended 41.2 hours and that Wisdom expended 14.5 hours as follows: (1) researching and drafting the Article 971 Motion and memorandum in support; (2) preparing declarations and other documents in support of the Article 971 Motion; (3) researching and drafting the pending Motion to Fix Attorneys' Fees and Costs and memorandum in ...

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