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Ball v. Leblanc

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 20, 2015



BRIAN A. JACKSON, Chief District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion to Set Attorneys' Fees and Costs Regarding Maintenance of the Status Quo (Doc. 216) filed by Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code, and James Magee (collectively. "Plaintiffs'), seeking an order from this Court awarding attorneys" fees and costs in the amount of $16, 892.04. The motion is filed in accordance with this Court's Ruling and Order granting Plaintiffs' Motion to Maintain the Status Quo of October 30, 2014. (Doc. 214). Defendants James M. Leblanc, Secretary of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Burl Cain, Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary ("Angola"), Angela Norwood, the Warden of Death Row, and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (collectively, "Defendants") oppose the award as unreasonable. (Doc. 218).

I. Background

On June 10. 2013. Plaintiffs filed a Complaint against Defendants for civil rights abuses surrounding the conditions of confinement on the Angola death row tier. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 1). More specifically. Plaintiffs claimed violations of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") for dangerous heat levels in Angola's Death Row. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 1-2). On August 5, 2013, the matter came before the Court on a non-jury trial on the merits. (Docs. 76. 77). On December 29, 2013, the Court issued a Ruling and Order, finding in favor of Plaintiffs and ordering Defendants to "monitor, record, and report the temperature, humidity, and the heat index in each of the death row tiers...." (Doc. 87 at p. 95).

During discovery. Plaintiffs claimed Defendants acted to intentionally "undermine the accuracy... of court-ordered collection related to the temperature, humidity, and heal index in Angola's death row tiers, and thus she mid be sanctioned for spoliation of evidence" because Defendants installed awnings over the windows of death row tiers, employed "soaker hoses" to "mist the walls" of certain tiers, and attempted unsuccessfully to develop a sprinkler system to wet the roof and yard of the prison. (Doc. 88 at pp. 3, 7-8). The Court had "little trouble determining that Defendants' construction of awning and installation of soaker hoses exhibited bad faith.'" (Doc. 88 at p. 33-34). The Court reasoned that "it [was] abundantly clear that Defendants' manipulations occurred after this Court ordered that the most accurate data... be collected" and the specific intention for installing the awnings and soaker hoses was to manipulate the very data that they conceded they were obligated to preserve. (Doc. 88 at p. 34) (internal quotations omitted). The Court concluded Defendants' deliberate breach of their duty to maintain the status quo satisfied the bad faith standard and sanctioned Defendants under the Court's inherent power. (Doc. 88 at p. 49).

While the appeal of this Court's ruling on the merits was pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Defendants removed the mercury thermometers which had been used to measure the temperature for the duration of the case and replaced them with digital thermometers. (Doc. 203-1 at p. 2). Defendants performed this manipulation of evidence on their own initiative without notifying either the Court or the Special Master. (See Doc. 213 at pp. 1-2). Nevertheless, Defendants justified their actions by fervently advocating the superiority of the new digital thermometer "upgrade." In so doing, Defendants failed to acknowledge that the Court's Order mandated maintenance of the status quo. To be clear, any alteration of the heat measuring instruments, including alleged improvements, directly violated the Court's unequivocal order. ( See Doc. 213 at pp. 1-2). Defendants later remounted the original mercury thermometers. (Doc. 203-1 at p. 4).

At the hearing held on October 29, 2014, the Court found Defendants' removal of the mercury thermometers after being put on notice to maintain the status quo by previous sanctions constituted a bad faith violation of this Court's Order. (Doc. 213 at pp. 1-2; Doc. 214 at pp. 1-2). Using no uncertain terms, the Court ordered Defendants to maintain the status quo. The Court then granted Plaintiffs' request for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs associated with the motion. (Docs. 313, 214). The Court then ordered Plaintiffs to file a motion detailing the fees and costs reasonably incurred. (Doc, 214 at p. 2).

In response, Plaintiffs filed a request for $16, 649.00 in fees and $243.04 in costs. (Doc. 216). The fees included work performed by the following three attorneys: Mercedes Montagnes ("Montagnes"), Elizabeth Compa ("Compa"). and Nilay U. Vora ("Vora"). (Doc. 216-1 at p. 6). Each attorney set his/her own rate using the prevailing market rate for his/her respective markets. Specifically, Montagnes and Compa used the prevailing market rate for New Orleans at $225 per hour and $200 per hour respectively, and Vora used the prevailing market rate for Los Angeles at $350 per hour. (Doc. 216-1 at p. 9). Together, Plaintiffs claim a total of approximately ninety-seven hours. Plaintiffs also factored in a 20% global reduction for a total of approximately seventy-five and one half hours. (Doc. 216-1 at p. 7). The services for these hours fall into four broad categories: (1) discovering and investigating the replaced thermometers, (2) research and preparation for the motion and hearing held October 28, 2014, (3) travel to Angola with the Special Master, [1] and (4) setting and justifying attorney fees for the motion currently before the Court. (Doc. 216-1 at p. 9).

II. Discussion

In Hensely v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), the United States Supreme Court established a two-step system for calculating attorney fees, also called the "lodestar" method. Id. at 433 (applying the lodestar amount for attorney's fees awarded under a § 1988 case). See Heidtman v. County of El Paso, 171 F.3d 1038. 1043 (5th Cir. 1999) (This Court uses the lodestar' method to calculate attorney fees."); Matter of Fender, 12 F.3d 480, 487 ("The Fifth Circuit uses the lodestar' method to calculate attorneys' fees."). See also Wagner v. Boh Bros. Const. Co., LLC, 2012 WL 3637392 at *12 (ED. La. Aug. 22, 2012) (applying the lodestar amount for attorney fees incurred as a result of opposing party's failure to comply with court orders, among other things). Attorney fees are calculated by "determining... the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id.

Applying this test, Plaintiffs' proposed award must be reduced for two reasons. First, the request does not employ a reasonable rate because Plaintiffs use the prevailing market rate for their respective markets, rather than the market in which the court sits. Second, not all of Plaintiffs' requested hours were reasonably spent on the litigation because the request includes a lunch with the Special Master. Because of these errors, the Court will recalculate the reward in accordance with the prevailing market rate for the Middle District of Louisiana and reduce the total hours by the time spent at the meal.

A. Reasonable Attorney Rates

Plaintiffs must first show that their rates are reasonable. Id. Reasonable rates are determined by the "prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1984); United States v. City of Jackson, Miss., 359 F.3d 727, 733 (5th Cir. 2004) (applying Blum to attorney fees awarded by district court sanctions). For purposes of determining the market rate, the relevant community is the "community in which the district court sits." Scham v. Dist. Courts Trying Criminal Cases. 148 F.3d 554, 559 (5th Cir. 1998), abrogated on other grounds by Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 532 U.S. 598, 610 (2001); see also Tollett v. City of Kemah, 285 F.3d 357, 368 (5th Cir. 2002); McClain v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 649 F.3d 374, 381 (5th Cir. 2011).

The prevailing market fee is generally determined by affidavits filed by attorneys practicing in the area. Tollett. 285 F.3d at 368. However, markets of comparable sizes can be informative in determining the prevailing market rate of another district. See e.g., Strogner v. Sturdivant, No. 10-125-JJB-CN. 2011 WL 6140670. at *2 n.4 (M.D. La. Dec. 9, 2011) (finding that the rate in New Orleans could help determine the rate in Baton Rouge because after Hurricane Katrina, the size of New Orleans and Baton Rouge became more comparable); Advocacy Center v. Cain, No. 12-508-BAJ-SCR, 2014 WL 1246840, at *7 n.6 (M.D. La. Mar. 24, 2014) (same). Further, courts have declined to adjust a proposed attorney rate when the other party fails to contest the rate's reasonability. Tollett, 285 F.3d at 368. In Tollett v. City of Kemah . the Fifth Circuit sanctioned the defendant for violating Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by awarding the plaintiff's attorneys' fees. Id. at, 369. In doing so, the court allowed the plaintiff to rely solely "upon his own assertion in his ...

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