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Romain v. Sonnier

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 7, 2019

LISA ROMAIN, ET AL.
v.
SUZY SONNIER, in her official capacity as Secretary of Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services

         SECTION: “J” (1)

          ORDER & REASONS

          CARL J. BARBIER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion on Quantum of Attorneys' Fees (Rec. Doc. 44), an opposition thereto by Defendant (Rec. Doc. 48), and a reply by Plaintiffs (Rec. Doc. 50). Plaintiffs move for an award of attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $254, 327.00 in fees and $4, 444.72 in costs. Having considered the motion and legal memoranda, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the motion should be GRANTED, but with a slight reduction in the quantum of fees.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Court assumes the reader's familiarity with this case and provides only a brief account of the relevant facts and procedural history. Plaintiffs are a “prevailing party” seeking reasonable attorneys' fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 against Defendant, the Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (“Department”). Romain v. Walters, 856 F.3d 402, (5th. Cir. 2017). All Plaintiffs are Louisiana residents who are eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP”) benefits so long as Louisiana applies for a SNAP “work requirement” waiver from the federal government. If, however, Louisiana fails to apply for the waiver then the Plaintiffs would lose their benefits. In September of 2015, the Department informed Plaintiffs that Louisiana, under the guidance of then Governor Bobby Jindal, would not be seeking a work requirement waiver for 2016.

         On December 18, 2015 Plaintiffs sued in attempt to prevent Louisiana from terminating their SNAP benefits by failing to file the work requirement waiver. On December 21, 2015, Governor-Elect John Bel Edwards wrote a letter to the federal government stating his intention to reverse Governor Jindal's decision by applying for the work requirement waiver as soon as he took office on January 11, 2016. In his letter, he “requested the USDA to work with [Louisiana] ‘to ensure that there is no gap in benefits until the waiver can be formally extended after I take office [on January 11, 2016],' and stated that ‘I am willing to work with your office and [the Department] to ensure these benefits are not cut off on December 31st.'” Id.

         Considering Governor-Elect Edwards' intentions, Plaintiffs entered into a Settlement Order with the Department that contained three specific orders affecting the relationship between the parties.[1] Id. If the waiver was granted and the Defendant complied with all three orders, then Plaintiffs' complaint would be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiffs then filed their Motion for Reasonable Attorneys' Fees and Costs, believing the Settlement Order was sufficient to make them the prevailing party. The district judge then assigned to the case denied the motion, stating that Plaintiffs were not a prevailing party within the meaning of § 1988. Subsequently, Plaintiffs appealed the decision and the Fifth Circuit overturned, holding that Plaintiffs were the Prevailing Party due to the Settlement Order. On remand the case was transferred to the undersigned for the first time. The sole remaining issue before the Court on remand was whether there exists any “special circumstances” that would render awarding attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs under § 1988 unjust. Id. at 407.

         On October 2, 2019, the Court issued an Order and Reasons holding that there existed no special circumstances rendering an award of attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs unjust. (Rec. Doc. 42). The final issue before the Court is a determination of the precise quantum of fees Plaintiffs are entitled to.

         DISCUSSION

         To begin, “it is settled that a prevailing plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees for the effort entailed in litigating a fee claim and securing compensation. Cruz v. Hauck, 762 F.2d 1230, 1233. (5th. Cir. 1985). This includes Plaintiffs' post-appeal briefing as ordered by this Court. Id. at 1234. Plaintiffs are also entitled to attorneys' fees incurred as part of their appeal to vindicate their fee rights. See Hines v. City of Albany, 862 F.3d 215, 221 (2nd Cir. 2017) (holding that the district court should have awarded the plaintiff appellate attorneys' fees under Section 1988 after initial remand); see also Seyler v. Seyler, 678 F.2d 29, 30 (5th.Cir. 1982) (discussing the remand of a case to the district court to determine the reasonable amount of attorneys' appellate fees).

         To calculate the precise dollar amount of attorneys' fees to which Plaintiffs are entitled, the Court uses the “lodestar” figure. Louisiana Power & Light Co. Kellstrom, 50 F.3d 319 (5th. Cir. 1995). To arrive at the lodestar figure, the Court “multiplies the number of hours reasonably expended in the case by the prevailing hourly rate for legal services in the district.” Hernandez v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, No. 10-4602, 2012 WL 398328 (E.D. La. Feb. 2012). After calculating the lodestar figure, the Court has the discretion to adjust the final award based upon a consideration of the Johnson factors. Johnson v. Georgia Highway Exp., Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th. Cir. 1974). These factors include the following:

1) the time and labor required;
2) the novelty and difficulty of the issues presented;
3) the skill required to perform the legal skills properly;
4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case;
5) the customary fee;
6) whether the fee was fixed or contingent;
7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances;
8) the amount involved and the result 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 ...

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