Hendrix v. Chambers et al

Filing 58

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER directing as follows: (1) defs Chambers, Wilson, Montgomery, and Merk's 44 MOTION for Attorney Fees is granted; (2) defs Chambers, Wilson, Montgomery and Merk shall have and recover from plf Barbara Hendrix the sum of $1,200.00 for attorney's fees. Signed by Honorable Myron H. Thompson on 3/23/09. (Attachments: # 1 civil appeals checklist)(djy, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION BARBARA HENDRIX, Plaintiff, v. DOUGLAS CHAMBERS, etc., et al., Defendants. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:07cv21-MHT (WO) OPINION AND ORDER In this lawsuit, plaintiff Barbara Hendrix charged defendants Douglass Chambers, James Wilson, Malcolm Montgomery, James T. Merk, all administrators of J.F. Ingram State Technical College, with race and gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 U.S.C. 1981a, 2000e to 2000e-17), the Civil Rights Act of 1866, as amended (42 U.S.C. 1981), and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution (as enforced through 42 U.S.C. 1983). This cause is now before the court on the defendants' motion for attorney's fees in the amount of $ 44,752.50. For the reasons that follow, the defendants' motion will be granted to the extent that a fee of $ 1,200.00 be awarded. I. PROPRIETY OF FEE AWARD The attorney's fee provision of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5(k), authorizes courts to award reasonable fees and expenses to prevailing civil-rights litigants. Similarly, 42 U.S.C. 1988 gives the court discretion, in cases brought under 1981 and 1983, to award the prevailing party a reasonable attorney's fee. While "attorney's fees are typically awarded to successful Title VII plaintiffs as a matter of course, prevailing defendants may receive attorney's fee when the plaintiff's case is `frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.'" Quintana v. Jenne, 414 F.3d 1306, 1309 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978)); Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 2 5, 14 (1980) (applying Christiansburg to attorney's fees under 1988 brought by prevailing civil rights defendants). U.S. at 14. The standard is "stringent." Hughes, 449 To make this determination, "the district court must examine (1) whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case, (2) whether the defendant offered to settle, and (3) whether the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or held a full-blown trial on the merits." Bonner v. Mobile Energy Servs. Co., L.L.C., 246 F.3d 1303, 1304 (11th Cir. 2001). only general are guidelines; to be made These factors are, however, "[d]eterminations on a regarding basis." frivolity case-by-case Quintana, 414 F.3d at 1309. It must always be remembered that "assessing attorney's fees against plaintiffs simply because they do not finally prevail would substantially add to the risks inhering in most litigation and would undercut the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous 3 enforcement of" civil rights claims. Hughes, 449 U.S. at 14-15. As this court noted in its opinion granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment, Hendrix failed to establish a prima-facie case for disparate treatment based on gender or race (because there was no adverseemployment action and because there was no similarly situated person outside her protected class), and she failed to make out a prima-facie case for a hostile-work environment. Hendrix v. Chambers, 2008 WL 509633 (M.D. Turning to the other elements inquiry, the court further Ala. 2008) (Thompson, J.). of the attorney's fees concludes that there is no evidence that the defendants offered to settle, and the court did dismiss the case prior to trial. All told, Hendrix's claims were patently without foundation, and the court may therefore award attorney's parties. fees to the defendants as the prevailing 4 II. AMOUNT OF FEE AWARD Having determined that a fee award for the defendants is proper, the court now turns to the amount of the fee to be awarded. The starting point in setting any attorney's fee is determining the "lodestar" figure--that is, the product of the number of hours reasonably expended to prosecute the lawsuit and the reasonable hourly rate for work performed community. by similarly situated attorneys in the After calculating the lodestar fee, the court should then proceed with an analysis of whether any portion of this fee should be adjusted upwards or downwards. (1983). Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-34 In making the above determination, the court is guided by the 12 factors set out in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974). Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 91-92 (1989); These factors, which apply Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434 n.9. 5 to awards for prevailing defendants v. as well as for and prevailing plaintiffs, Jones Dealers Tractor Equip. Co., 634 F.2d 180, 182 (5th Cir. 1981), are: (1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill required to perform the legal services properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee in the community; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the 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) awards in similar cases. A. Reasonable Hours The defendants' attorneys submit that they and their paralegals worked on this case for 364.5 hours. 6 Specifically, complaint, they claim on 7.3 hours on the initial hours in 89.3 hours discovery, 47.9 preparation for depositions, 57.1 hours in preparation for drafting the motion for summary judgment, 97.8 hours in drafting the motion for summary judgment, and 65.1 hours in trial preparation. Hendrix objects generally to lack of specificity in the defendants' billing, but she does not provide "objections and proof ... concerning hours that should be excluded" that are "specific and reasonably precise." Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ga. v. With this Barnes, 168 F.3d 423, 428 (11th Cir. 1999). dearth of specific objections, the court's independent review reveals of a the defense attorneys' amount of billing statement and a sufficient specificity reasonable ratio of hours to work performed. See id. at 427 ("[F]ee counsel should have maintained records to show the time spent on the different claims, and the general subject matter of the time expenditures ought to be set out with sufficient particularity so that the 7 district court can assess the time claimed for each activity."). B. Prevailing Market Rate "A reasonable hourly rate is the prevailing market rate in the relevant legal community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skills, experience, and reputation." Montgomery , 836 Norman v. Housing Auth. of the City of F.2d 1292, 1299 (11th Cir. 1988). They Defense counsel seek a rate of $ 125 per hour. present the affidavit of James R. Seale, an attorney in the Middle District of Alabama law, who who practices that in the employment-discrimination states prevailing rate in the district is from $ 200 to $ 250 an hour. Additionally, the defendants seek $ 50 anhour for Hendrix has not challenged either the court finds that both are their paralegals. proposed rate, and reasonable. 8 C. Lodestar Calculation The lodestar calculation for the paralegals is 10.7 hours x $ 50/hour = $ 540.00. For the attorneys, it is The total is 353.7 hours x $ 125/hour = $ 44,212.50. $ 44,752.50. D. Adjustment Hendrix states that she "is a single working parent" with "limited mean[s]." Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 50), at 7. In Durrett v. Jenkins Brickyard, Inc., 678 F.2d 911, 917 (11th Cir. 1982), the Eleventh Circuit held that "a district court awarding attorney's fees to a prevailing Title VII defendant should consider not only the applicable Johnson guidelines, but also, as a limiting factor, the plaintiff's financial resources." See also Baker v. Alderman, 158 F.3d 516, 527 (11th Cir. 1998) ("The law in this circuit is clear that ability to pay should be considered in the award of attorney's fees under 1988."). The court should then ascertain whether 9 "a reduced assessment would fulfill the purpose of 706(k) without subjecting [her] to financial ruin." Durrett, 678 F.2d at 917. A party attempting to limit an award of attorney's fees bears the burden of establishing her financial status. Scelta v. Delicatessen Support Servs., Inc., 203 1328, 1336 (M.D. Fla. 2002) (Wilson, J.). F.Supp.2d Hendrix has presented the court with evidence of her financial resources and expenses demonstrating that she nets approximately $ 300 a month. This information shows that a reduction in the amount of award is warranted, as the imposition of a $ 44,752.50 award would lead to her certain financial ruin. occasion to consider award limited of Relatively few courts have had appropriate fees id. reduction based at 1337 on to a the defendant's plaintiff's attorney's See the means. (where plaintiff and attorney's asserted incomes and net worths were understated, court nevertheless found that $ 200,000 award would subject either of them to financial ruin and 10 awarded a fee of $ 60,000 against each); Cunningham v. Moore Business Forms, Inc., 671 F.Supp. 26, 27 (N.D. Ala. 1987) (Hancock, J.) (approving as reasonable a defendant's request that plaintiff pay one-half of a $ 14,947.50 fee); Steele v. Chatham Effingham Liberty Regional Library Bd. of Managers, 1987 WL 11821 (S.D. Ga. 1987) (Edenfield, J.) (awarding sum of $ 1,200 in light of plaintiff's finances, where defendants had requested $ 9,866.25). Based on analysis of prior cases and Hendrix's particular circumstances, the court finds that a fee award greater than $ 1,200 would be beyond her means, especially given that she also owes the defendants She is a $ 2,602.40 in court costs for this litigation. person of very limited financial: a net income of only $ 300 a month. a single parent with $ 1,200, in addition to the $ 2,602.40 she already owes in court costs, is the largest amount she could pay within a reasonable period of time. The court will therefore award the defendants 11 a fee of $ 1,200, which will mean that together with court costs the defendants will recover $ 3,802.40 from Hendrix for this litigation. *** Accordingly, it is ORDERED as follows: (1) Defendants Douglas Chambers, James Wilson, Malcolm Montgomery, and James T. Merk's motion for attorney's fees (doc. no. 44) is granted. (2) Defendants Merk shall Chambers, have and the Wilson, recover sum of Montgomery, from $ and plaintiff for Barbara Hendrix 1,200.00 attorney's fees. DONE, this the 23rd day of March, 2009. /s/ Myron H. Thompson UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

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