J. N. v. Heather M. Hendrickson et al

Filing 189

ORDER by Judge Dean D. Pregerson: GRANTING 149 Plaintiff's MOTION for Attorney Fees in the amount of $471,820.45. See order for details. (shb)

Download PDF
O 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 10 CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 11 12 J.N., 13 Plaintiff, 14 15 16 17 v. DET. HEATHER M. HENDRICKSON, et al., 18 Defendants. 19 ) Case No. 2-14-cv-02428-DDP (PLAx) ) ) ORDER RE: ATTORNEY’S FEES ) ) [Dkt. 149] ) ) ) ) ) ) 20 21 Presently before the court is Plaintiff J.N.’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees. (Dkt. 149.) 22 After reviewing the parties’ submissions and hearing oral argument, the court adopts the 23 following Order. 24 I. BACKGROUND 25 Plaintiff J.N. filed the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging 26 violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights on the basis of judicial 27 deception and malicious prosecution by Defendant Det. Heather Hendrickson. (See Third 28 Amended Complaint.) The court assumes the parties’ familiarity with the facts, which 1 have been set forth in greater detail in the court’s Order granting Defendant’s Motion for 2 Remittitur. (See Dkt. 167.) In brief, Plaintiff J.N. brought this action following his arrest and detention on 3 4 felony charges from August 2011 to April 2012. The charges pertained to sex crimes 5 perpetrated on Facebook by a man with the user name “Pater Noster” against then 12- 6 year-old K.W. The victim’s mother reported the incidents to the Sacramento Police 7 Department, which assigned the case to Defendant Det. Heather Hendrickson. Det. 8 Hendrickson soon identified Plaintiff J.N. as the primary suspect. Plaintiff asserts that 9 Defendant’s investigation was characterized by several errors, including a suggestive 10 admonition during a photographic lineup with K.W. that led to a tainted identification 11 and a failure to follow-up with a requested FBI subpoena that would have revealed Pater 12 Noster’s computer IP address originated in Austria. On the basis of this investigation, 13 Defendant prepared a search and arrest warrant application, which she submitted to a 14 judge. The warrants were approved and Plaintiff was taken into custody in August 2011. 15 In February 2012, the charges were ultimately dismissed after K.W. failed to identify 16 Plaintiff as Pater Noster at a live lineup. Plaintiff was released from custody in April 17 2012. 18 The Third Amended Complaint asserts violations of Plaintiff’s Fourth and 19 Fourteenth Amendment rights on the basis of judicial deception, malicious prosecution, 20 fabrication of evidence, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. Initially, Plaintiff sued 21 Det. Hendrickson, her supervisor, and the deputy District Attorney handling the case, 22 and alleged Monell claims for municipal liability. The court dismissed the claims against 23 the deputy District Attorney and Plaintiff dismissed all remaining Defendants other than 24 Det. Hendrickson prior to trial. The case went to trial and a jury found in favor of 25 Plaintiff on his claims for judicial deception and malicious prosecution. The jury awarded 26 Plaintiff $5 million in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages. After the 27 verdict, Defendant moved for a new trial or, in the alternative, remittitur of the damages 28 verdict. The court denied Defendant’s motion for new trial on liability. However, the 2 1 court found that the jury verdict was excessive and granted a remittitur to reduce the 2 verdict to $3,000,000. Plaintiff accepted the remittitur. Plaintiff now moves for reasonable 3 attorneys’ fees. 4 II. LEGAL STANDARD 5 A district court may, in its discretion, award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the 6 prevailing party in section 1983 litigation. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Under section 1988, “a 7 prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee unless special 8 circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 9 (1983) (internal citations and quotations omitted). A plaintiff “prevails” when there is a 10 material alteration of the legal relationship between the parties that modifies the 11 defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff. See Farrar v. Hobby, 506 12 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). 13 The “starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number 14 of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” 15 Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Courts should exclude hours that were not reasonably expended 16 from the initial fee calculation. Id. at 434. There is a strong presumption that the resulting 17 “lodestar” figure represents a reasonable fee. Jordan v. Multnomah Cnty., 815 F.2d 1258, 18 1262 (9th Cir. 1987). After calculating the lodestar, other considerations “may lead the 19 district court to adjust the fee upward or downward.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Among 20 those other considerations is “the important factor of the ‘results obtained.’” Id.; see also 21 id. at n.9 (suggesting that many factors are often subsumed within the initial calculation 22 of hours reasonably expended at a reasonable hourly rate). 23 III. DISCUSSION 24 A. Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees 25 The parties agree that Plaintiff prevailed in this section 1983 suit and is entitled to 26 recover some measure of attorneys’ fees. The only dispute between the parties is what 27 constitutes a reasonable fee award. 28 3 1. Reasonable Rates 1 “Fee applicants have the burden of producing evidence that their requested fees 2 3 are ‘in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of 4 reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation.’” Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 5 751 F.3d 1096, 1110–11 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Camacho v. Bridgeport Fin., Inc., 523 F.3d 6 973, 980 (9th Cir. 2008). “[T]he relevant community is the forum in which the district 7 court sits.” Camancho, 523 F.3d at 979. The fee applicant must “produce satisfactory 8 evidence—in addition to the attorney’s own affidavits—that the requested rates are in 9 line with those prevailing in the community.” Dang v. Cross, 422 F.3d 800, 814 (9th Cir. 10 11 2005). This case was handled in large part by attorney Jeff Dominic Price. Price, who has 12 29 years of experience, requests compensation at the rate of $775/hour. (Price Decl. ¶ 9.) 13 Two additional attorneys assisted largely at the trial stage. Corey Carter, who has six 14 years of experience, requests $495/hour and Mary McCaffrey, who has 6 months of 15 experience, requests $290/hour. (See Carter Decl, Exs. C, D; McCaffrey Decl., Exs. E, F.) In 16 support of the fee request, Plaintiff’s counsel relies on the declaration of attorney Carol 17 Sobel. Sobel, who states that she has reviewed numerous fee applications by civil rights 18 litigators in Southern California, explains that based on her review of comparable cases, 19 her personal experience with Mr. Price, and her review of the resumés of all three 20 attorneys, she would find the rates requested reasonable. (Sobel Decl. ¶ 26.) 21 As recognized by fellow district courts, these declarations are of limited value 22 because “the appropriate standard is ‘the prevailing rate in the community’ to attract 23 ‘qualified counsel to civil rights cases,’ and not necessarily what others in the community 24 believed that Plaintiffs’ counsel are entitled to.” See, e.g., Charles Antuna v. County of Los 25 Angeles, No. CV 14-5600-MWF (PLAx) (C.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2016) (quoting Moreno v. City of 26 Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1111 (9th Cir. 2008) (“In making the award, the district court 27 must strike a balance between granting sufficient fees to attract qualified counsel to civil 28 rights cases, and avoiding a windfall to counsel.”)). Accordingly, the court relies on its 4 1 own experience and recent fee awards in comparable civil rights cases to ascertain a 2 reasonably hourly rate. In Antuna, the district court undertook a similar analysis in 2016 3 and found that senior partners or solo practitioners with over 30 years of experience 4 should reasonably be compensated between $600 and $700 per hour, “with $700 reserved 5 for those who have invested substantial energy and time in the case.” Id.; see also 6 Rodriguez v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 96 F. Supp. 3d 1012, 1023 (C.D. Cal. 2014) (awarding 7 hourly rate of $700 to civil rights litigator with 28 years’ experience). The district court in 8 Antuna also concluded that hourly rates of $200 for associates with five years of 9 experience and $100 for new attorneys were appropriate. Other courts have awarded 10 even less for experienced civil rights litigators. See Zuniga v. W. Apartments, No. CV 13- 11 04637-JFW, 2014 WL 6655997, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 24, 2014) (awarding hourly rate of 12 $450 to fair housing litigator with 24 years of experience). Having reviewed Mr. Price’s 13 supporting declaration and his particular experience, along with comparable cases, the 14 court finds that a reasonable hourly rate would be $650. 15 As to Mr. Carter’s rate, the court notes that his resume does not indicate any 16 particular experience with civil rights work and exceeds the court’s understanding of 17 prevailing market rates for someone with his level of experience. See Contreras v. City of 18 Los Angeles, No. 2:11-CV-1480-SVW-SH, 2013 WL 1296763, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 28, 2013), 19 aff'd, 603 F. App'x 530 (9th Cir. 2015) (awarding $320 per hour to civil rights litigator with 20 six years of experience); P.C. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., No. 2:07–cv–3413–PLA (C.D. Cal. 21 Sept. 14, 2012) (awarding hourly rate of $320 to same attorney). Accounting for the rise in 22 billing rates since 2013, the court would award Mr. Carter $380 per hour. Finally, the 23 court finds Ms. McCaffrey’s rate, though high for someone with such limited prior 24 experience, is within the range of reasonable rates for newly admitted attorneys. 25 26 27 2. Reasonable Time Expended Plaintiff’s counsel have submitted detailed billing records indicating the time expended on various tasks. The total number of hours for which compensation is 28 5 1 requested is 906.36. Applying the approved rates, this would result in the following 2 lodestar 3 Attorney Reasonable Rate Hours Lodestar 4 Jeff D. Price $650 671.06 $436,189 5 Corey A. Carter $380 79.1 $30,058 6 Mary E. McCaffrey $290 156.2 $45,298 7 Total 8 In an exercise of billing judgment, Plaintiff’s counsel has voluntarily requested a 10% 9 reduction in the fee award to account for any possibly duplicative or unnecessary work 10 11 $511,545 performed. “The district court may not uncritically accept the number of hours claimed by the 12 prevailing party, even if actually spent on the litigation, but must, in order to award fees 13 based on them, find that the time actually spent was reasonably necessary.” Carson v. 14 Billings Police Dept., 470 F.3d 889, 893 (9th Cir. 2006) (internal quotations omitted). Having 15 conducted a review of Plaintiff’s billing records, the court finds that the hours were 16 reasonably expended. Likewise, Defendant does not object to any specific billing entries. 17 Defendant does, however, propose reducing Mr. Price’s billing rates for all non-trial 18 related because this was work that could have been performed by a lower paid associate. 19 In Defendant’s view, the 209.40 hours Mr. Price billed in connection with trial should be 20 paid at his lodestar rate while the remaining 461.06 hours should be billed at a rate more 21 appropriate for associates. As an initial matter, this adjustment rests on the assumption 22 that work done in connection with trial preparation is necessarily more complex than all 23 other work. An attorney’s efforts preparing to depose a witness, defend a key deposition, 24 craft discovery requests, or brief motions in limine can be as complex as, say, preparing 25 demonstratives for use at trial. Moreover, as Plaintiff notes, until shortly before trial there 26 was no one to whom to delegate, as Mr. Price is a solo practitioner. Likewise, the Ninth 27 Circuit has instructed that courts “should defer to the winning lawyer’s professional 28 judgment as to how much time he was required to spend on the case . . . .” Moreno v. City 6 1 of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1112 (9th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, the court declines to 2 speculate about whether certain tasks could have been delegated to a hypothetical less 3 experienced associate. Moreover, to the extent that there was any overstaffing, Mr. Price’s 4 proposal for an across-the-board ten percent reduction adequately mitigates those 5 concerns. Thus, the court finds that the overall reasonable fees incurred in this action 6 amount to $460,390.50. 7 B. Reduction under Hensley 8 Defendant also contend that, notwithstanding Plaintiff’s overall success, the court 9 should reduce the overall fee award for time spent preparing the abandoned Monell 10 claim. As noted above, Plaintiff initially asserted individual claims against Det. 11 Hendrickson, her supervisor, and the assigned Deputy District Attorney, as well as 12 municipal liability claims against the City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Police 13 Department. (See Third Amended Complaint.) The court dismissed the Deputy District 14 Attorney on Defendant’s Motion. (See Dkt. 51.) Shortly before trial, Plaintiff abandoned 15 his Monell claims and presented a case only about Det. Hendrickson’s liability. Defendant 16 requests a 10% fee reduction to account for time spent on the unsuccessful and ultimately 17 abandoned Monell claim. 18 Attorney’s fees are not necessarily limited to work performed on successful 19 claims. “A plaintiff who is unsuccessful at a stage of litigation that was a necessary step 20 to her ultimate victory is entitled to attorney’s fees even for the unsuccessful stage.” 21 Cabrales v. County of Los Angeles, 935 F.2d 1050, 1053 (9th Cir. 1991); see also Hensley, 461 22 U.S. at 440 (“A plaintiff who has won substantial relief should not have attorney’s fee 23 reduced simply because the district court did not adopt each contention raised.”). The 24 Hensley Court established a two part analysis for determining attorney’s fees where 25 plaintiff has prevailed on some claims but not others. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-35. 26 First, the court must decide whether the successful and unsuccessful claims are related. 27 Though there is no “precise” test of relatedness, related claims involve “a common core 28 of facts” or are “based on related legal theories.” Thorne v. City of El Segundo, 802 F.2d 7 1 1131, 1141 (9th Cir. 1986). If the claims are unrelated, hours spent on unsuccessful, 2 unrelated claims should be excluded in considering the amount of a reasonable fee. 3 Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440. 4 In the instant case, Plaintiff has not established the Monell claims and the claims 5 against Det. Hendrickson personally are sufficiently related under the Hensley inquiry. 6 As an initial matter, Plaintiff makes no argument on this point other than to reiterate 7 Hensley’s teaching that an attorney who has secured a favorable outcome should be 8 compensated “even if ‘the plaintiff failed to prevail on every contention.’” (Reply 9 9 (quoting Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 834 (2011)).) Moreover, a review of the operative 10 complaint confirms that while the claims against Det. Hendrickson focused on her 11 individual acts of judicial deception and malicious prosecution, the Monell claims allege 12 that the city maintained deficient policies when investigating cases that involve 13 exploitation of children over the Internet. (See TAC ¶ 132.) Although the two claims have 14 some connection, they do not turn on a common core of facts and Plaintiff is not entitled 15 to recover for time spent preparing that claim. See Gonzales v. City of San Jose, No. 13-CV- 16 00695-BLF, 2016 WL 3011791, at *7 (N.D. Cal. May 26, 2016) (awarding fees in successful 17 section 1983 action but declining to award fees for time spent on unsuccessful Monell 18 claims). Defendant proposed a 10% reduction from Plaintiff’s reasonably incurred 19 expenses to account for the Monell claims. It is difficult to determine from reviewing 20 Plaintiff’s billing records the exact amount of time dedicated to preparing the municipal 21 liability claim. Nonetheless, Plaintiff does not contest the 10% estimate and it accords 22 with the court’s understanding of the relative import of the claim to the overall litigation. 23 Thus, the court will apply a 10% reduction to Plaintiff’s reasonably incurred attorney’s 24 fees. After applying this adjustment, the court arrives at a fee award of $414,351.45. 25 C. Supplemental Request 26 Plaintiff seeks an additional $73,548.25 in fees incurred after trial, including fees 27 related to Defendant’s Motion for New Trial. From the records and declarations 28 presented, the court finds that most, but not all, of the time billed was reasonably 8 1 expended. The court reduces the hours sought by Mr. Price by 3.2, the hours sought by 2 Mr. Carter by 2, and the hours sought by Ms. McCaffrey by 13.5. At the reasonable rates 3 discussed above, the court awards a further $57,496.00 4 IV. CONCLUSION 5 6 For the reasons stated above, the court GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorneys’ Fees in the amount of $471,820.45. 7 8 IT IS SO ORDERED. 9 10 11 12 Dated: August 15, 2017 ___________________________________ DEAN D. PREGERSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 9

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?