Steward v. County of Santa Clara et al

Filing 158

ORDER RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES granting in part and denying in part 142 Motion for Attorney Fees. (Illston, Susan) (Filed on 1/10/2022)

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Case 3:18-cv-04119-SI Document 158 Filed 01/10/22 Page 1 of 4 1 2 3 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 4 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 5 6 AARON STEWARD, Plaintiff, 7 8 9 Case No. 18-cv-04119-SI ORDER RE: PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES v. COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, et al., Re: Dkt. No. 142 Defendants. 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 Now before the Court is plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees. For the reasons set forth 13 below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART. The Court awards plaintiff fees in the amount of 14 $180,117.50. 15 16 DISCUSSION 17 On July 11, 2018, plaintiff Aaron Steward filed a civil rights complaint alleging two causes 18 of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming excessive force pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment; 19 one cause of action under California Civil Code 52.1 (“Bane Act”); and four causes of action for 20 intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) against defendants the City of Santa Clara, 21 Deputy Rico West, Deputy Christopher Graham, Amy Le, Richard Guerzo, Tony Alvarez, Adam 22 Valle, and DOES 1-100. Dkt. No. 1. After summary judgment, plaintiff’s claims against Deputy 23 West, for an alleged November 7, 2016 contraband search and July 12, 2017 altercation, and Deputy 24 Graham, for an alleged July 12, 2017 “rough ride”, remained. Dkt. No. 83. The parties waived a 25 jury trial, and the action came on for trial before the Court on April 26, 2021 through April 29, 2021. 26 After trial concluded, this Court found in favor of Steward on his claims against Deputy 27 West related to the July 12, 2017 altercation, and found against Steward on his claims against West 28 regarding the November 7, 2016 contraband search and his claims against Deputy Graham for the Case 3:18-cv-04119-SI Document 158 Filed 01/10/22 Page 2 of 4 1 alleged “rough ride.” With regard to the July 12, 2017 altercation, the Court found, inter alia, that 2 Deputy West’s actions were unreasonable and that he had engaged in excessive force, that Steward 3 did not actively resist, that the testimony of West and other deputies was not credible, and that West 4 violated Steward’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bane Act. Dkt. No. 135 at 6-9. 5 The Court also found that Steward suffered from a deep laceration above his right eye and currently 6 suffers painful headaches, and awarded $10,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000 in punitive 7 damages against West. The Court also held, “Given plaintiff’s limited success in his claims that 8 relate to his pre-trial detention against defendant Deputy West and Deputy Graham, plaintiff is 9 awarded attorneys’ fees to the extent of his claims against Deputy West for the July 12, 2017 10 altercation.” Id. at 10. United States District Court Northern District of California 11 Plaintiff now seeks $360,235 in fees1 and requests a 2.0 multiplier for the Bane Act claim. 12 In support of the fee request, plaintiff has submitted declarations from the lawyers and paralegals 13 who worked on the case, accompanied by their billing records, as well as a declaration from Richard 14 Pearl, an expert on attorneys’ fees who opines about the reasonableness of plaintiff’s counsel’s 15 hourly rates. Dkt. Nos. 141, 142, 144, 147. Counsel state that they have made deductions to exclude 16 time spent on unsuccessful claims (approximately 78.8 hours). 17 Defendants contend that the Court should reduce the fee request by 80% on the ground that 18 many of plaintiff’s claims were ultimately unsuccessful. Defendants also argue, inter alia, that 19 Steward is not entitled to a multiplier (and that counsel have not segregated work attributable to the 20 Bane Act claim), that plaintiff’s counsel’s rates are too high, and that plaintiff’s counsel overstaffed 21 the case. Defendants contend that the Court should award no more than $30,650. 22 The Court finds it appropriate to reduce plaintiff’s lodestar by 50% to account for plaintiff’s 23 limited success, for a total of $180,117.50.2 “[T]he extent of a plaintiff’s success is a crucial factor 24 in determining the proper amount of an award of attorney’s fees” under § 1988.” Hensley v. 25 Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 440 (1983). Courts may, in their discretion, reduce a fee award to reflect 26 27 1 Plaintiff submitted a separate bill of costs that was taxed by the Clerk. See Dkt. No. 157. 28 2 For the same reason, the Court finds a multiplier is not appropriate. 2 Case 3:18-cv-04119-SI Document 158 Filed 01/10/22 Page 3 of 4 1 limited success, such as when a plaintiff only prevails on some claims, or only against one of several 2 defendants. See Lytle v. Carl, 382 F.3d 978, 989 (9th Cir. 2004) (district court did not abuse 3 discretion by reducing fees when plaintiff did not prevail on majority of original claims); Webb v. 4 Sloan, 330 F.3d 1158, 1169-70 (9th Cir. 2003) (finding discretionary reduction of attorneys’ fees to 5 reflect limited success appropriate where plaintiff initially sued several defendants, but prevailed 6 against only one, and had claims related to plaintiff’s arrest, detention, and prosecution); Harris v. 7 Marhoefer, 24 F.3d 16, 18-19 (9th Cir. 1994) (affirming district court’s 50% reduction of attorneys’ 8 fees in civil rights case based on plaintiff’s partial success). Here, Steward prevailed on his § 1983 and Bane Act claims against Deputy West based on 10 the July 12, 2017 altercation, and was unsuccessful on his other claims either at summary judgment 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 9 or at trial. The Court finds that a 50% reduction in the lodestar reflects plaintiff’s limited success, 12 while also accounting for the fact that the successful claims against Deputy West were factually 13 intertwined with many of the unsuccessful claims, including: 14 inadequate training led to the constitutional violations; his claim that Graham gave him a “rough 15 ride” after the altercation (raising questions of whether Steward’s injuries were caused by the 16 altercation, the ride, or both); and claims that he suffered negative consequences of being labeled 17 the aggressor in the fight by West, such as witness intimidation and punitive rehousing decisions by 18 defendant Alvarez, defamation by defendant Le in a television interview after the incident, and 19 intimidation and harassment by defendant Internal Affairs investigator Valle. 20 circumstances, the Court finds it appropriate to significantly reduce the fees sought, but not by the 21 80% proposed by defendant. Steward’s Monell claim that Under these 22 The Court is not persuaded by defendants’ contention that the fees should be further reduced 23 because Steward did not recover significant monetary damages. As an initial matter, the Court notes 24 that at trial Steward did not request a particular dollar amount in damages, and the Court could have 25 awarded nominal damages. Based on the evidence of Steward’s injuries and continuing headaches, 26 the Court awarded him compensatory damages of $10,000. The Court awarded punitive damages 27 of $1,000 based upon its finding that “Deputy West’s actions, particularly his decision to disregard 28 his training of contraband searches and repeatedly striking plaintiff in the head with a pepper spray 3 Case 3:18-cv-04119-SI Document 158 Filed 01/10/22 Page 4 of 4 1 can, to be either reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights or safety of plaintiff 2 Aaron Steward” and that West’s actions “were a shocking abuse of power.” Dkt. No. 135 at 10. Moreover, “the dollar amount lawyers recover for their clients is not the sole measure of the 4 results the prevailing parties’ attorneys obtained.” Gonzalez v. City of Maywood, 729 F.3d 1196, 5 1209-10 (9th Cir. 2013). “Attorneys who win a civil rights claim not only benefit their client in 6 terms of the amount of money they recover, they also confer benefits on others throughout society 7 by, for example, ending institutional civil rights abuses or clarifying standards of constitutional 8 conduct.” Id. at 1210. “Even in cases seeking only monetary relief, ‘a successful civil rights 9 plaintiff often secures important social benefits that are not reflected in nominal or relatively small 10 damage awards.’ Therefore, it is inappropriate for a district court to reduce a fee award below the 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 3 lodestar simply because the damages obtained are small.” Quesada v. Thomason, 850 F.2d 537, 12 540 (9th Cir. 1988) (quoting City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 574 (1986)). 13 The Court is not persuaded by defendants’ remaining challenges to plaintiff’s fee request. 14 This case was factually and legally complicated and involved extensive discovery, and the Court 15 finds the case was not overstaffed. At trial (this Court’s first zoom trial with live testimony during 16 the COVID pandemic), plaintiff’s counsel ably navigated numerous logistical challenges, including 17 in presenting remote testimony from multiple incarcerated witnesses. Finally, the Court finds that 18 the declarations of counsel as well as that of Mr. Pearl support the reasonableness of counsel’s rates. 19 CONCLUSION 20 21 22 Accordingly, for the reasons set forth above, the Court GRANTS IN PART plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees and awards $180,117.50 in fees. 23 24 IT IS SO ORDERED. 25 26 27 Dated: January 10, 2022 ______________________________________ SUSAN ILLSTON United States District Judge 28 4

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