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Reeder v. County of Wayne

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 3, 2016

Yasin Reeder, Plaintiff,
v.
County of Wayne, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Hon. Gershwin A. Drain United States District Court Judge

         United States District Court Judge Gershwin A. Drain United States Magistrate Judge David R. Grand Order Granting Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees [62] and Denying Defendant's Motion for Attorneys' Fees [70]

         I. Introduction

         This Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) case was tried before a jury in July 2016. At the conclusion of the six-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff on one count of FMLA Interference and awarded him $187, 500.00 in past economic damages. Dkt. No. 58.

         This matter is now before the Court on Plaintiff's and Defendant's post-trial motions for attorneys' fees and costs, accrued pre-judgment interest and post-judgment interest. See Dkt. No. 62, 70. Defendant responded in opposition to Plaintiff's Motion, to which Plaintiff replied. See Dkt. No. 64, 67. Similarly, Plaintiff responded in opposition to Defendant's Motion. See Dkt. No. 74. Defendant did not reply to Plaintiff's response.

         The Court heard oral argument on this matter on October 31, 2016, and at the conclusion of the hearing, took the matter under advisement. Having had the opportunity to review the parties' briefs, supporting documents, and the entire record of this matter, and having reviewed and considered the oral arguments of counsel, the Court is now prepared to rule on this matter. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Plaintiff's Motion and denies Defendant's Motion.

         II. Discussion

         Under the American Rule, “parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees, ” “absent explicit statutory authority.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 602-03, (2001). Nevertheless, Congress has provided that a “prevailing party” may be awarded attorney's fees under numerous statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 259, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 104 Stat. 327, 42 U.S.C. § 12205. Whether fees are awarded is a matter within the Court's discretion. See id. Additionally, Congress designated that an award of attorney's fees, reasonable expert witness fees, and other costs is mandatory when the plaintiff has proved that the defendant violated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). See 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(3); Bond v. Abbott Labs., 188 F.3d 506 (6th Cir. 1999) (per curiam).

         A. Defendant's Motion for Attorneys' Fees

         Defendant seeks attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) and 42 U.S.C. § 12205. The Court, “in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs” for claims brought under the ADA. 42 U.S.C. § 12205. Similarly, the Court, “in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs, ” for claims under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k).

         Defendant asserts that because Plaintiff's Title VII, ADA, and FMLA retaliation claims did not result in a favorable jury verdict, it is entitled to attorneys' fees in the amount of $208, 867.50. Dkt. No. 70, p. 3 (Pg. ID No. 1642).

         A prevailing defendant must meet a stricter standard to qualify for a fee award than a prevailing plaintiff under civil rights statutes. See Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980). A defendant is entitled to fees when the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or lacking foundation, even though it was not brought in subjective bad faith. Id. (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978)). “The plaintiff's action must be meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation. The fact that a plaintiff may ultimately lose his case is not in itself a sufficient justification for the assessment of fees.” Id.

         The Supreme Court specifically cautioned against granting awards of attorneys' fees too freely to prevailing defendants:

In applying these criteria, it is important that a district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation. This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success. No matter how honest one's belief that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter how meritorious one's claim may appear at the outset, the course of litigation is rarely predictable. Decisive facts may not emerge until discovery or trial. The law may change or clarify in the midst of litigation. Even when the law or the facts appear questionable or unfavorable at the outset, a party may have an entirely reasonable ground for bringing suit.

Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421-22 (1978). See also Jones v. Cont'l Corp., 789 F.2d 1225, 1232 (6th Cir. 1986) (“An award of attorney's fees against a losing plaintiff in a civil rights action is an extreme sanction, and must be limited to truly egregious cases of misconduct.”).

         In the present case, Plaintiff's complaint originally alleged ten claims for discrimination arising out of his mental disabilities of anxiety and depression, his employer's refusal to accommodate his medical restrictions, and claims that coworkers of other races with physical disabilities were granted accommodations. Dkt. No. 3.

         Two of Plaintiff's claims-Counts V and IX[1] for race discrimination under Title VII and the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA)-were dismissed upon Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 28, p. 36 (Pg. ID No. 563). The Court came to this conclusion by finding that Plaintiff had not carried the burden of establishing he was treated differently than “similarly situated” employees, not by any finding that such claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. See id.

         At trial, the Court granted Defendant's Motion for a Directed Verdict on two more claims, Counts VI and X, finding that Plaintiff failed to satisfy his burden to establish a prima facie case of racial retaliation under Title VII and ELCRA, respectively. See Dkt. No. 56. Again, the Court did not find that these claims had been groundless or without foundation. Rather, the Court found that the evidence presented did not meet the minimum standard required to proceed.

         After deliberation, the jury determined that Defendant had interfered with Plaintiff's FMLA rights, and awarded him $187, 500.00 in past economic damages. Dkt. No. 58. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant on the five other remaining claims, arising under the ADA, Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, and FMLA. See id.

         Defendant argues that the “only one claim [that was] assuredly not ‘frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, ' ” is the one “to which the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff.” Dkt. No. 70, p. 8 (Pg. ID No. 1647). To accept such an argument would be to expressly disregard the Supreme Court's admonition that “a district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation.” Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 421-22. The Court declines to engage in hindsight bias, particularly as the facts presented in this case do not warrant such an extreme sanction.

         Plaintiff's conduct in filing and maintaining his civil rights claims does not rise to the level of a truly egregious case of misconduct that merits awarding attorney's fees to a defendant pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 12205 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Consequently, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion for Attorneys' Fees [70].

         B. Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees

         Plaintiff seeks an award of $ 182, 255.00 for attorneys' fees for 692.6 hours of attorney time. Dkt. No. 62, pp. 2, 12 (Pg. ID No. 1430, 1440).

         The FMLA provides that the Court, “shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff, allow a reasonable attorney's fee, reasonable expert witness fees, and other costs of the action to be paid by the defendant.” 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(3). Thus, an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing plaintiff under the FMLA is mandatory, leaving only the amount of the award within the discretion of the judge. Despite the mandatory nature of the fees, courts analyze motions for attorney's fees under the FMLA the same way as motions for discretionary attorney's fees under other civil rights statutes. Clements v. Prudential Protective Servs., LLC, 100 F.Supp.3d 604, 613-14 (E.D. Mich. 2015), aff'd, No. 15-1603, 2016 WL 4120679 (6th Cir. Aug. 3, 2016) (citing Bell v. Prefix, Inc., 784 F.Supp.2d 778, 781 (E.D. Mich. 2011)).

         The Sixth Circuit considers of the twelve-factor test first enunciated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974), when analyzing the reasonableness of a requested fee. Reed v. Rhodes, 179 F.3d 453, 471-72 (6th Cir. 1999). The twelve Johnson factors are:

(1) The time and labor required;
(2) The novelty and difficulty of the questions;
(3) The skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;
(4) The preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to ...

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