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O'Brien v. City of Benton Harbor

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

February 22, 2017

ROBERT O'BRIEN et al., Plaintiffs,
CITY OF BENTON HARBOR et al., Defendants.


          JANET T. NEFF United States District Judge.

         Following a jury trial and judgment in favor of Plaintiffs in this reverse discrimination case, Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Costs and Paralegal Fees under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and Title VII (Dkt 144); Motion for Prejudgment Interest on Entire Judgment (Dkt 147); and Proposed Bill of Costs (Dkt 150). Defendants have filed Responses in opposition to the motions (Dkts 152, 153). For the reasons that follow, the Court grants in part and denies in part both motions, and grants the proposed Bill of Costs.

         I. Background

         The undersigned has presided over this case since its inception in June 2014. Plaintiffs' Complaint (Dkt 1) alleged four counts: Count I, Violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Count II, Violation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA); Count III, Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause; and Count IV, Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983's Rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Following discovery, the Court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment of Count IV (42 U.S.C. § 1981 claim), but denied the motion as to Counts I (Title VII), II (Michigan's ELCRA) and III (§ 1983).

         The case was tried before a jury over five days. On June 20, 2016, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs on two of the three counts presented to them: ELCRA and Title VII, but found no violation of § 1983 (Count III). This Court entered judgment for Plaintiffs in accordance with the jury's award to each Plaintiff: (1) Robert O'Brien, $67, 000.00 in lost back wages and $100, 000.00 for emotional pain and mental anguish; (2) Daniel Unruh, $32, 000.00 in lost back wages and $10, 000.00 for emotional pain and mental anguish.

         Plaintiffs now move for attorneys' fees, costs and interest pursuant to the fee-shifting provisions of the ELCRA and Title VII, and pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d).

         II. Analysis

         Title VII provides that "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs ...." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Likewise, in an action brought under the ELCRA, a court "may award all or a portion of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney fees and witness fees, to the complainant in the action if the court determines that the award is appropriate." Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2802.

         Plaintiffs move for attorneys' fees, costs and interest (Dkt 144) as follows: Attorneys' Fees, $200, 893.00; Costs (other than taxable), $12, 676.50; and Paralegal Costs, $3, 815.50. Plaintiffs additionally filed a Bill of Costs (Dkt 150), seeking taxable costs of $2, 403.95. Plaintiffs move for an award of prejudgment interest in the amount of $22, 528.12 (Dkt 147).

         Defendants do not dispute Plaintiffs' general entitlement to reimbursement as prevailing parties, but argue that their request for fees and costs should be significantly reduced. Defendants assert that Plaintiffs declined to settle this case despite settlement offers in excess of the jury award, which resulted in the unnecessary expenditure of resources by Defendants and the Court. Defendants argue that the Court, in the exercise of its discretion and given its familiarity with the complexity of the case, should make a lodestar reduction of 50 percent to Plaintiffs' appropriate costs and fees from May 19, 2014 forward, which is the date Plaintiffs' counsel began researching legal issues involving the complaint in this case. Defendants oppose an award of prejudgment interest.

         The Court considers each component of Plaintiffs' requests in turn.

         A. Attorney Fees

         The methodology for determining a reasonable attorney fee award begins with the "lodestar" calculation: the proven number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by the court-ascertained reasonable hourly rate. Jordan v. City of Cleveland, 464 F.3d 584, 602 (6th Cir. 2006); Adcock-Ladd v. Sec'y of Treasury, 227 F.3d 343, 349 (6th Circ. 2000) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). The court may then adjust the "lodestar" to reflect "relevant considerations peculiar to the subject litigation." Adcock-Ladd, 227F.3dat349. "The factors which the district court may consider, either in determining the basic lodestar fee and/or adjustments thereto, include the twelve listed in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717- 19 (5th Cir. 1974)." Adcock-Ladd, 227 F.3d at 349. These factors, known as the "Johnson factors" are:

"(1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the question; (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorney; (10) the 'undesirability' of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases."

Geier v. Sundquist, 372 F.3d 784, 792 (6th Cir. 2004) (quoting Johnson, 488 F.2d at 717-19). '"The primary concern in an attorney fee case is that the fee awarded be reasonable, that is, one that is adequately compensatory to attract competent counsel yet which avoids producing a windfall for lawyers.'" Geier, 372 F.3d at 791 (quoting Reed v. Rhodes, 179 F.3d 453, 471 (6th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted)).

         1. Lodestar

         Plaintiffs' counsel seeks attorney fees in the amount of $200, 893.00, representing 601.7 hours at rates of $260, $290 and $350 per hour because of hourly rate increases overtime (Dkt 145-2 at PageID.3459):

$260.00 x 41.4 - $10, 764 beginning May 9, 2013
$290.00 x 99.6 - rate change as of May 20, 2014 - $28, 884
$350.00 x 460.7 - rate change as of May 19, 2015 - ...

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