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Satgunam v. Basson

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

August 24, 2017

Shean Satgunam, Plaintiff,
Marc Basson, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on each parties' objections to the Special Master's Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 334) regarding attorney's fees and costs. The parties have followed a winding path while litigating this case for the last five years, ultimately resulting in Plaintiff gaining a due process hearing and, after a two-day jury trial, an award of $100, 000 in punitive damages for denial of due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As a result of the punitive damages award, Plaintiff is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Now, the legal battle continues-shifting to a dispute over Plaintiff's counsel's hourly rate and compensable hours, among other things. A Special Master, H. Rhett Pinsky (“Pinsky”), was appointed pursuant to Federal Rule Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 53(b)(1) to make a recommendation as to attorney's fees and costs. Pinsky has filed his Report and Recommendation (R&R) with the Court. In accordance with FRCP 53(f), the Court thereafter ordered the parties to respond with their objections within 14 days. (ECF No. 335.) The Court now proceeds to review the R&R and consider appropriate action in light of Pinsky's findings and analysis.

         The parties largely accept the R&R but cannot agree as to the proper measure of fees for Plaintiff's counsel, Herron; disputes remain as to both his compensable hourly rate and the total number of hours for which fees can be awarded.

         First, Pinsky adjudged Herron's applicable hourly rate to be $350. He came to this figure based upon his personal knowledge that competent employment lawyers in Grand Rapids charge between 300 and 400 dollars an hour. Plaintiff argues that an attorney with healthcare expertise was needed and that a rate of $390 reflects the rate health care attorneys command. Defendant argues that Herron is a general practitioner and that the appropriate barometer for his fee is $250 an hour, reflective of the market for employment lawyers in Kalamazoo and/or Lansing.

         Second, Plaintiff objects to the percentage-based reduction Pinsky applied to Herron's hours. Pinsky found that 33.3 percent of Herron's hours prior to the appeal related to Plaintiff's successful legal claim, amounting to 106.3 compensable hours of the 319 hours he sought. Instead, Plaintiff argues that 85 percent of Herron's pre-appeal hours are compensable because he believes he “prevailed” in obtaining equitable relief as well as on the legal claim. He additionally asserts that his actual time spent pursuing the successful legal claim amounted to 202 hours, or 63.3 percent of his pre-appeal work.

         Finally, the parties dispute Pinsky's conclusion that Mercedes Dordeski was not entitled to fees. Plaintiff claims that the Court directed him to proceed with an administrative hearing with the Secretary of Health and Human Services; the Defendant responds that the Court merely informed Plaintiff that his argument over MSU's “eligibility” to file reports with the National Practitioners' Data Bank was subject to the exhaustion requirement and that it did not direct Plaintiff to pursue a hearing.

         I. Background

         The Court adopts the following summary from the Report and Recommendation for purposes of this motion.[1]

         Plaintiff, a surgeon, was summarily suspended from his position at Michigan State University on the Health Team and his privileges as a member of that team were terminated without a due process hearing on March 8, 2012. Plaintiff, on the same day, filed a lawsuit alleging a due process violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He requested equitable relief through a temporary restraining order which was denied. Eventually, the relief requested included withdrawing a report to the National Practitioners' Data Bank-an entity to which physicians who have lost their privileges are reported. Such report can have a deleterious effect on a physician's career. After much litigation, he was unsuccessful in obtaining such injunctive relief, although the Court on February 13, 2013 ordered a due process hearing, the result of which was to uphold the original decision. However, after a 2-day trial, a jury awarded him a $100, 000 in punitive damages for denial of due process.

         II. Procedural History

         The relevant procedural history can be briefly recounted. After over four years of litigation, Plaintiff's received a jury verdict for a $100, 000 award of punitive damages on his § 1983 claim for violation of his due process rights. (ECF No. 301.) Plaintiff filed a corresponding motion for attorney's fees and costs after judgment entered (ECF No. 303); Defendants filed a response. (ECF No. 306.) The Court then filed a notice of intent to appoint a special master for plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees under FRCP 53. (ECF No. 319.) A corresponding order was entered on March 24, 2017, appointing H. Rhett Pinsky as Special Master. (ECF No. 328.)

         Pinsky then issued a thorough and thoughtful R&R on July 17, 2017. (ECF No. 334). Each party filed their objections in a timely manner (ECF No. 337-38) as well as response briefs. (ECF No. 339-40.) The Court now reviews the objections to the R&R de novo. Fed.R.Civ.P. 53(f).

         III. Analysis

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1888, the court may, in its discretion, provide reasonable attorneys' fees to prevailing parties in § 1983 cases. The primary concern in evaluating a request for attorney's fees “is that the fee awarded be reasonable.” Reed v. Rhodes, 179 F.3d 453, 471 (6th Cir. 1999). “A reasonable fee is one that is adequate to attract competent counsel, but . . . ...

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