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Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Andrus Acoustical, Inc.

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

July 23, 2018

TRUSTEES OF THE DETROIT CARPENTERS FRINGE BENEFIT FUNDS, Plaintiffs,
v.
ANDRUS ACOUSTICAL, INC., a Michigan Corporation, STERLING MILLWORK, INC., a Michigan Corporation, ALAN ANDRUS, an individual, and MARK BOLITHO, an individual, jointly and severally, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS (ECF NO. 113)

          PAUL D. BORMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Trustees of the Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds (“the Funds” or Plaintiffs) filed this action against the Defendants for unpaid fringe benefit contributions pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1145, on October 21, 2011. The Funds have succeeded, after a long and arduous fight, in establishing that the Defendants operated as alter egos to evade fringe benefits due to the Funds. On November 27, 2017, following a four-day bench trial on liability and a two-day bench trial on damages, this Court entered Judgment in favor of the Funds in the amount of $1, 080, 543.38. (ECF No. 112.)

         The Funds have filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (ECF No. 113) and the Defendants have responded seeking a significant (50%) reduction in the requested fees. (ECF No. 148). The Court has thoroughly reviewed the briefs and supporting materials and concludes that oral argument will not assist in resolution of the motion. The Court therefore will decide the matter on the parties' written submissions pursuant to E.D. Mich. L.R. 7.1(f)(2). See also Building Service Local 47 Cleaning Contractors Pension Plan v. Grandview Raceway, 46 F.3d 1392, 1400 (6th Cir. 1995) (holding that “the district court's failure to conduct an evidentiary hearing is not reversible error because a fee application may be decided without a hearing”). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case involved novel alter ego facts and also involved the intricate unraveling of Defendants' fraudulent double-billing scheme. The background of this litigation is set forth in a number of previous Opinions and Orders of this Court. See Trustees of Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Andrus Acoustical, Inc., et al., No. 11-cv-14656, 2018 WL 1980656 (E.D. Mich. April 27, 2018); Trustees of Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Andrus Acoustical, Inc., et al., No. 11-cv-14656, 2016 WL 1125594 (E.D. Mich. March 22, 2016); Trustees of Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Andrus Acoustical, Inc., et al., No. 11-cv-14656, 2014 WL 1746399 (E.D. Mich. April 30, 2014).

         The Funds' counsel (Mr. Walter Fisher was lead counsel for the Funds and is the only attorney whose fees are being sought) was required to conduct an extensive investigation into the conduct of the Defendants which included “the review of four years of weekly timesheets, employee files, job cost logs, job payroll logs, each company's payroll, invoices, accounting ledgers, project contracts, project documents, third party project documents, and emails, ” as well as conducting multiple “meetings with witnesses, depositions of witnesses, and preparing a detailed explanation and presentation of the facts that set forth the intertwined operations of the alter ego.” (ECF No. 151, Pls.' Reply 3, PgID 3170.) Plaintiffs' counsel “review[ed] and analy[zed] thousands of pages of time-sheets and accounting documentation.” (Id.) Many of these documents were introduced during the course of the bench trial and Plaintiffs' counsel's analysis of them and familiarity with their content was critical to the Plaintiffs' case. The Court does not question that a tremendous amount of work was required to piece together the proofs necessary to establish the breadth and depth of the alter ego operation and to present that evidence to the Court in a comprehensive and articulate manner. The level of detail in Plaintiffs' counsel's work was evident at every stage of the litigation.

         Yet Defendants raise a fair challenge to the clarity and detail of Plaintiffs' counsel's billing records in some respects and, for the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that a 15% across-the-board reduction in Plaintiffs' fee request is appropriate.

         II. ANALYSIS

         An award of attorneys' fees to the Plaintiff Funds in this ERISA case for delinquent fringe benefit contributions is mandatory pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2):

(g) Attorney's fees and costs; awards in actions involving delinquent contributions
(2) In any action under this subchapter by a fiduciary for or on behalf of a plan to enforce section 1145 of this title in which a judgment in favor of the plan is awarded, the court shall award the plan-
(D) reasonable attorney's fees and costs of the action, to be paid by the defendant . . . .

29 U.S.C. § 1132(g). See Cleaning Contractors, 46 F.3d at 1400 (“As this action was brought pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1145, an award of reasonable attorneys' fees is mandated by 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2)(D).”). “However, the award of attorneys' fees must be reasonable as determined under the “lodestar” approach.” Id. at 1401. “In applying the lodestar approach, ‘[t]he most useful starting point . . . is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.'” Id. (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). “There is a ‘strong presumption' that this lodestar figure represents a reasonable fee.” Id. (quoting Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, (1986)).

         The Funds seek an attorneys' fee award in the amount of $480, 130.50.[1] The party seeking fees bears the burden of establishing entitlement to the amount claimed for the ...


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