United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
KRISTIE ST. CLAIR REED, Plaintiff,
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS/COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, Defendant.
GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.
This case is presently before the court on the motion for attorneys' fees and expenses filed by Plaintiff Kristie St. Clair Reed. For the following reasons, that motion will be granted in part.
The facts of this case are outlined in detail in the court's memorandum opinion granting in part and denying in part VDOC's motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 35. Thus, only a brief summary follows here.
Reed worked as a senior correctional officer at Bland Correctional Center ("BCC") in Bland, Virginia from 2007 until she was terminated in 2012. Reed asserted that she was sexually harassed by her co-worker, Sergeant James Mitchell, from 2009 to 2012. Reed reported the harassment to BCC officials on April 8, 2012, after she was reprimanded for failing to remain "on post" while working as a dorm officer in one of BCC's dormitories. On May 18, 2012, Reed was terminated from her position, purportedly based on her disciplinary record. Reed brought this action against VDOC on November 15, 2013, alleging that her sexual harassment and subsequent termination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Specifically, Reed asserted claims of hostile work environment, quid pro quo discrimination, sex discrimination, and retaliation. On September 16, 2014, the court granted summary judgment to VDOC on Reed's claims of quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment. See Docket No. 35.
On September 22-23, 2014, a bifurcated jury trial was conducted on Reed's remaining claims of gender discrimination and retaliation. The jury returned a verdict in Reed's favor on her retaliation claim only. Reed and VDOC agreed to forego the damages phase of the trial. Instead, the parties stipulated to the applicable amount of compensatory damages and submitted the issues of back pay and attorney's fees to the court for decision. See Docket Nos. 41, 48. The court entered final judgment in Reed's favor in the amount of $76, 740.28 on November 13, 2014. See Docket No. 62. Thereafter, VDOC filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, which the court denied on May 15, 2015. See Docket No. 74.
Reed filed the present motion for attorneys' fees and costs on October 29, 2015. See Docket No. 58. The motion has been fully briefed and was argued on February 20, 2015. It is now ripe for review.
A prevailing party in a Title VII action "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1976); see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) ("In any action or proceeding under this subchapter[, ] the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee... as part of the costs..."). In Hensley, the Supreme Court stated that "[t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable attorney fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." 461 U.S. at 433. The Fourth Circuit has adopted twelve factors that courts should consider when determining this "lodestar" amount. See Barber v. Kimbrell's. Inc., 577 F.2d 216, 226 n.28 (4th Cir. 1978) (adopting factors set forth in Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express. Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974)). These factors include: (1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questioned raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney's opportunity cost in pressing the litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attorney's expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorney; (10) the undesireability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between the attorney and client; and (12) attorney's fees in similar cases. See Johnson, 488 F.2d at 717-19. A party seeking attorneys' fees must set forth complete and accurate time records to enable the court to make an appropriate calculation and award. See Daly v. Hill, 790 F.2d 1071, 1079 (4th Cir. 1986).
Reed seeks a total award of $114, 263.43, comprised of $108, 870.00 in attorneys' fees and $5, 393.43 in costs. See Docket No. 58. VDOC does not oppose an award of attorneys' fees and costs in this action. See Docket No. 61. VDOC contends, however, that the court should award Reed a lesser amount than she requests, because Reed's attorneys should be compensated at a lower hourly rate and should be compensated only for time expended on Reed's successful retaliation claim. The court will consider each argument in turn.
Reed asks that her attorneys be compensated at an hourly rate of $300. By contrast, VDOC argues that they should receive no more than $240 per hour. A party seeking a fee award must prove that the hourly rate requested is reasonable. See McAfee v. Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 91 (4th Cir. 2013). When determining a reasonable rate, the court should consider the prevailing market rate in the relevant community, as well as the background and experience of the individual lawyers involved. See Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 285-86 (1989); Johnson, 488 F.2d at 719. The prevailing market rate can be established through evidence of the attorneys' billing practices, comparison to fee awards in similar cases, and affidavits reciting fees of counsel from the relevant community with similar qualifications. See Spell v. McDaniel. 824 F.2d 1380, 1402 (4th Cir. 1987).
Reed's attorneys, Mr. Tommy Strelka and Ms. Leigh Strelka, have submitted affidavits outlining their educational backgrounds and professional experience. See Docket Nos. 58-1, 58-2. According to his affidavit, Mr. Strelka was admitted to practice law in Virginia in 2007. He worked for one year as a law clerk to United States District Judge James C. Turk and one year as a law clerk for Justice Lawrence L. Koontz of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Mr. Strelka began his practice focused on plaintiffs' employment law in 2009. According to her affidavit, Ms. Strelka was admitted to practice law in Virginia in 2006. She also worked as a law clerk for Judge Turk for one year. She then began her practice in labor and employment law in 2007 with the Roanoke firm of Gentry, Locke, Rakes & Moore, primarily representing corporate defendants. In 2011, Ms. Strelka left the law firm and began working with Mr. Strelka on plaintiffs' employment cases.
In their affidavits, the Strelkas state that they are familiar with the market in Virginia for litigation arising under federal employment statutes like Title VII. Both aver that $300 per hour "falls within the range of prevailing market rates charged and collected by Virginia attorneys of similar educational background and experience for work in litigation arising under federal employment statutes or in similarly complex matters." Reed has also provided affidavits from attorneys Paul Beers and Arthur Strickland. See Docket Nos. 63-1, 63-2. These affidavits state that an hourly rate of $300 is reasonable and consistent with rates charged by employment lawyers in the Western District of Virginia who have qualifications and experience similar to the Strelkas.
In response, VDOC has provided the court with five affidavits filed by attorneys in other cases in this court. See Docket No. 61. At least one of these affidavits includes a fee request for legal services performed over ten years ago. These affidavits show that attorneys with background and experience similar to the Strelkas have sought to be compensated at hourly rates ranging from $150 to $285, and that attorneys with more experience have sought to be compensated at hourly rates ranging from $200 to $425. In almost all of these cases, the court used the requested hourly rate to calculate the fee awarded. In one exception, the court reduced a senior attorney's hourly rate from $425 per hour to $375 per hour. Considering the record as a whole, the court finds that Reed has satisfactorily established that the rate of $300 per hour is reasonable, based on the prevailing market rate in the Western District of Virginia for attorneys with similar experience handling similar cases. ...