United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
ROBERT E. LEE SUPINGER, JR., Plaintiff,
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, et al., Defendants.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
S. BALLOU UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Robert E. Lee Supinger, Jr., (“Supinger”) filed
this action related to grievances alleged during and after
his employment with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
(“DMV”). Supinger initially alleged fourteen
claims against multiple Defendants associated with the DMV.
Supinger sought injunctive relief and reinstatement; $5, 000,
000 in compensatory damages; $5, 000, 000 in
liquidated/punitive damages; $250, 000 in back pay; $1, 000,
000 in front pay; and pre-judgment interest, costs, and
attorneys' fees. Dkt. 23. The district court denied
qualified immunity and granted Supinger summary judgment as
to the due process claims, but dismissed all other asserted
claims. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court in an
interlocutory appeal and remanded the case for damages.
Thereafter, the parties reached a confidential settlement
agreement following mediation to resolve all claims. There
can be no doubt that this contentious case was hard-fought at
every step of the litigation. Ultimately, Supinger secured a
substantial settlement and is the prevailing party, thus
entitling him to attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. §
district court has referred to me Supinger's motions for
attorneys' fees and costs. Dkts. 211, 213. Supinger now
seeks $806, 882.50 in attorney's fees and $3, 415.51 in
costs, plus interest at the judgment rate. Dkt. 212. Supinger
seeks additional attorney's fees in the amount of $37,
740.00 incurred from additional work since filing his
original motion, for a total claim of attorneys' fees of
$844, 622.50. Dkt. 223. Specifically, the petition
includes fees from both Supinger's original counsel and
the attorneys who prosecuted the case when the original
counsel developed a conflict and had to withdraw.
Additional Hours Billed for Fee
Total Fees Sought
Terry N. Grimes
Brittany M. Haddox
Melvin E. Williams
Micah D. Wright
Andrew D. Meyer
DMV, Richard Holcomb, Joseph Hill, and Jeannie Thorpe
(collectively, “Defendants”) partially oppose the
motion for attorneys' fees and expenses and request that
the Court substantially reduce any award. Dkt. 221. Having
considered the record, legal arguments submitted, and
applicable law, I recommend that the District Court
GRANT Supinger's Motion for
Attorneys' Fees (Dkt. 211), and Motion for Bill of Costs
(Dkt. 213), and award $488, 962.60 in attorneys' fees and
$2, 704.90 in costs, for a total award of $491, 667.50.
Factual and Procedural Background 
Robert E. Lee Supinger, Jr., was a former Assistant Special
Agent in Charge at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
(“DMV”) Lynchburg office. Supinger was unhappy
with several aspects of his workplace at the DMV, which he
raised with his direct supervisors and the DMV
administration. He was suspended on February 28, 2012, and
terminated on April 9, 2013. Supinger filed this action on
July 8, 2015, asserting fourteen claims against various
defendants related to his employment with the DMV and
subsequent termination, most of which the District Court
dismissed for failure to state a claim or granted summary
judgment for Defendants. Relevant here is Supinger's claim
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that Defendants denied him
procedural due process related to his efforts to grieve the
termination of his employment in violation of the Fifth and
Fourteenth Amendments against four named
Defendants. The District Court granted summary
judgment in favor of Supinger on July 20, 2016, on his
procedural due process claim, finding that Supinger's due
process rights were violated in connection with his
termination and the subsequent grievance process. Dkt. 141.
Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal, arguing that they
were entitled to qualified immunity. Dkt. 150. The Fourth
Circuit affirmed the judgment and remanded this action to the
District Court on the question of damages. Dkt. 198. The
parties thereafter resolved the damages question in
mediation. Dkt. 212, 1-2. Supinger's motions for
attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1988 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) followed.
Dkts. 211, 213. Supinger retained two sets of counsel in this
case, and the fee petition accounts for all attorneys that
any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of section
. . . 1983 . . . of this title, ” section 1988 permits
“the court, in its discretion, [to] allow the
prevailing party . . . reasonable attorneys' fee[s] as
part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The
plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the amount
of fees sought is reasonable. See Hensley v.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). The parties agree
here that Supinger is the prevailing party for purposes of an
award of attorneys' fees and costs. See Dkt.
Fourth Circuit follows a three-step process to determine a
reasonable attorneys' fee award. McAfee v.
Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir. 2013), as
amended (Jan. 23, 2014). First, the court determines the
lodestar figure, which is calculated by multiplying the
reasonable number of hours expended by the reasonable hourly
rate. Id. Courts evaluate the reasonableness of the
hours expended and rates sought on fee petitions under the
lodestar method using the factors identified in Johnson
v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19
(5th Cir. 1974), as adopted by Barber v. Kimbrell's
Inc., 577 F.2d 216, 226 n.28 (4th Cir. 1978). See
Robinson v. Equifax Info. Servs., 560 F.3d 235, 243-44
(4th Cir. 2009). A strong presumption exists that a
properly calculated lodestar figure is reasonable. Perdue
v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 554 (2010). That
presumption may be overcome only in rare circumstances in
which the lodestar does not adequately take into account a
factor that may properly be considered in determining a
reasonable fee. Id. Second, the court subtracts fees
for hours spent on unsuccessful claims related to successful
claims. McAfee, 738 F.3d at 88. Finally, the court
awards a percentage of the remaining amount to the plaintiff,
depending on the degree of success of the prevailing
party's claims. Id.
seeks rates of $400.00 per hour for attorney Terry Grimes and
$250.00 per hour for attorney Brittany Haddox. Dkt. 212, at 18.
The hourly rate included in an attorneys' fees request
must be reasonable, which is generally determined by the
prevailing market rates in the relevant legal community for
the type of work for which an award is sought.
McAfee, 738 F.3d at 91. The relevant community is
usually that in which the district court sits. Rum Creek
Coal Sales, Inc. v. Caperton, 31 F.3d 169, 179 (4th Cir.
1994). Determining the prevailing rate in the relevant
community “may be established through affidavits
reciting the fees of counsel with similar qualifications,
information concerning fee awards in similar cases, and/or
specific evidence of counsel's billing practice.”
Freeman v. Potter, No. 7:04cv00276, 2006 WL 2631722,
at *4 (W.D. Va. Sept. 13, 2006) (citing Spell v.
McDaniel, 824 F.2d 1380, 1402 (4th Cir. 1987)).
case was filed in the Lynchburg Division of the Western
District of Virginia. Supinger states that “[f]ew
employment discrimination cases are successfully prosecuted
in the [W]estern [D]istrict of Virginia.” Dkt. 212, at
5. Because Supinger agrees that he prosecuted this case in
the Western District of Virginia, I find the relevant market
is Central and Southwest Virginia.
supports his attorneys' rates by focusing on three
Johnson factors: the skill required by his
attorneys, the difficulty of the questions raised in this
litigation, and (to some extent) the results obtained. In
addition to claiming that few employment discrimination cases
are successful in this District, Supinger further claims that
an award of summary judgment, affirmed by the Fourth Circuit,
is “extremely rare, ” and that the law in the
area of employment law is so fluid that it changes daily and
requires attorneys to constantly research appellate
decisions. Dkt. 212, at 5. Supinger, however, fails to
include any evidence for those contentions. I do not find
that this area of the law is so complicated as to require a
premium on the prevailing market rate simply because it is
rapidly changing. Skilled attorneys must routinely keep
themselves apprised of changes in their areas of practice as
part of their ongoing duties to their clients and the courts.
includes a number of affidavits from other employment law
attorneys who are familiar with Mr. Grimes and Ms. Haddox.
Those attorneys confirm the rates for Mr. Grimes and Ms.
Haddox in this case. See Dkt. 212, Ex. 2. Recent fee
awards in similar cases are helpful in shedding additional
light on the rates. Mr. Grimes and Ms. Haddox were counsel
for a plaintiff in a recent Title VII civil rights case, in
which Judge Conrad found that rates of $350.00 and $225.00
for Mr. Grimes and Ms. Haddox, respectively, to be reasonable
after considering their backgrounds and similar affidavits.
Brown v. Mountain View Cutters, LLC, 222 F.Supp.3d
504, 513 (W.D. Va. 2016). Additionally, in a companion case
to Supinger's arising from (at least partially) the same
set of facts, Mr. Grimes submitting an affidavit in which he
endorsed a fee of $350.00 for lead counsel and $225.00 for
counsel's associate as reasonable for employment lawyers
practicing in the Western District of Virginia. See
Pl.'s Brief/Memorandum in Support of Motion for Attorney
Fees and Costs, Wootten v. Commonwealth of Virginia,
6:14-cv-13 (W.D. Va. Jan. 13, 2017), Dkt. 243-1, at 14-18.
reviewing fee awards in similar cases, and taking into
account employment practice in the relevant legal market, I
find that an hourly rate of $350.00 for Mr. Grimes and
$225.00 for Ms. Haddox is reasonable for their work performed
in this case.
argue that Supingers's attorneys' fee application
should be drastically reduced due to excessiveness, vagueness
in time entries, block billing, and duplication of efforts.
Excessiveness, Vagueness, and Block Billing
contend that Supinger's counsel spent excessive amounts
of time preparing for matters in which they had limited roles
or that did not require extensive preparation; submitted many
vague time entries such that it is not possible to determine
if the time spent on various tasks is reasonable; and
inappropriately lumped multiple tasks into single, undivided
amounts of time. As a result, Defendants contend that the
Court cannot assess whether the attorneys spent an
appropriate amount of time on the case and thus whether the
fee request is reasonable. Supinger argues that time is
compensable as long as billing statements meet the basic
requirement of listing the hours and identifying the general
subject matter of time expenditures. Dkt. 223, at 13. He also
contends that none of the entries are vague or inaccurate,
and revealing any more detail in the entries would reveal
information protected by attorney-client privilege.
Id. at 16. In light of these arguments and the
materials before me, I recommend an overall 15% reduction for
a combination of excessive billing, vague time entries, and
for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to
exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive,
redundant, or otherwise unnecessary[.]” Hensley v.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983). Courts have found
that “[l]umping and other types of inadequate
documentation are a proper basis for reducing a fee award
because they prevent an accurate determination of the
reasonableness of the time expended in a case.”
Guidry v. Clare, 442 F.Supp.2d 282, 294 (E.D. Va.
2006). “The court's role is not to labor to dissect
every individual entry to hypothesize if the different tasks
in the same entry could reasonably result in the requested
time.” Project Vote/Voting for Am., Inc. v.
Long, 887 F.Supp.2d 704, 716 (E.D. Va. 2012). Courts
reduce the fee award in such circumstances by either
identifying specific hours that are not sufficiently
documented or by reducing the overall fee award by a fixed
percentage based on the trial court's familiarity with
the case, its complexity, and the counsel involved.
Id. at 716.
can be no doubt that this case required significant time and
labor, but the records supporting Supinger's fee petition
do not justify an award for the full amount he requests.
First, Supinger has provided billing records that are replete
with entries that appear excessive on their face because of
the vagueness of the entries. For example, Ms. Haddox spent
4.4 hours “[r]eviewing filings on ECF system”
(Dkt. 212-1, at 7), and 3.1 hours “[r]eading
defendants' appeal opening brief” (id. at
24). Mr. Grimes also submitted entries that included, for
example: 6.9 hours to “[b]egin review of Supinger file
from opposing counsel” (id. at 9); 4.5 hours
to “[r]eview brief filed by counsel for Wootten”
(id. at 21); 8.5 hours to “review deposition
exhibits” (id. at 26); and 6.3 hours for
“[e]mails to and from counsel” (id. at
28). A more stark example is the collection of twenty-three
entries spanning three pages for a total of 144.6 hours that
Mr. Grimes billed for “review” of discovery
documents, transcripts, or briefs. Id. at 32-34.
Additionally, Mr. Grimes billed 34.9 hours to draft
Supinger's attorneys' fee petition. Id. at
38- 39. Without more detailed descriptions, it is not
possible to determine whether the time spent on those and
similar tasks is appropriate. Finally, for Richard
Holcomb's deposition, Supinger seeks compensation for
22.7 hours of preparation (Dkt. 212-1, at 12, 17), but only
3.2 hours for the actual deposition (id. at 17).
These entries give no insight as to the particular tasks
performed beyond reviewing, drafting, or preparing, or the
specific reasons for such time spent on these items. The
apparent excessiveness in the time entries weighs in favor of
reducing the amount of fees awarded.
descriptions plague Supinger's billing records.
“[T]he use of excessively vague time descriptions is a
generally disfavored billing practice. Such descriptions
‘inhibit the court's reasonableness view' and
also ‘justify a percentage reduction in the fee
award.'” Brown, 222 F.Supp.3d at 514
(citing Ashley II of Charleston, LLC v. PCS Nitrogen,
Inc., No. 2:05-2782, 2015 WL 4469765, at *10 (D.S.C.
July 21, 2015) (citing Local 32B-32J, Service Employees
Intern. Union, AFL-CIO v. Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey, 180 F.R.D. 251, 253 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (reducing
award by 20% for vague time entries, such as
“preparation for trial” and “research and
draft papers”))); accord Rum Creek Coal Sales, Inc.
v. Caperton, 31 F.3d 169, 180 (4th Cir. 1994) (“We
have frequently exhorted counsel to describe specifically the
tasks performed, a practice which is especially necessary
when we review an award in a case where the plaintiff has not
prevailed on all the claims.”).
billing entries are replete with vague descriptions. For
example, Mr. Grimes entered 1.3 hours for “legal
research” (Dkt. 212-1, at 9), and 5.7 hours to
“digest transcripts” (id. at 18). More
problematic is Mr. Grimes's constant use of
“prepare for deposition, ” “work on
transcripts, ” “work on appeal, ”
“prepare for trial, ” “legal research,
” “work on discovery, ” and “work on
appellate brief.” Id. at 3, 5-6, 8-27, 32. Ms.
Haddox, although not nearly as consistently as Mr. Grimes,
also submitted vague time entries, including
“preparation for depositions.” Id. at
16. While these sorts of entries may suffice for short-lived
cases, this litigation has continued for years and amassed
235 docket entries. Furthermore, failing to specifically
describe the tasks the attorneys performed requires this
Court to “labor to dissect” the individual
entries to see how they match up with the various claims and
phases of litigation. The Fourth Circuit in Rum
Creek recognized this problem and implored attorneys to
carefully record their time, particularly in this type of
case in which Supinger prevailed on only one of his original
fourteen claims. Considering all of the above, I recommend
that the regular vagueness of time entries in the billing
records warrants a further reduction in the amount of fees
Defendants argue that Supinger's counsel engaged in
“block billing, ” or the practice of lumping
multiple tasks into the same billing entry. Courts in the
Fourth Circuit have routinely held that block billing does
not provide the court with a sufficient breakdown to support
an attorneys' fee request. “Inadequate
documentation includes the practice of grouping, or
‘lumping,' several tasks together under a single
entry, without specifying the amount of time spent on each
particular task.” Guidry v. Clare, 442
F.Supp.2d 282, 294 (E.D. Va. 2006). “Lumping and other
types of inadequate documentation are thus a proper basis for
reducing a fee award because they prevent an accurate
determination of the reasonableness of the time expended in a
case.” Id. at 294.
are multiple block billing entries in Supinger's billing
records. Mr. Grimes frequently combined multiple tasks into
one billing entry. For example, Mr. Grimes billed 7.3 hours
to “[p]repare for depositions of Elizabeth Jensen, John
Dawson, Thomas Dash and Ronna Howard” (Dkt. 212-1, at
16); 3.9 hours to “[r]eview VRS member benefits
profile, 2010 W-2 and earnings summary, 2011 W-2 and earnings
summary, 2012 tax return, and work on damages
calculations” (id. at 23); 6.2 hours to
“[r]eview DMV's opposition to consolidation in
Wootten case and work on reply memorandum and email to
counsel concerning consolidation” (id. at 32);
and 5.3 hours to “[r]eview order from Judge Moon in
Stultz and research concerning question posed by the Court
and conf[e]rence with counsel to discuss these matters”
(id. at 36). While not nearly as frequently as Mr.
Grimes, Ms. Haddox occasionally lumped together her billing
entries. For example, she submitted one entry for 2.7 hours
for “oral argument of summary judgment motions in
Stultz in preparation for our upcoming motions and hearings
and reviewing letter filed by defendants concerning ...