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Supinger v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

April 2, 2019

Robert E. Lee Supinger, Jr., Plaintiff,
Commonwealth of Virginia, ET AL., Defendants.



         The Court referred Plaintiff Robert E. Lee Supinger, Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”) motions for attorneys' fees and costs to Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou for proposed factual findings and a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The matter is now before the Court on Plaintiff's motions for attorney fees and costs, (dkts. 211, 213), the Report and Recommendation of Judge Ballou, (dkt. 236, hereinafter “R&R”), and both parties' objections thereto, (dkts. 240, 241). Judge Ballou recommended that this Court award Plaintiff a fee award of $488, 962.60, and a costs award of $2, 704.90, for a total of $491, 667.50. Plaintiff and Defendants filed a total of eight objections to the R&R, and so the Court will review those portions of the R&R de novo. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will overrule Plaintiff's objections, sustain in part and overrule in part Defendants' objections, and adopt the R&R as modified to reflect Wooten v. Commonwealth, No. 6:14-cv-13.

         I. Legal Standard

         District courts can award reasonable attorney's fees to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation. 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The amount of the fee must be determined by the facts of each case, and “the fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (4th Cir. 1983). Fee awards should be “adequate to attract competent counsel, but . . . not produce windfalls to attorneys.” City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 580 (1986). “[T]he proper calculation of an attorney's fee award involves a three step process.” McAfee v. Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir. 2013). First, the court must calculate the lodestar figure by multiplying the number of reasonable hours extended by a reasonable rate. Id. To determine these variables the Court should apply the factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974).[1] Id. (citing Robinson v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 560 F.3d 235, 243 (4th Cir. 2009). Second, the Court must “subtract fees for hours spent on unsuccessful claims unrelated to successful ones.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Finally, the Court should award a percentage of the remaining amount “depending on the degree of success enjoyed by Plaintiff.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).

         When a court refers a matter to a magistrate judge, any objections to the magistrate judge's R&R must be reviewed de novo. Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see also 28 U.S.C.A. § 636(b)(1). In addressing the objections, “[t]he district court does not need to provide an elaborate or lengthy explanation, but it must provide a specific rationale that permits meaningful appellate review.” Cruz v. Marshall, 673 Fed.Appx. 296, 299 (4th Cir. 2016).

         II. Analysis

         The parties do not object to the R&R's recitation of the facts or procedural history in this case, and for that reason that portion of the R&R will be incorporated into this opinion. (See R&R at 2-4). Briefly, Plaintiff filed suit in 2015, asserting fourteen claims against various defendants. (Id. at 3). Most of his claims were dismissed for failure to state a claim or summary judgment was granted for Defendants. (Id.). This Court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff regarding his procedural due process claim. (Id.). That judgment was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit. (Dkts. 141, 198). The Fourth Circuit remanded the case for a trial on damages, but the parties reached an agreement identifying Plaintiff as the prevailing party and determining damages and equitable relief. (Dkt. 211). The parties further agreed to submit the case to this Court for determination of an appropriate award of attorney's fees and costs. (Dkt. 211).

         Plaintiff lodged a total of five objections to the R&R. (Dkt. 241). He states the R&R erred in the following ways: (1) its determinations regarding Plaintiff's billing records, including its concerns about time spent reviewing discovery; (2) its subtraction of time entries because of duplicative efforts; (3) its reduction imposed for unrelated claims; (4) its failure to consider the case's impact on the legal landscape; and (5) its consideration of the terms of the settlement agreement. Defendants also filed objections to the R&R, alleging that it erred in three ways: (1) its analysis of the unrelated claims; (2) its failure to consider Wooten v. Commonwealth; and (3) its failure to properly reduce Plaintiff's request for fees and costs associated with preparing his fee petition. The Court will address each objection within the framework provided by McAfee. 738 F.3d at 88.[2]

         A. Objections Regarding the Lodestar Figure

         The first step in calculating fees is determining the lodestar figure. McAfee, 738 F.3d at 88. To do so, the Court must consider the factors set forth in Johnson. 488 F.2d at 717; see McAffee, 738 F.3d at 88 n. 5 (adopting these factors). Although “Defendants do not object to the Report's calculation of the lodestar, ” (dkt. 240 at 10), Plaintiff's first and second objections are directly related to the R&R's lodestar calculation. Specifically, Plaintiff objects to the R&R's reduction based on “excessiveness, vagueness, and block billing, ” as well as the “duplication of efforts.” (R&R at 7-14). Both of these determinations are relevant to the first Johnson factor, the time and labor expended, and resulted in a 20% reduction to the lodestar calculation. (R&R at 16); see McAfee, 738 F.3d at 88 n. 5. Undertaking a de novo review, the Court considers both of Plaintiff's objections to the lodestar figure in turn.

         i. Excessiveness, Vagueness, and Block Billing

          “The party requesting a fee bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.” Project Vote/Voting for America, Inc. v. Long, 887 F.Supp.2d 704, 709 (E.D. Va. 2012) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437). “Counsel 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, 461 U.S. at 434. “Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.” Id. at 433. “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). Vague descriptions may also warrant the reduction of an award. Rum Creek Coal Sales, Inc. v. Caperton, 31 F.3d 169, 179 (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.”).

         The Court does not dispute that this case required significant time and effort by those involved, but the record does not justify the fee award Plaintiff requests. The records provided are replete with vague entries such as “legal research, ” “review and respond to emails, ” “prepare for depositions, ” “work on appeal, ” “work on discovery, ” and “review, ” “digest, ” or “work” on transcripts. (Dkt. 212-1). In a case such as this, where the litigation spanned years and “the plaintiff has not prevailed on all the claims, ” such descriptions force the Court to “labor to dissect” each individual entry to determine if the task described could reasonably result in the requested time. See Rum Creek Coal Sales, 31 F.3d at 179; Long, 887 F.Supp.2d at 717.

         Furthermore, the records indicate multiple instances of excessive or block billing, especially given that these entries are often coupled with vague descriptions. For example, Mr. Grimes seeks compensation for 25 hours to “prepare for deposition” of Commissioner Richard Holcomb, not including the 1.3 hours recorded for “client conference” the night preceding the deposition or the 3.2 hours entered for the deposition itself. (Dkt. 212-1 at 17). Without more information and context the Court is left to guess if 25 hours of preparation is appropriate or excessive. A similar problem exists as to Ms. Haddox's entries. She spent 3.1 hours “reading defendants' appeal opening brief, ” (id. at 24), and 4.4 hours “review[ing] filings on ECF system, ” (dkt. 212-1 at 7). Again, the Court is left to hypothesize whether or not this time is excessive given the descriptions.

         There are also multiple instances of block billing in Plaintiff's records. For example, Mr. Grimes billed 7.3 hours to “prepare for depositions of Elizabeth Jensen, John Dawson, Thomas, Dash and Ronna Howard, ” (dkt. 212-1 at 16), and 6.2 hours to “review DMV's opposition to consolidation in Wooten case and work on reply memorandum and email to counsel concerning consolidation.” (Id. at 32). While Ms. Haddox did not as frequently lump together her billing entries, there are entries such as 7.2 hours billed for “oral argument of summary judgment motions in Stultz in preparation for our upcoming motions and hearings and reviewing letter filed by defendants concerning upcoming hearing with Judge Ballou concerning discovery concerns, ” (id. at 20), and 7.5 hours for “research and work on drafting memorandum in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment.”

         These instances of vague and block billing support a reduction of the requested fees. Plaintiff argues that the reduction was inappropriate “because the opinion overlooks the fundamental fact that defense counsel failed to provide any of their time records.” (Dkt. 241 at 1) (emphasis in original). To support this proposition, Plaintiff relies on a case from the District of Nevada, which stated that defendant failed to present any evidence for finding the bills were unreasonable, “for example, [defendant] has not supplied the court with any evidence of how many hours were billed by its counsel. . . . [I]n the absence of such evidence, any reductions in plaintiff's counsel's bill would be arbitrary in nature.” Snell v. Reno Hilton Resort, 930 F.Supp. 1428 (D.Nev. June 17, 1996). But under Fourth Circuit precedent, Plaintiff “bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.” Long, 887 F.Supp.2d at 709; Spell v. McDaniel, 852 F.2d 762, 765 (4th Cir. 1988) (noting the fee applicant must prove that hours spent and hourly rates are reasonable). Here, the Court's concern is that the record ...

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