United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division
DAVID L. JACKSON, Individually and on behalf of all other similarly situated individuals, Plaintiff,
NEAL JUMP, In his official capacity as Sheriff of Glynn County, Georgia, Defendant.
LISA GODBEY WOOD, Chief District Judge.
Before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney's Fees and Expenses, Dkt. No. 174, and both parties' Joint Motion for Approval of Acceptance of Offer of Judgment. Dkt. No. 177. These motions are before the Court following Plaintiffs' acceptance of Defendant's Third Offer of Judgment in the amount of $86, 071.35, subject to the Court's determination of reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses. Defendant objects to many components of Plaintiffs' fee petition. See Dkt. No. 187. The Court held a Motions Hearing on May 6, 2014 regarding the attorneys' fees issue. See Dkt. No. 202. The Court has carefully inspected all records submitted by the parties in support of the motions.
On August 3, 2012, named Plaintiff David L. Jackson, individually and on behalf of similarly situated individuals, filed a Complaint against Wayne V. Bennett in his official capacity as Sheriff of Glynn County, Georgia and the Glynn County Sheriff's Office. Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiffs' claims were based on the alleged denial and inappropriate withholding by Defendant of wages and overtime income entitled to Plaintiffs, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and various state laws. Dkt. No. 175, p. 2. Eleven similarly situated individuals filed written consents and opted in to the action, and after conditional certification of the class and notice of the action to other similarly situated individuals, 21 additional individuals opted in.
The parties began settlement negotiations following entry of the Pre-trial Order on June 10, 2013. On January 31, 2014, Plaintiffs accepted Defendant's Third Offer of Judgment for $86, 071.35, subject to a determination of the Court on the issue of attorneys' fees and expenses. The Offer of Judgment amount covers Plaintiffs' claims for compensatory and overtime wages for the hours they worked for Defendant for the three years prior to the action but for which they were not compensated at the proper rates. See Dkt. No. 175, pp. 2-3.
As shown by the docket, this dispute has been relatively non-contentious, and the parties have proven capable of working together productively. Still, the parties have not been able to come to an agreement on the issue of reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses. The major remaining disagreements are over the reasonable number of hours Plaintiffs' counsel expended on this action and the nature of the results that Plaintiffs have obtained.
Plaintiffs seek an award of $223, 507.16 in attorneys' fees and $6, 471.99 in expenses, for a total of $229, 979.15. Dkt. No. 201-1, p. 13. Plaintiffs engaged in a detailed audit of their billing from the inception of the dispute through October 24, 2013. Based on this review, they purport to have eliminated unwarranted, redundant, and excessive time entries, which resulted in an 8% reduction of the total amount of fees recorded. Dkt. No. 198, Ex. B, ¶ 2. Plaintiffs then applied an "across-the-board" 8% reduction to the bills for several remaining billing periods, all the way through April 24, 2014. Dkt. No. 174-4, p. 1; Dkt. No. 201-1, p. 13. In a filing dated April 30, 2014, Plaintiffs added $3, 825.00 to requested fees based on time that Sharon Reeves planned to spend preparing for and participating in the Motions Hearing on May 6, 2014. Dkt. No. 201-1, p. 4. After Defendant objected to the lack of precision in Plaintiffs' decision to apply an 8% reduction to the amounts billed after October 24, 2013, Plaintiffs proclaim to have undertaken an hour-by-hour analysis, which revealed that the 8% reduction was too deep of a cut. Thus, Plaintiffs did not amend their petition based on that analysis. Dkt. No. 203, p. 1. At the Court's request, Plaintiffs submitted an exhibit showing which time entries they eliminated in the exercise of billing judgment. See Dkt. No. 203-2, Ex. 10.
Title 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) provides that a court must allow a prevailing plaintiff in a Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") suit to recover attorneys' fees and costs. Kreager v. Solomon & Flanagan, P.A., 775 F.2d 1541, 1542 (11th Cir. 1985). Where the parties have agreed to settle an FLSA dispute, the plaintiff, in order to be considered a prevailing party, must obtain a stipulated or consent judgment from the court "evincing the court's determination that the settlement is a fair and reasonable res[o]lution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.'" Mayer v. Wall St. Equity Grp., Inc., 514 F.Appx. 929, 934 (11th Cir. 2013)(quoting Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 679 F.2d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir. 1982)).
The district court must determine what fee is reasonable, which it does by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The product of those numbers is known as the "lodestar." Norman v. Housing Auth. of City of Montgomery, 836 F.2d 1292, 1299 (11th Cir. 1988). Fee applicants must exercise billing judgment and "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. The fee applicant bears the burden of establishing its entitlement to the fees sought. As such,
fee counsel should have maintained records to show the time spent on the different claims, and the general subject matter of the time expenditures ought to be set out with sufficient particularity so that the district court can assess the time claimed for each activity... A well-prepared fee petition would also include a summary, grouping the time entries by the nature of the activity or stage of the case.
ACLU of Ga. v. Barnes, 168 F.3d 423, 427 (11th Cir. 1999)(quoting Norman, 836 F.2d at 1303). Those opposing fee applications must also be specific and reasonably precise. Barnes, 168 F.3d at 428.
"Redundant, excessive, or otherwise unnecessary hours should not be included in the calculation of hours reasonably expended." Perez v. Carey Int'l, Inc., 373 F.Appx. 907, 910-11 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434). Even where one party prevails, "the district court still must determine whether time was reasonably expended, and if it was not, that time should be excluded from the fee calculation." Id . In determining the reasonableness of hours billed, the court "should bear in mind that the measure of reasonable hours is determined by the profession's judgment of the time that may be conscionably billed and not the least time in which it might theoretically have been done." Norman, 836 F.2d at 1305-06. In addition to deducting unnecessary and redundant hours from the fee calculation, the court excludes time spent on "discrete and unsuccessful claims[.]" Duckworth v. Whisenant, 97 F.3d 1393, 1397 (11th Cir. 1996)(quoting Norman, 836 F.2d at 1301-02).
The lodestar as calculated in Hensley presumptively includes consideration of the twelve factors adopted in Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974). Norman, 836 F.2d at 1299 (citing Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council, 478 U.S. 546, 560-68 (1986)); see also Bivins v. Wrap It Up, Inc., 548 F.3d 1348, 1350 (11th Cir. 2008)(stating "the court is to consider the 12 factors enumerated in [Johnson]" in determining the reasonable hourly rate and number of compensable hours).
When a district court finds the number of hours claimed in the fee petition is unreasonably high, "the court has two choices: it may conduct an hour-by-hour analysis or it may reduce the requested hours with an across-the-board cut." Bivins, 548 F.3d at 1350 (citing Loranger v. Stierheim, 10 F.3d 776, 783 (11th Cir. 1994) (holding "an hour-by-hour analysis of a fee request is not required" where fee documentation is voluminous)); see also Galdames v. N & D Inv. Corp., 432 F.Appx. 801, 806 (11th Cir. 2011)(citing Bivins, 548 F.3d at 1350, for this proposition in an FLSA case). In calculating the lodestar, the district court may not use both methods (hour-by-hour analysis and an across-the-board cut), as this may result in double discounting of the requested hours. See Bivins, 548 F.3d at 1351-52 (finding district court erred in using hour-by-hour analysis to calculate hours it deemed "reasonable" before applying further across-the-board 35% reduction to hours it previously said were reasonable, in order to derive reasonable number of compensable hours for lodestar calculation).
After the lodestar is calculated, the court may adjust the amount of fees in light of the results obtained through the litigation. Duckworth, 97 F.3d at 1399 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; Norman, 836 F.2d at 1302).
While there is a strong presumption that the lodestar is the reasonable fee, Bivins, 548 F.3d at 1350, the district court has wide discretion in calculating what constitutes a reasonable amount of attorneys' fees. Loranger, 10 F.3d at 781 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437). Still, the district court must set forth the decisions it makes, provide reasons for those decisions, and show its calculations. Loranger, 10 F.3d at 781 (citing Norman, 836 F.2d at 1304).
a. Reasonable Hourly Rate
The first step towards computation of the lodestar is determining the reasonable hourly rate, or "the prevailing market rate in the relevant legal community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skills, experience, and reputation." Loranger, 10 F.3d at 781 (quoting Norman, 836 ...