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Phillips 66 Co. v. Gish Oil Co.

United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta Division

March 24, 2015

PHILLIPS 66 COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
GISH OIL COMPANY, RAYMON GISH, and HELEN GISH, Defendants.

ORDER

HUGH LAWSON, SENIOR JUDGE.

The only issue remaining in this case is the calculation of the monetary award for Plaintiff Phillips 66 Company (“Plaintiff”). The Court has already granted summary judgment to Plaintiff on its claim for breach of contract and determined that it is entitled to attorney fees and costs. Plaintiff has now supplemented the information it is providing in support of its request for attorney fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 17) is granted, and final judgment can be entered.[1]

I. Actual Damages

As indicated in a previous Order (Doc. 41), Plaintiff is entitled to $121, 510.45 plus interest in actual damages. Because the New Construction Incentive Program Agreement (“NCIP Agreement”) that existed between the parties is silent as to the interest that would be charged in the event of a breach, the prejudgment interest rate is set at seven percent under Georgia law. See O.C.G.A. § 7-4-2(a)(1)(A); S. Water Techs., Inc. v. Kile, 224 Ga.App. 717, 720 (1997). Thus, including the interest that has accrued since Defendants’ breach on October 30, 2007, Plaintiff is awarded $184, 467.05 in actual damages.

II. Attorney Fees

Plaintiff is also entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees under the terms of the NCIP Agreement, although less than the $61, 281.25 it has requested. In calculating a reasonable award of attorney fees, courts must use a lodestar approach in which the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation is multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate. Loos v. Club Paris, LLC, 731 F.Supp.2d 1324, 1329 (M.D. Fla. 2010). “A reasonable hourly rate is the prevailing market rate in the relevant legal community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skills, experience, and reputation.” Gray v. Bostic, 625 F.3d 692, 714 (11th Cir. 2010). “The general rule is that the ‘relevant market’ for purposes of determining the reasonable hourly rate for an attorney’s services is the place where the case is filed.” Scelta v. Delicatessen Support Servs., Inc., 203 F.Supp.2d 1328, 1332 (M.D. Fla. 2002) (quoting ACLU of Ga. v. Barnes, 168 F.3d 423, 437 (11th Cir. 1999)). The party seeking attorney fees bears the burden of producing evidence that its requested rate is reasonable, which must usually be something more than an affidavit from the attorney who performed the representation. Loos, 731 F.Supp.2d at 1329. A court may “rely on its own experience and judgment in determining a reasonable hourly rate.” Barnes v. Zaccari, 592 F. A’ppx 859, 870 (11th Cir. 2015).

The Court finds that, with one exception, the hourly rates requested by Plaintiff for those providing its legal representation are reasonable. Because this case was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta Division, this is the relevant legal market for purposes of determining the reasonableness of Plaintiff’s requested rates. For three of the attorneys representing Plaintiff, [2] who have anywhere from one to seven years of experience as lawyers, Plaintiff requests an hourly rate of $175. For Darin L. Brooks (“Brooks”), who has been an attorney for eighteen years, Plaintiff asks for an hourly rate of $225. For the paralegals who have performed legal work, Plaintiff asks for a rate of $75 per hour. Plaintiff’s local counsel, Michael Burnham, II (“Burnham”), has only practiced law for seven years, [3] but Plaintiff nonetheless asks that it be reimbursed for his work at a rate of $275 per hour. In support of its attorney fees request, Plaintiff has filed a declaration from one of its attorneys along with invoices and time entries from the law firms it retained. Based on its familiarity with the prevailing market rate in the Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta Division, for similar services provided by attorneys of comparable skill and experience as Plaintiff’s counsel, the Court finds Plaintiff’s requested rates to be reasonable except for Burnham’s rate. A more reasonable rate for an attorney with seven years of experience would be $175 an hour.

Having established the reasonable hourly rates for the legal work provided to Plaintiff, the Court must multiply these rates by the number of hours that were reasonably expended in this case. Before this can be done, the Court must verify that the work that was performed was reasonably necessary and subtract any time spent on unnecessary work from the total number of hours submitted by Plaintiff. Plaintiff, as the party seeking an award of attorney fees, bears the responsibility of properly documenting the hours it claims. Loos, 731 F.Supp.2d at 1330. Generalized statements for the hours its attorneys worked are not enough. Id.

Reviewing the records submitted by Plaintiff shows that much of the work for which it seeks attorney fees was unnecessary, not legal in nature, or insufficiently described as to allow the Court to determine whether it was reasonable. In reviewing fee applications, courts should not award fees for hours that are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” ACLU of Ga., 168 F.3d at 428 (internal citation and quotation omitted). Courts should also deny attorney fees for work that is “purely clerical in nature, such as contacting court reporters, and mailing, filing, and delivering documents….” Montgomery v. Fla. First Fin. Group, Inc., No. 6:06-cv-1639-Orl-31KRS, 2008 WL 3540374, at *13 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 12, 2008). The work of a paralegal is “recoverable only to the extent the paralegal performs work traditionally done by an attorney.” Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 117 F.Supp.2d 1247, 1258 (M.D. Ala. 2000) (internal citation and quotation omitted). Courts should closely scrutinize “block billing, ” in which an attorney accounts for multiple tasks in a single block of time, because this practice makes it more difficult to determine whether the time spent on each discrete task was reasonable. Ceres Envtl. Servs., Inc. v. Colonel McCrary Trucking, LLC, 476 F. App’x 198, 203 (11th Cir. 2012).

A. Darin L. Brooks – Attorney

A number of hours submitted for Brooks were not reasonably expended on legal work. On September 11, 2012, Brooks billed 0.3 hours for “Address issues regarding local counsel and strategy” and 0.2 hours for “Confer with potential local counsel.” Then, on October 8, 2012, he spent 0.1 hours on “Address local counsel issues.” The work on October 8 seems redundant of the work done on September 11, so 0.1 hours will be deducted from Brooks’ hours. The Court also finds unnecessary the 0.2 hours Brooks spent on September 10, 2014 in “Review[ing] summary judgment order granting P66 summary judgment and outlin[ing] next steps.” Another attorney had already performed similar work. Multiplying the trimmed time by Brooks’ hourly rate results in $67.50 being taken from Plaintiff’s requested attorney fees.

B. John G. George, Jr. – Attorney

The hours submitted for John G. George, Jr. (“George”) must also be cut. George provided such scant information for many of his time entries that the Court cannot determine if this work was reasonably necessary for this case and, therefore, refuses to award Plaintiff attorney fees based on this work. On February 16, 2012, George used block billing to describe 1.4 hours supposedly spent on this case and then redacted many of the words describing his work. Because the Court is unable to determine what George was doing, it trims this entry by 1.0 hour. An additional 5.3 hours are eliminated from Plaintiff’s claimed hours because the redaction of information in other time entries for George makes it impossible to verify that this work was necessary. The Court also cuts 0.6 hours from December 16, 2013 because George was not doing legal work.[4]

The time entries submitted by Plaintiff portray George as having devoted considerable time to “Update collection docket spreadsheet” and related activities.[5] Plaintiff was certainly not collecting money from Defendants during this period. Because the Court fails to see how this time was reasonably spent on this case, it reduces George’s claimed hours by 5.0 hours.

The time records submitted by Plaintiff also show redundant entries in which George is described as doing work already done by other attorneys. For example, on September 6, 2012, George used 0.4 hours to “Analyze status of matter and need to secure local counsel in Georgia, ” and then on September 11, he attributed 0.3 hours to “Analyze options for local counsel in Georgia.” In October 2012, he spent 0.3 hours on similar work. This was unnecessary work given what Brooks had already done. Additionally, George spent 1.1 hours in analyzing the transcript of a deposition that was taken by a different attorney in his firm, who also reviewed the transcript. These are clearly redundant tasks, and Plaintiff will not receive attorney fees for this time.

Plaintiff’s attorneys, including George, spent excessive time in performing certain tasks, including drafting the complaint, preparing Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgement, and drafting the Rule 25 motion for substitution of a party. Excluding the signature page, Plaintiff’s complaint is only five pages long and only contains three counts. A reasonable time to draft this pleading would be four hours. Excessive time was also spent on writing the motion for summary judgment. This is not a particularly complicated case, and the summary judgment brief should have taken no more than eighteen hours to draft. Likewise the motion to substitute a party, which in this case is less than one and a half pages long, is the sort of routine motion that should take no more than one hour to draft. To account for the unnecessary time spent on these tasks, Plaintiff’s claimed hours have been cut by 12.4 hours.[6]

The total time deducted from Plaintiff’s claimed hours for George’s work is 26.4 hours. Based on George’s hourly rate of $175 per hour, $4, 620.00 must be deducted from Plaintiff’s requested attorney fees.

C. Don P. Walker – Attorney

Significant reductions must also be made to the time submitted for Don P. Walker (“Walker”). Some of the hours submitted by Plaintiff for him did not relate to legal work. Thus, the Court cuts 3.6 hours from his billed time.[7]

Additional cuts must be made to Walker’s hours for other reasons. He often performed tasks that took an excessive amount of time to accomplish, were redundant to work done by other attorneys, or were otherwise unnecessary.[8]Many of the descriptions of Walker’s time entries have been partially or fully redacted, preventing the Court from knowing whether the work was reasonably necessary.[9] The Court will not award Plaintiff attorney fees for Walker’s hours that cannot be justified as necessary, thus it further reduces Plaintiff’s claimed hours relating to Walker’s work by 30.4 hours. This cut results in a deduction of $5, 950.00 from the amount Plaintiff requests in attorney fees.

D. Brian E. Waters – Attorney

Not all of the hours Plaintiff claims for the work done by Brian Waters (“Waters”) are reasonable. The Court eliminates 31.9 hours from Waters’ billed time because the tasks were redundant of work performed by other attorneys or the redacted descriptions of the time entries do not support an award of attorney fees.[10] Thus, an additional $5, 582.50 must be cut from Plaintiff’s requested attorney fees.

E. Michael Burnham, II – Attorney

Most of what Burnham, Plaintiff’s local counsel, did in this case was simply review work by other attorneys or duplicate tasks that had already been done. The Court will not award attorney fees to Plaintiff for the time Burnham spent in these ways. The time submitted for Burnham is reduced by 1.7 hours.[11] Thus, for purposes of attorney fees, the Court will only credit Burnham with 2.5 hours of work at an hourly rate of $175, which results in a reduction of $717.50 to Plaintiff’s requested attorney fees.

F. Paralegals

Plaintiff has also requested attorney fees for work done by various paralegals[12] at Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, L.L.P., the firm providing the primary representation for Plaintiff. Much of the work done by the paralegals was non-legal, inadequately described to justify attorney fees, redundant of work done by others, or otherwise unnecessary.[13] Thus, the Court eliminates 35.4 hours from the time submitted by Plaintiff for the paralegals’ work, resulting in a reduction of $2, 655.00.[14] Having taken all of the preceding deductions into account, the Court awards Plaintiff $41, 688.75 in attorney fees.

III. Costs

The Court has also found that, under the terms of the NCIP Agreement, Plaintiff is entitled to an award for its costs in this matter. (See Order, Doc. 44). Having reviewed the information provided by Plaintiff to justify its request for costs, the Court finds its request to be reasonable and awards Plaintiff $2, 385.44 in costs and expenses.

IV. Conclusion

The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment in favor of Plaintiff in the amount of $228, 541.24, which is the sum for the awards for actual damages, attorney fees, and costs and expenses, with post-judgment interest to run as allowed by law. This case is to be closed.

SO ORDERED.


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