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Morris v. Augusta-Richmond County

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

March 21, 2017

ROBERT D. MORRIS, et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HON. J. RANDAL HALL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Robert Morris initiated this action in October 2014 alleging Defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") by not properly paying overtime compensation to him and other firefighters. (See Doc. 1.) In March 2015, Plaintiff amended the complaint by removing the class allegations and adding eighty-eight firefighters as plaintiffs. (Docs. 20, 22.) The parties reached a settlement, and after the Court dismissed fifteen unresponsive Plaintiffs without prejudice, the remaining parties now seek approval of the agreement and attorneys' fees and costs. (Docs. 39-43.)

         I. Settlement Agreement

         The FLSA was enacted with the purpose of protecting workers from oppressive working hours and substandard wages. Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 739 (1981). Because workers and employers often experience great inequalities of bargaining power, Congress made the FLSA's wage-and-hour limitations mandatory. Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. Q'Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706 (1945). Making the provisions mandatory meant eliminating the ability of workers and employers to negotiate an employment arrangement that falls short of the FLSA's minimum employee protections. Id.

         Accordingly, the FLSA's provisions are not subject to bargaining, waiver, or modification either by contract or settlement, save for two narrow exceptional circumstances. Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1352-53 (11th Cir. 1982). The first exception involves actions taken by the Secretary of Labor, and, therefore, is inapplicable to the proposed settlement in this case. See id. at 1353.

         The second exception, which applies here, permits settlement when employees bring a private action for back wages under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). In such a case, the parties must present the proposed settlement to the Court, and the Court may approve the settlement ''after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness." Id. "If a settlement in an employee FLSA suit does reflect a reasonable compromise over issues, such as FLSA coverage or computation of back wages, that are actually in dispute, " then the Court may "approve the settlement in order to promote the policy of encouraging settlement of litigation." Id. at 1354. When the employee is represented by counsel in an adversarial context, there is some assurance that "the settlement is more likely to reflect a reasonable compromise of disputed issues than a mere waiver of statutory rights brought about by an employer's overreaching." Id.

         Plaintiffs filed suit and are represented by counsel, which indicates that a true conflict exists. Plaintiffs are receiving all the wages they claim they are owed in this matter. After careful consideration, the Court is satisfied that the parties' settlement represents a reasonable compromise. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS the parties' joint motion for settlement. To the extent Plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees and costs is incorporated into the settlement, they are subject to the limitations discussed below.

         II. Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs

         "The court in [an FLSA] action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). "The starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Bivins v. Wrap It Up, Inc., 548 F.3d 1348, 1350 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted). The product of these two figures is the "lodestar." Id. After calculating the lodestar, the Court may then consider whether it should be adjusted upward or downward. Norman v. Hous. Auth., 836 F.2d 1292, 1302 (11th Cir. 1988); Lambert v. Fulton Cnty., 151 F.Supp.2d 1364, 1369 (N.D.Ga. 2000). "The fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement and documenting the appropriate hours and hourly rates." Norman, 836 F.2d at 1303. The Court should also be mindful that a request for attorneys' fees "should not result in a second major litigation." Id.

         In addition, in an FLSA settlement, "a potential conflict can arise between counsel and their client regarding how much of the plaintiff's total recovery should be allocated to attorneys' fees and costs." Petrov v. Cognoscenti Health Inst., LLC, No 6:09-CV-1918-ORL-22GJK, 2010 WL 557062, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 12, 2010). Therefore, the "simultaneous negotiation of attorney's fees with a damages award in a FLSA settlement should trigger increased scrutiny of the reasonableness of the settlement." Grimes v. Se. Restaurants Corp., No. 1:12-CV-150 WLS, 2013 WL 4647374, at *3 (M.D. Ga. Aug. 29, 2013). However, if the parties represent "that the plaintiff's attorneys' fee was agreed upon separately and without regard to the amount paid to the plaintiff, then, unless . . . there is reason to believe that the plaintiff's recovery was adversely affected by the amount of fees paid to his attorney, " the Court should approve the fee settlement agreement. Bonetti v. Embarq Mgmt. Co., 715 F.Supp.2d 1222, 1228 (M.D. Fla. 2009).

         Here, Plaintiffs are requesting an award of $37, 896.18 in attorneys' fees and $1, 399.82 in costs. (Doc. 42) Defendant does not oppose these amounts. Nonetheless, the Court must independently review these awards to ensure they are reasonable.

         1. Attorneys' Fees

         C. Dorian Britt and John D. Hafemann represent Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs' motion lists fees for Messrs. Britt and Hafemann totaling $37, 896.18 based on a rate of $200.00 per hour and a total of 189.5 hours expended pursuing this matter over twenty months. Counsel has attached a timesheet detailing the tasks completed, the amount of time spent on each task, and which lawyer completed the task. (Doc. 42-3, Ex. 1.) Furthermore, Messrs. Britt and Hafemann have each provided the Court with a sworn affidavit detailing their credentials and experience. (Id., Ex. B, Ex. C.) Finally, Plaintiffs have provided the sworn affidavit of S. Wesley Woolf, Esq., a lawyer specializing in employment actions, who avers, based on his training, education, and experience, that (1) Plaintiffs' counsel's time spent on the case is typical for a case of this nature; and (2) their hourly rate of $200.00 was "well within, if not below, the range of reasonable and typical rates charged by attorneys in this district handling similar cases." (Id., Ex. D.)

         After careful review of the filings in this case and based on the enumerated tasks, the time expended on each, and Mr. Britt's and Mr. Hafemann's experience, the Court determines ...


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