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Georgia State Conference of NAACP v. Hancock County Board of Elections & Registration

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

March 30, 2018

GEORGIA STATE CONFERENCE OF THE NAACP, as an organization, GEORGIA COALITION FOR THE PEOPLE'S AGENDGA, as an organization, SAQUAN THOMAS, MERRIT HUBERT, TAURUS HUBERT, JOHNNY THORNTON, MARTEE FLOURNOY, and LARRY WEBB, Plaintiffs,
v.
HANCOCK COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS AND REGISTRATION, KATHY RANSOM, NANCY STEPHENS, LINDA CLAYTON, ROBERT INGRAM, and JIM YOUMANS, in their official capacities as members of the Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration, and TIFFANY MEDLOCK, in her official capacity as the Hancock County Elections Supervisor, Defendants.

          ORDER ON JOINT MOTION FOR ENTRY OF CONSENT ORDER AND PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

          C. ASHLEY ROYAL, SENIOR JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Before the Court is the parties' Joint Motion for Entry of Consent Order [Doc. 67] and Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees [Doc. 68]. For the reasons explained below, the Court GRANTS both Motions [Doc. 67, 68] and awards fees in the amounts specified below.

         BACKGROUND

         On November 3, 2015, Plaintiffs the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda, Saquan Thomas, Merritt Hubert, Taurus Hubert, Johnny Thornton, Martee Flournoy and Larry Webb, filed suit against Defendants the Hancock County Board of Elections and Registrations (“BOER”), its members Kathy Ransom, Nancy Stephens, Linda Clayton, Robert Ingram, and Jim Youmans in their official capacities, and Tiffany Medlock in her official capacity as the Hancock County Elections Supervisor, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Plaintiffs alleged Defendants were improperly challenging and removing registered voters from the Hancock County voter registration list in a racially motivated manner.

         On January 21, 2016, after Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Expedite Discovery, the Court held a telephone conference and ordered Defendants to restore any eligible voters that had been removed to the registration rolls. After much discourse between the parties, investigation into the whereabouts of purged voters, and multiple telephone status conferences with the Court, all voters that could be identified as eligible to vote in Hancock County were restored to the voter rolls before the March 1, 2016 primary election. The Court has held no less than 13 telephone conferences to resolve numerous issues in this case requiring Court intervention. After engaging in extensive discovery, the parties agreed to mediation, resolved the substantive issues, and submitted their negotiated settlement agreement to the Court on March 1, 2017.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Consent Decree

         In the parties' proposed Consent Decree currently before the Court, the Defendants strenuously deny any racial discrimination or violations of state law but agree they will abide by the specific standards and procedures laid out in the Consent Decree. Specifically, Defendants agree to not engage in discriminatory challenges to voters' eligibility, to only process residency-based challenges if the challenge is premised on residency at time of initial voter registration, to follow particular procedures in processing inactive or relocated voters, and to strictly adhere to the formal and detailed procedures laid out in the Consent Decree for processing voter challenges.

         Defendants agree they will provide notice of written challenges and information relating to such challenges to a designated member of Plaintiffs' counsel for five years following the entry of the Consent Decree. Defendants also agree to take no action regarding certain listed voters restored to the voter registration rolls and to restore another group of listed voters. Both groups of voters will have two federal election cycles in which to vote or update their information before being subject to the National Voter Registration Act's list maintenance procedures.

         In addition, the parties agree within 21 days after the entry of the Consent Decree they will attempt to choose an Examiner who will review the BOER's actions regarding list maintenance and voter challenges based on residency. If the parties cannot agree on an Examiner, they will suggest candidates to the Court, and one will be appointed. The Examiner may make recommendations to the BOER regarding its compliance with state law procedures and the procedures in the Consent Decree. If the BOER disagrees with or does not follow the recommendations any party may bring that issue to the Court's attention. The Examiner's term shall run for three and a half years from the date of appointment; however, upon Plaintiffs' motion and after Defendants are given an opportunity to respond, the Court may extend the Examiner's term.

         Finally, the parties acknowledge Plaintiffs may be awarded attorneys' fees at the Court's discretion and agree Plaintiffs may seek reasonable fees and costs incurred on any motion to enforce the Consent Decree. The Court will retain jurisdiction over this case for the five years the Consent Decree will be in effect; however, this case will be administratively closed. The Court finds this agreement effectively resolves the merits of Plaintiffs' claims. The parties' Consent Decree is hereby GRANTED, leaving only the issue of Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees to be determined.

         II. Attorneys' Fees

         Under the “American Rule” courts generally do not award fees in a civil suit; however, under statutory fee shifting provisions, Congress has allowed for a “prevailing party” to seek an award of attorney's fees.[1] Plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees pursuant the National Voter Registration Act, 52 U.S.C. § 20510(c), which authorizes the Court to award the prevailing party reasonable attorney's fees, including litigation expenses and costs.[2]

         In order to be a prevailing party for the purposes of a fee-shifting statute, there must be a court-ordered “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.”[3] In other words, if Plaintiff has succeeded on “any significant issue…which achieved some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit, ” they are considered the “prevailing party.”[4] However, finding that the Plaintiff is a prevailing party is merely a “statutory threshold.”[5] After the court makes this finding, it is then tasked with determining what constitutes a “reasonable” fee.[6]

         Defendants do not contest Plaintiffs' status as the prevailing party. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held “settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree may serve as the basis for an award of attorneyʹs fees. Although a consent decree does not always include an admission of liability by the defendant, it nonetheless is a court-ordered chang[e][in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.”[7] Accordingly, the Court finds Plaintiffs are the prevailing party and thus meets the threshold requirement for receiving attorneys' fees. The Court now turns its discussion to the “reasonableness” of Plaintiffs' request for attorneys' fees.

         A. The Lodestar Calculation

         A reasonable attorneys' fee award is properly calculated under the “lodestar” approach by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation times a reasonable hourly rate.[8] In making this calculation, the court should exclude hours that are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, ” and thus not “reasonably expended.”[9] A reasonable fee is one “that is sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious civil rights case, ” and “the lodestar method yields a fee that is presumptively sufficient to achieve this objective.”[10]

         Plaintiff, as the fee applicant, bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of its fees.[11]

         Although the lodestar calculated fee is presumptively reasonable and presumptively includes all the following factors, the court may consider the following in terms of their influence on the lodestar amount:[12] (1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the legal questions; (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to the acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the expertise, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the “undesirability” of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.[13]

         Ultimately, the trial court has the discretion to determine reasonable attorneys' fees: “The court, either trial or appellate, is itself an expert on the question and may consider its own knowledge and experience concerning reasonable and proper fees and may form an independent judgment either with or without the aid of witnesses as to value.”[14] In the present case, Plaintiffs are requesting the amount of $560, 981.93. Having exhaustively reviewed Plaintiffs' time entries, and considered the parties' briefs, the various factors listed above, as well as its own knowledge and experience, the Court finds Plaintiffs' request for fees to be mostly reasonable except for the issues described and cut accordingly below.

         1. Reasonable Hourly Rate

         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.”[15] The relevant legal market is generally the place where the case is filed.[16] The prevailing party “bears the burden of producing satisfactory evidence that the requested rate is in line with prevailing market rates.”[17]

         Here, Plaintiffs request $560, 981.93. This amount is comprised of $57, 150.43 in litigation expenses and $503, 831.50 in attorneys' fees for 2, 374.4 hours spent on this case. The total hours presented to the Court represent the work of eleven legal professionals-ten attorneys and one paralegal-and one social scientist. Plaintiffs request the following hourly rates for the Bryan Cave attorneys: William V. Custer, Partner, $350; Jennifer B. Dempsey, Partner, $300; Julia F. Ost, Senior Associate, $200; Danielle Parrington, Senior Associate, $200; Christian Bromley, Junior Associate, $175; and Stephanie Roberts, Paralegal, $100.

         Plaintiffs seek the following hourly rates for the attorneys employed by the Lawyersʹ Committee for Civil Rights: Ezra D. Rosenberg, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project, $350; Robert Kengle, former Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project, $350; Julie Houk, Senior Special Counsel, $300; John Powers, Associate Counsel, $200; Pam Disney, Law Fellow, $175; Megan Gall, Social Scientist, $200 and Madelyn Finucane, Legal Assistant, $100.

         This case was filed in Macon, Georgia in the Middle District of Georgia, and the events giving rise to this litigation occurred in Hancock County. The Court finds that Macon is the appropriate legal community for the purpose of determining reasonable hourly rates. Plaintiffs' attorneys are located in Atlanta, Georgia and in Washington, D.C., but Plaintiffs cite to multiple cases from the Middle District of Georgia to show their hourly rates are reasonable.

         Defendants only contest the $200 hourly rate for John Powers of the Lawyers' Committee citing his lack of legal experience, as he graduated from law school in 2013, and this case was filed in 2015. Plaintiffs argue John Powers deserves a $200 hourly rate due to his experience working at the Justice Department and his familiarity with voting rights issues. However, Mr. Powers had only been licensed to practice law for two years prior to the start of this litigation.[18] In the Court's experience, a reasonable hourly rate for a two-year associate in the Middle District of Georgia is $150. The hourly rate of Mr. Powers is therefore reduced to $150.

         Similarly, the $175 hourly rate requested for Pam Disney and Christian Bromley, both of whom graduated and were admitted to practice in 2013, must be reduced to $150. Additionally, as Plaintiffs have provided no evidence of what the reasonable prevailing market rate of a “social scientist” is, the Court must ...


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