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Trawick v. Carmike Cinemas, Inc.

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

December 19, 2019

CRYSTAL TRAWICK, Plaintiff,
v.
CARMIKE CINEMAS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Crystal Trawick and against her former employer, Carmike Cinemas, Inc., on her Title VII sex-based wage discrimination claim, awarding her $67, 117.79 for lost pay, $100, 000.00 for emotional pain and mental anguish, and $1 million in punitive damages. Based on Title VII's damages cap, the Court reduced the award of emotional distress damages and punitive damages to $300, 000.00 and entered judgment in favor of Trawick and against Carmike in the amount of $367, 117.79.

         Pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carmike renews its motion for judgment as a matter of law that it made at trial.[1] As discussed below, Trawick presented sufficient evidence at trial to support the jury's verdict. Carmike's motion (ECF No. 221) must therefore be denied.

         As the prevailing party, Trawick is entitled to recover her attorney's fees. Her motion for attorney's fees (ECF No. 203) is granted to the extent that the Court awards Trawick attorney's fees in the amount of $659, 433.27. Trawick's motion for nontaxable litigation expenses (ECF No. 223) is denied because it was untimely. But, she may recover taxable costs in the amount of $24, 239.85. An amended judgment shall be entered in favor of Trawick against Carmike in the amount of $1, 050, 790.91.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Carmike's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Carmike is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for” Trawick on her Title VII wage discrimination claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) & (b). Overturning a jury verdict is a substantial burden. “Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate ‘only if the facts and inferences point overwhelmingly in favor of one party, such that reasonable people could not arrive at a contrary verdict.'” Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n v. Exel, Inc., 884 F.3d 1326, 1329 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Goldsmith v. Bagby Elevator Co., 513 F.3d 1261, 1275 (11th Cir. 2008)). If Trawick presented “enough evidence to create a substantial conflict in the evidence on” the essential elements of her claim, Carmike's Rule 50(b) motion must be denied. Pickett v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., 420 F.3d 1272, 1278 (11th Cir. 2005).

         In evaluating Carmike's Rule 50(b) motion, the Court must “consider all the evidence, and the inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to” Trawick. Exel, Inc., 884 F.3d at 1329 (quoting Goldsmith, 513 F.3d at 1275). The Court may “not second-guess the jury or substitute [its] judgment for [the jury's] judgment if [the jury's] verdict is supported by sufficient evidence.” Id. (quoting Lambert v. Fulton Cty., 253 F.3d 588, 594 (11th Cir. 2001)). “Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). “Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Id. at 151.

         Carmike argues that no reasonable jury could have reached the verdict delivered in this case based on the evidence presented at trial. Carmike misunderstands the evidentiary record or the legal standard for judgment as a matter of law. Although the evidence was certainly in conflict and a jury could have found in Carmike's favor, there was ample evidence to support the jury's conclusion that Carmike paid Trawick lower compensation than a similarly situated male employee and that Carmike used Trawick's sex as a motivating factor when it made decisions regarding Trawick's compensation. Thus, that verdict cannot be disturbed. Carmike's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Trawick's Title VII wage discrimination claim is denied.[2]

         Carmike contends that even if the evidence supported the jury's verdict awarding compensatory damages to Trawick, no evidence existed from which a reasonable jury could find that punitive damages were appropriate. Defendant acknowledges that the Court properly instructed the jury on punitive damages as follows: Trawick is only entitled to punitive damages if she proved that Carmike “acted with either malice or with reckless indifference toward . . . Trawick's federally protected rights.” Jury Instructions 26, ECF No. 198. The Court further instructed the jury that an “employer may not be held liable for punitive damages because of discriminatory acts on the part of its managerial employees where the managerial employees' acts are contrary to the employer's good faith efforts to comply with the law” but that “the mere existence of policies prohibiting discrimination does not preclude punitive damages if the policies are ineffective.” Id. at 27. Here, there was enough evidence presented at trial to support the jury's conclusion that a Carmike employee acting in a managerial capacity either acted with malice or with reckless indifference to Trawick's federally protected rights and that Carmike's antidiscrimination policies were ineffective. Therefore, Carmike is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Trawick's claim for punitive damages. Carmike's Rule 50(b) motion is denied.

         II. Trawick's Motion for Attorney's Fees

         As the prevailing party in this action, Trawick may recover “a reasonable attorney's fee . . . as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Trawick seeks a fee award of $676, 951.40, asserting that this amount is the product of her legal team's reasonable hourly rates and the hours they reasonably expended on this matter, with reductions to account for time spent on unsuccessful claims and issues. Carmike does not dispute that Trawick is the prevailing party in this action or that she is entitled to recover a reasonable attorney's fee, but Carmike does challenge the amount Trawick seeks. Carmike makes four main arguments in support of a reduction: (1) there should be a downward adjustment to account for Trawick's contingency fee arrangement, (2) the hourly rate for Caroline Harwell is too high, (3) some of the requested hours were not reasonably expended, and (4) the Court should make a downward adjustment to the lodestar to account for Trawick's unsuccessful claims.

         “Fee-shifting statutes allow counsel for the prevailing party to recover a reasonable fee.” In re Home Depot Inc., 931 F.3d 1065, 1082 (11th Cir. 2019). “A reasonable fee is one sufficient to attract competent counsel to represent the case, but not one that provides a windfall for attorneys.” Id. In statutory fee-shifting cases like this one, the lodestar method is the “guiding light.” Id. at 1081 (quoting City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562 (1992)). The lodestar “is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). “There is a strong presumption that the lodestar yields a reasonable fee . . . .” In re Home Depot Inc., 931 F.3d at 1082.

         Carmike argues that Trawick's lodestar request is unreasonable because Trawick had a contingency fee arrangement with her attorney providing for a 40% recovery, and she only achieved a judgment of $367, 117.79. Carmike suggests that the Court should impose a 60% across-the-board reduction to the requested fee based on the contingency fee arrangement. Carmike did not cite any binding precedent in support of this argument.[3]The Court is not persuaded that a reduction based solely on the existence of a contingency fee contract between Trawick and her counsel is appropriate here. Carmike lodged no strong objection to the hourly rates sought by Trawick, and they clearly fall within the prevailing market rates in the community. To discount those rates because counsel was willing to forego a fee if she recovered nothing on the claims is contrary to the remedial purposes of Title VII and the law that permits the prevailing party to recover a reasonable fee. Authorizing the prevailing party to recover her attorney's fees ensures that the employee who was the victim of unlawful discrimination is made whole even after settling up with her lawyer. The existence of a contingency fee contract standing alone cannot overcome this remedial principle.

         This does not mean that a plaintiff can recover whatever her counsel charges her; a defendant cannot be gouged based upon the contract between a plaintiff and her counsel. The fee must be reasonable. But neither should a defendant be gratuitously awarded a windfall solely because of the existence of a contingency fee contract. As the Supreme Court observed, a reasonable attorney's fee “contemplates reasonable compensation, in light of all of the circumstances, for the time and effort expended by the attorney for the prevailing plaintiff, no more and no less.” Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 93 (1989). So, if a fee agreement provides “less than a reasonable fee calculated in this manner, the defendant should nevertheless be required to pay the higher amount.” Id. The Court rejects Carmike's argument that it should make an across-the-board reduction to the lodestar request based on the contingency fee agreement, and it will calculate the lodestar.

         Trawick presented evidence of reasonable hourly rates for employment discrimination cases in the Middle District of Georgia, and Carmike does not object to the claimed hourly rates of the following members of Trawick's legal team: lead counsel Mary A. Prebula ($425.00), contract attorney Jennifer S. Ivey ($250.00), law clerk Canon T. Corbitt ($175.00), and legal assistant/paralegal Holly L. Smith ($145.00). Carmike does object to the $215.00 claimed hourly rate of Caroline L. Harwell, who served as an unlicensed law clerk from August 1, 2017 to November 16, 2017 and as a first-year associate attorney from November 17, 2017 to August 15, 2018. Trawick presented evidence that the market rate for a first-year associate in the Middle District of Georgia is between $150.00 and $225.00 per hour, and the market rate for an unlicensed law clerk is between $150.00 and $175.00 per hour. Legare Aff. ¶¶ 18-19, ECF No. 203-10; Newsom Aff. ¶¶ 17-18, ECF No. 203-11. Based on this evidence, the Court finds that $215.00 is a reasonable hourly rate for Harwell's work as a first-year associate attorney, and $175.00 is a reasonable hourly rate for Harwell's work as an unlicensed law clerk.

         The next step in figuring the lodestar is to determine the number of hours reasonably expended. “Time spent is reasonable, and thus compensable, if it would be proper to charge the time to a client.” In re Home Depot Inc., 931 F.3d at 1087. “As with a client, counsel should not include in the lodestar hours that are ‘excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary.'” Id. (quoting Norman v. Hous. Auth. of City of Montgomery, 836 F.2d 1292, 1301 (11th Cir. 1988)). The Court must “deduct unnecessary or redundant hours and time spent upon ‘discrete and unsuccessful claims' from the calculations.” Duckworth v. Whisenant, 97 F.3d 1393, 1397 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting Norman, 836 F.2d at 1301-02). But, the lodestar computation should include time spent on claims that “involve a common core of facts” or are “based on related legal theories.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. “If fee applicants do not exercise billing judgment, courts are obligated to do it for them, to cut the amount of hours for which payment is sought, pruning out those that are ‘excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.'” Am. Civil Liberties Union of Georgia v. Barnes, 168 F.3d 423, 428 (11th Cir. 1999). Pruning duty, however, does not rest exclusively upon the Court. “Those opposing fee applications have obligations, too. In order for courts to carry out their duties in this area, ‘objections and proof from fee opponents' concerning hours that should be excluded must be specific and ‘reasonably precise.'” Id. (quoting Norman, 836 F.2d at 1301).

         Here, Trawick's counsel represents that she removed hours that were duplicative or not reasonably necessary for the effective representation of Trawick. Counsel also asserts that she removed time spent on Trawick's unsuccessful claims to the extent that the time was not intertwined with Trawick's successful Title VII wage discrimination claim.[4] Counsel further avers that she removed all time entries related to her unsuccessful spoliation and contempt motions, her unsuccessful motion for reconsideration, and her unsuccessful motion to disqualify. And, counsel significantly reduced time associated with her partially successful motion to compel. She also reduced time associated with the EEOC charge, Complaint, and summary judgment response to account for unsuccessful claims.[5]Carmike argues that Trawick's counsel did not prune enough. The Court must therefore resolve the dispute.

         A. Time Spent on Unsuccessful Claims

         Carmike contends that the Court should exclude time that it contends Trawick's legal team spent on discovery and trial preparation for unsuccessful claims. Carmike points to a handful of time entries that it contends are solely for these unsuccessful claims, plus it argues for an across-the-board reduction of 60% to account for Trawick's unsuccessful claims.[6]Carmike's chief argument is that trial preparation on issues that primarily supported Trawick's unsuccessful Title VII retaliation claim should be excluded because the retaliation claim was not closely related to her successful Title VII wage discrimination claim. Carmike also argues that there should be an additional reduction on top of the reduction that Trawick's counsel made to entries for the EEOC charge, Complaint, and summary judgment response to account for the fact that several other claims were dismissed before trial.

         As discussed above, the Court must deduct time spent on discrete, unsuccessful claims. These are claims “that are based on different facts and legal theories” that can be treated “as if they had been raised in separate lawsuits.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-35. But if claims for relief “involve a common core of facts, ” then “[m]uch of counsel's time will be devoted generally to the litigation as a whole, making it difficult to divide the hours expended on a claim-by-claim basis.” Id. at 435. “Such a lawsuit cannot be viewed as a series of discrete claims.” Id. The courts “have expansively treated claims as being related.” Popham v. City of Kennesaw, 820 F.2d 1570, 1579 (11th Cir. 1987). Here, all the claims that were presented to the jury involve a common core of facts regarding Trawick's employment and the chauvinistic corporate culture at Carmike. The evidence Trawick presented regarding the investigation that resulted in her termination could be viewed as circumstantial evidence that Carmike used Trawick's sex as a motivating factor when it set her compensation, even though the jury did not find that Trawick carried her burden on all of the elements of her retaliation claim. Beyond the reductions made by Trawick's counsel, the Court does not find that the other work performed by counsel can be broken down into tasks necessary only for distinct claims. The evidence largely overlapped; much of the evidence relevant to Trawick's claims that were disposed of before trial was part of the same common core of facts regarding Trawick's employment and the corporate culture at Carmike.[7]Carmike has failed to help the Court by pointing to any time entries that were solely for discrete, unsuccessful claims. The Court therefore declines to deduct any hours from the lodestar calculation on this basis.

         B. Time Spent on Unsuccessful Motions and Responses

         Trawick agrees that her counsel should not be compensated for completely unsuccessful motions, such as the unsuccessful spoliation and contempt motions, the unsuccessful motion for reconsideration, and the unsuccessful motion to disqualify. Carmike points out that Trawick's counsel did not deduct 0.3 hours by Ms. Harwell on April 26, 2018 for work on the unsuccessful motion for spoliation sanctions; that time shall not be included in the lodestar. Carmike also notes that Trawick's attorney spent 0.8 hours drafting a motion to exceed page limits that was never filed. Trawick reduced the time sought for this unfiled motion to 0.24 hours, but she did not explain why this time sought is reasonable or state that she would charge a paying client for such work, so this time shall be excluded from the lodestar.

         Carmike highlights that although counsel subtracted the time Ms. Prebula spent on the actual motion to disqualify Mr. Gristina, she did not subtract the hours spent on researching the issue before she filed the motion. It was not unreasonable for Ms. Prebula to research the issue, and the Court declines to strike these hours. Carmike further contends that Trawick should not recover time spent on her largely unsuccessful responses to Carmike's motions in limine regarding “me too” evidence, statistical evidence, comparators other than Shannon Sailors, spoliation of evidence, and alleged sexual harassment. Based on the Court's review, counsel did exclude time that was billed exclusively for these issues. Counsel did not deduct general entries for motion in limine responses, which Carmike suspects may include time spent on the unsuccessful responses. Even if some of the time was spent on unsuccessful issues, the Court cannot find that the small amount of time on motion in limine responses was unreasonable. Finally, Carmike argues that Ms. Prebula did not subtract enough time associated with her partially successful motion to compel and that she should have deducted time spent on the Rule 56(d) motion that the Court encouraged her to file. The Court rejects these arguments.

         C. Vague and Incomplete Time Entries

         Carmike objects to fifty-five time entries as impermissibly vague because they are for things like “email re status” and “telephone calls with counsel re issues.”[8] The Court understands that in Ceres Environmental Services, Inc. v. Colonel McCrary Trucking, LLC, 476 Fed.Appx. 198 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam), a panel of the Eleventh Circuit found no abuse of discretion for applying a 10% reduction for block billing that lumped several tasks in single entries and included vague entries like “working with [John Doe]” and “continuing work on case.” Id. at 203-04 (alteration in original). Though some of counsel's entries here lack detail, they do permit Carmike and the Court to understand the basic reason for each time entry. The Court declines to reduce these entries.

         Carmike also points out that several entries are incomplete on at least one of Trawick's exhibits, arguing that it is impossible to tell what is included. Carmike is correct that the time entries are cut off on Exhibit A, the original bill, but they are not cut off on Exhibit D, billing by individual, so Carmike should have been able to ...


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