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Bodely v. Thompson

March 23, 2005

CRYSTAL BODELY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JOANNE THOMPSON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph C. Spero United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR AWARD OF ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS PURSUANT TO CONSENT DECREE [Docket No. 43]

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs Pursuant to Consent Decree ("the Motion"). Plaintiffs have requested $67,107.05 in attorneys' fees and $8,367.42 in costs. The parties have consented to magistrate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons stated below, the Motion is GRANTED.*fn1

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs brought this action pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 et seq., and related state laws, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of familial status. In particular, Plaintiffs alleged that Crystal Bodely sought to rent a unit that Defendants Clarence and Josephine Gagliani had listed as available to rent with JoAnne Thompson and Bradford Thompson, doing business as JAT Realty. Defendants allegedly refused to rent the unit to Bodely on the basis that she planned to live in the unit with her three children. Complaint, ¶ 10.

The action settled in October 2004 -- over nine months after the complaint was filed and after the parties had engaged in significant discovery. Declaration of Liza Cristol-Deman in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs Pursuant to Consent Decree ("Cristol-Deman Decl."), Ex. 1 (Consent Decree). Plaintiffs had served three rounds of written discovery and taken the deposition of three witnesses, while Defendants had served written discovery and deposed Plaintiff Crystal Bodely as well as six staff members of Project Sentinel, the agency that had investigated Plaintiffs' complaints. Cristol-Deman Decl., ¶ 44. On September 8, 2004, Defendants made their first settlement offer, offering to settle the case for $10,000, including attorneys' fees and costs. Id., ¶ 42. Plaintiffs did not accept the offer and Defendants did not respond to Plaintiffs' subsequent counteroffer. Id., ¶ 43. A mediation was conducted on October 27, 2004, at which the case was settled, resulting in a consent decree ("the Consent Decree"), which was filed on November 9, 2004.

Under the Consent Decree, Defendants agreed to pay Plaintiffs a settlement amount of $20,000.00, as well as Plaintiffs' reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2), the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Cal. Gov. Code § 12989.2 and the Unruh Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1(h). The Consent Decree also includes equitable relief. Id. In particular, Defendant JoAnne Thompson, the JAT real estate agent who represented the Gagliani property, is required to: 1) provide all prospective tenants and all housing providers who retain JAT, JoAnne Thompson or her husband as an agent with a pamphlet regarding fair housing requirements; 2) display in a conspicuous place in all units shown for rental a HUD fair housing poster; 3) include in all advertisements and internet postings listing available rental units the statement, "We're a Fair Housing Provider;" 4) attend and pay for a two-hour fair housing training seminar; and 5) provide a written statement every year to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing certifying that Defendants have complied with the terms of the Consent Decree. Id. In addition, Defendant Clarence Gagliani is required to attend and pay for a two-hour fair housing training seminar. Id.

Pursuant to the Consent Decree, Plaintiffs brought this Motion, seeking attorneys' fees and costs. In the Motion, Plaintiffs sought $71,459.55 in attorneys' fees and $8,367.42 in costs. The fees are based on the following lodestar calculation, with a 10 % reduction taken off the entire lodestar amount:

Attorneys*fn2HoursBilling RateAmount Christopher Brancart48.2$325.00$15,665.00 Liza Cristol-Deman228.7250.0057,175.00 Legal Assistants    Katja Thomas32.7110.003,597.00 Dena Reiner13.595.001,282.50 Staff Assistants    Cassie Canfield4.750.00235.00 David Winbourne28.950.001,445.00   TOTAL:$79,399.50    - 7,939.95 (10% reduction)   Adjusted Lodestar:$71,459.55

In their Opposition, Defendants do not dispute that they are required under the Consent Decree to pay reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. They also raise no objections to the costs sought by Plaintiffs. However, they assert that the amount sought by Plaintiffs in attorneys' fees is excessive.

First, they complain that the fees sought by Christopher Brancart are excessive. Defendants question Brancart's hourly rate, pointing out that the rate of defense counsel, who "is equally capable," is only $185.00/hour. In addition, Defendants argue that Brancart should not have continued to bill for time after November 10, 2003, when Cristol-Deman became lead counsel. On this basis, they assert that the time after November 10, 2003, billed by Brancart for communications with the clients and with CristolDeman was duplicative. (Defendants do not, however, identify specific time entries to which they object.) Similarly, Defendants argue that it is unreasonable for Plaintiffs to bill for Brancart's time attending the mediation, given that Cristol-Deman also attended the mediation.

Second, Defendants argue that Cristol-Deman's fees are unreasonable because they exceed the $20,000.00 settlement amount. Defendants suggest that the hourly rate of $250.00 sought by Cristol- Deman also is too high, asserting that Cristol-Deman, by her own admission, has never billed at this rate. Defendants go on to point to several examples of what they argue is unreasonable billing by Cristol-Deman:

1) time spent "reviewing . . . the complaint that had already been prepared by the same law firm;"*fn3 2) duplicative attendance at the mediation (see above); 3) excessive time billed between June 22, 2004, and July 7, 2004, drafting a nine-page demand letter;*fn4 4) seven hours of time to prepare Plaintiff Bodely for her deposition, when the deposition itself took only three and one-half hours;*fn5 5) 10 hours of time billed for inter-office conferences with Brancart and other staff;*fn6 6) time spent performing secretarial tasks.*fn7

Third, Defendants argue that the fees sought for time billed by paralegals are unreasonable. According to Defendants, the tasks performed by the paralegals -- "preparation of summaries, databases and witness tables" -- were unnecessary given the stage of litigation. Defendants assert that this work would only have been necessary if litigation were "imminent" and thus reflects "a mindset wherein the billing of fees is aggressively encouraged with the intent that it would be passed on to the defense at the conclusion of the lawsuit."

Finally, Defendants assert that Plaintiffs'10% reduction in their fee request does not make their fees reasonable. Rather, they argue, this reduction is either "an admission that the attorney's [sic] fees are excessive" or "a disingenuous attempt to convince the court that Plaintiffs' counsel is being reasonable."

In their Reply, Plaintiffs agree to reduce their adjusted lodestar amount of $71,459.55 by the following amounts: 1) $2,502.50 for time billed by Brancart for travel to and attendance at the mediation; 2) $1,000 for time spent preparing the demand letter; and 3) $850.00 for secretarial tasks. Plaintiffs argue that in all other respects, their fees are reasonable. Taking into account these reductions, Plaintiffs seek a revised lodestar amount of $67,107.05. Addressing the specific objections posed by Defendants, Plaintiffs argue, first, that Defendants have mischaracterized the Consent Decree by referring only to the $20,000.00 in monetary damages and ignoring the significant equitable relief obtained. When this equitable relief is taken into account, Plaintiffs argue, the fees they seek are not disproportionate to the results obtained. Moreover, Plaintiffs assert, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that fees must be proportionate to a plaintiff's monetary recovery in civil rights cases.

Second, Plaintiffs assert that their overall fees were not excessive in light of Defendants' aggressive litigation tactics and the fact-intensive defenses asserted by Defendants.

Third, Plaintiffs argue that the time spent on the demand letter (now reduced to eight hours from 12 hours) involved "extensive evidentiary and legal analyses." In particular, Plaintiffs note that the case involved application of an occupancy restriction, which required a "complex legal analysis." With respect to the time spent preparing Plaintiff Bodely for her deposition, Plaintiffs argue that the time spent was, in fact, six hours rather than seven, and that this time was reasonable because Bodely was the key witness in the case. Plaintiffs note that they could not be expected to anticipate that Defendants would fail to raise many of the issues that are typically raised in such depositions. Rather, they assert, they would have been remiss if they had not devoted adequate time to preparing Bodely.

In response to Defendants' complaint that too much time was devoted to inter-office communications, Plaintiffs point out that Defendants have not specifically identified the time entries to which they object. Moreover, Plaintiffs assert, the 10% reduction should adequately ...


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