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MANUFACTURED HOME COMMUNITIES v. COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO

United States District Court, S.D. California


September 7, 2005.

MANUFACTURED HOME COMMUNITIES, INC., a corporation, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO; LV UNITED, INC., RANCHO MESA RESIDENTS, INC.; and RANCHO VALLEY MOBILEHOME HOMEOWNERS' ASSOCIATION, INC., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: NAPOLEON JONES, District Judge

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES.
Currently before the Court is Defendants County of San Diego and Dianne Jacob's ("Defendants") Motion for Attorneys' Fees ("Motion") and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in support thereof. [Doc. Nos. 104, 105.] Plaintiff Manufactured Home Communities ("Plaintiff") has filed an Opposition to the Motion. [Doc. No. 115.] For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part the Motion.

Background Facts

  This action arose from rent increases instituted by Plaintiff at three of its mobilehome parks and subsequent actions undertaken by Defendants. Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") alleged the following causes of action: (1) four claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") for denial of equal protection, denial of First Amendment rights, violation of the Fifth Amendment takings clause, and denial of substantive due process, against the County of San Diego; (2) one claim under Section 1983 for denial of First Amendment rights, against Dianne Jacob; and (3) two claims for state law relief, namely defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, against the County of San Diego. (See, generally, SAC.)

  On May 18, 2005, this Court granted Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's State Law Claims pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16 ("anti-SLAPP statute"). (See May 18, 2005 Order.)

  On May 23, 2005, this Court granted Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment in its entirety, resolving the remainder of Plaintiff's claims in Defendants' favor. (See May 23, 2005 Order.)

  Discussion

  Defendants seek reasonable attorneys' fees under the anti-SLAPP statute and under Title 42, United States Code, Section 1988 ("Section 1988"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendants reasonable attorneys' fees under the anti-SLAPP statute and DENIES Defendants attorneys' fees under Section 1988.

  I. Attorneys' Fees Under the California Anti-SLAPP Statute

  A. Legal Standard

  The California anti-SLAPP statute mandates that "a prevailing defendant on a special motion to strike shall be entitled to recover his or her attorney's fees and costs." Cal. Civ. Code § 425.16(c). The fee-shifting provision promotes the statute's general purpose to encourage participation in matters of public significance and discourage strategic lawsuits designed to chill speech. Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal. 4th 1122, 1130-31 (2001) (internal quotations omitted).

  The prevailing party seeking attorneys' fees "bears the burden of submitting detailed time records justifying the hours claimed to have been expended." Chalmers v. City of Los Angeles, 796 F.2d 1205, 1210 (9th Cir. 1986). However, the prevailing party "is not required to record in great detail how each minute of his time was expended" but rather "can meet his burden — although just barely — by simply listing his hours and identifying the general subject matter of his time expenditure." Fischer v. SJB P.D. Inc., 214 F.3d 1115, 1121 (9th Cir. 2000) (internal quotations and citations omitted) (finding that a "summary of the time spent on a broad category of tasks such as pleadings and pretrial motions" was sufficient to meet prevailing party's burden").

  The district court retains broad discretion as to the amount of attorneys' fees to award, although the award must be reasonable and supported by "substantial evidence." Metabolife Int'l, Inc. v. Wornick, 213 F.Supp.2d 1220, 1223 (citing Dove Audio, Inc. v. Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, 47 Cal. App. 4th 777, 785 and Macias v. Hartwell, 55 Cal. App. 4th 669, 676 (1997). Courts generally multiply the number of hours expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. See Blum v. Stevenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984).

  B. Discussion

  For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that: (1) Defendants are the prevailing parties in the anti-SLAPP motion; (2) the amount of $190 per hour is a reasonable billing rate; and (3) the total amount of reasonable attorneys' fees is $23,896.00.

  1. Prevailing Party in the Anti-SLAPP Motion

  As a preliminary matter the Court FINDS that Defendants are the prevailing parties based on the Court's May 18, 2005 Order Granting Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's State Law Claims pursuant to the California anti-SLAPP statute. (See May 18, 2005 Order.) Although Defendants stipulated to allow Plaintiff to add the state law claims, the Stipulation did not concede the merits of those claims and expressly reserved all defenses. (See Stip. and Order to Amend FAC at 2; see also May 18, 2005 Order at 9.)

  2. Reasonable Attorney Billing Rate

  Plaintiff briefly mentions that Defendants have not established that their attorney billing rate of $190 per hour is reasonable. (Pl.'s Objections to Decl. of William A. Johnson at 1-2.). However, Defendants' declaration states that the attorneys who worked on the anti-SLAPP motion, William A. Johnson, Jr., William Pettingill and James M. Chapin, have legal experience ranging from seventeen years to more than twenty-five years of legal practice. (Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr. ¶¶ 5, 6.) In their Reply, Defendants further state that $190 per hour is the rate Defendants charge to client departments and other agencies for the services of senior attorneys. (Defs.' Reply at 3.) Accordingly, the Court FINDS that Defendants' attorney billing rate of $190 per hour is reasonable.

  3. Substantial Evidence of Reasonable Amount of Attorneys' Fees

  The Court also FINDS that $23,896.00 is a reasonable amount of attorneys' fees to be awarded to Defendants. Defendants have submitted "substantial evidence" in the form of a declaration and billing time sheets. Defendants' declaration states that Mr. Johnson, Jr., Mr. Pettingill and Mr. Chapin, worked on the anti-SLAPP Motion for a total of 118 hours. (Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr. ¶¶ 5, 6.) Since Defendants' reasonable attorney billing rate is $190 per hour, the total amount of reasonable attorneys' fees comes to $22,420.00. (See id.) The declaration also states that paralegal Walter Bitts worked a total of 16.4 hours on the anti-SLAPP Motion; billed at $90 per hour, the reasonable value of Mr. Bitts' services was $1,476.00. (See id. ¶ 6.) Defendants' billing time sheets break down the hours worked by each attorney or paralegal, specifying the date, particular type of task, and number of hours worked. Thus, the total amount of reasonable attorneys' fees arising from the anti-SLAPP Motion is $23,896.00.

  Plaintiff concedes 62.1 attorney hours and 9.4 paralegal hours were reasonably spent on the anti-SLAPP Motion,*fn1 but contends that the remainder of the hours is insufficiently documented. (Pl.'s Opp. at 23.) However, based on the declaration and the billing time sheets, the Court finds that Defendants have submitted sufficient evidence of the disputed hours.

  First, the disputed hours spent by Mr. Johnson, Jr. are sufficiently documented as "Research & Analysis" on "defamation-1st Amendment issues" and "first amendment libel cases"; "review of additional cases re immunities"; "Review/Revise Documents" regarding the "opposition to motion"; "Draft Reply to Motion Opposition"; and "Research & Analysis" relating to the drafting of the Reply to Motion Opposition. (Defs.' Reply at 2; see Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr., Ex. A at 7, 10, 12, 13.) Next, the disputed hours spent by Mr. Pettingill are sufficiently documented as "Research & Analysis" and "Draft Reply to Motion Opposition." (Defs.' Reply at 2; see Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr., Ex. B at 21, 24.) The disputed hours spent by Mr. Chapin are sufficiently documented as "Research & Analysis" of "defamation claims and defenses"; "Review Opposition to Motion"; "Meet & Confer with Staff" on the Motion; and "Review Order Granting Motion to Strike." (Defs.' Reply at 2-3; see Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr., Ex. C at 2-3.) Finally, the disputed hours spent by Mr. Bitts are sufficiently documented as "Research re: lodging state case citations"; "Research on MHC business practices"; "Review Documents"; "Assemble exhibits"; and "Review time sheets." (Defs.' Reply at 3; see Decl. of William A. Johnson, Jr., Ex. D at 6-8, 10.)

  Defendants further seek an additional $26,428.00 in attorneys' fees for simultaneous litigation of their Motion for Summary Judgment on the state law claims. However, the attorneys' fees provision of the anti-SLAPP statute limits the recovery of fees to those incurred in connection with the anti-SLAPP Motion. Lafayette Morehouse, Inc. v. Chronicle Publishing Co., 39 Cal.App.4th 1379, 1383 (Cal.Ct.App. 1995) ("the Legislature intended that a prevailing defendant on a motion to strike be allowed to recover attorney fees and costs only on the motion to strike[.]") Thus, the Court declines to award attorneys' fees under the anti-SLAPP statute for fees arising from litigation of the Motion for Summary Judgment.

  Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Attorneys' Fees in the amount of $23,896.00 in attorneys' fees incurred in connection with the litigation of the anti-SLAPP Motion.

  II. Attorney's Fees Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988

  A. Legal Standard

  Title 42, United States Code, Section 1988 provides that the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in a Section 1983 action. 42 U.S.C. § 1988. When the prevailing party is the defendant, a heightened standard applies and the court may only award attorneys' fees where the plaintiff's claims were "groundless, without foundation, frivolous, or unreasonable." Karam v. City of Burbank, 352 F.3d 1188, 1195 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978) ("a district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant . . . upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith"). An action is considered "frivolous" only when the "result is obvious or the . . . arguments of error are wholly without merit." Id.

  B. Discussion

  For the reasons stated below, the Court cannot find that Plaintiff's claims were groundless, without foundation, frivolous, or unreasonable, and thus the Court declines to award Defendants attorneys' fees under Section 1988.

  1. Plaintiff's Section 1983 Claims Against the City of San Diego

  Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims were dismissed pursuant to the Court's May 23, 2005 Order Granting Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. In that Order, the Court dismissed the Section 1983 claims based on Equal Protection, Due Process, First Amendment, and Fifth Amendment Takings Clause against the City of San Diego, because Plaintiff could not establish a policy or custom creating municipal liability under Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs. Of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691, 691 (1978). (See May 23, 2005 Order at 15.)

  The Government contends that Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the City of San Diego were frivolous because Plaintiff failed to submit any evidence in support of its claims and Plaintiff failed to meet the Monell standard for municipal liability. (Mot. at 5.) However, in its Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff did submit a fair amount of evidence and argument in support of its claims and Monell liability. (See Pl.'s Opp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. Judgment at 14-24.) For example, Plaintiff submitted deposition testimony from a field inspector suggesting that out-of-cycle park inspections were unusual, comments made by Defendant Jacob suggesting that her actions constituted a policy, a plausible argument of statutory policy-making authority by city agencies, and legal authority supporting the contention that a single act in certain instances could constitute policy. (See id. at 14-24.) The Court finds that Plaintiff's evidence and arguments are sufficient to preclude the Court from finding that Plaintiff's claims were "groundless, without foundation, frivolous, or unreasonable." See Karam at 1195.*fn2

  2. Plaintiff's Section 1983 Claim Against Dianne Jacob

  The Court dismissed the Section 1983 claim against Dianne Jacob because Ms. Jacob's statements were non-actionable opinions and were not in response to Plaintiff's exercise of its First Amendment rights. (See May 23, 2005 Order at 15-16.)

  Similar to the above analysis, although the Court found as a matter of law that Plaintiff could not establish a Section 1983 claim against Dianne Jacob, Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence and argument in its Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment such that the Court cannot find that the claim was groundless, without foundation, frivolous, or unreasonable. (See Pl.'s Opp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. Judgment at 12-13.) In support of the claim against Ms. Jacob, Plaintiff made a plausible argument that Ms. Jacob's statements were actionable statements of fact made in response to Plaintiff's rent increase notices. (See id. at 12-14.)

  Accordingly, the Court DENIES attorneys' fees with respect to Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the City of San Diego and Dianne Jacob.

  Conclusion and Order

  Based on the foregoing analysis, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendants' Motion for Attorneys' Fees. Defendants are hereby awarded reasonable attorneys' fees in the amount of $23,896.00.

  IT IS SO ORDERED.

20050907

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