United States District Court, S.D. California
September 7, 2005.
MANUFACTURED HOME COMMUNITIES, INC., a corporation, Plaintiff,
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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'
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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