United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR FEES Re: Dkt. No. 31
JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY, Magistrate Judge.
After reaching a settlement in this debt collection action, Plaintiff David Hajime Brown filed this motion to recover attorneys' fees and costs from the Defendants Mandarich Law Group, LLP ("Mandarich") and CACH, LLC ("CACH"). (Dkt. No. 31.) Plaintiff seeks an award of $9, 687.86 in attorney fees and costs. After carefully considering the parties' pleadings, the Court concludes that oral argument is unnecessary, see Civ. L.R. 7-1(b), and grants Plaintiff's motion in the total amount of $8, 002.86.
Defendants filed a debt collection lawsuit against Plaintiff in April 2011 in Alameda Superior Court. Shortly after, Brown retained the legal services of Fred W. Schwinn of Consumer Law Center to represent him in connection with the debt collection lawsuit. Nonetheless, during the pendency of the lawsuit, Defendants sent a communication directly to Brown rather than to his attorney. Brown subsequently filed this action against Defendants on October 6, 2013, alleging that the communication Defendants made directly to Brown violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. Sections 1692, et seq., and the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, California Civil Code Sections 1788, et seq. (Dkt. No. 1.)
Shortly after Defendants answered the complaint, Brown filed two substantive motions: one to strike Mandarich's affirmative defenses, (Dkt. No. 18), and another to strike CACH's affirmative defenses (Dkt. No. 20). Before any responses to the motions were filed, Defendants made an offer of judgment to Plaintiff in the amount of $2000 plus reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. (Dkt. No. 22.) Plaintiff accepted the offer and thereafter filed the present motion for attorneys' fees and costs under the FDCPA, requesting $9, 687.86. (Dkt. No. 31; Dkt. No. 33.) Defendants contend that Plaintiff's claimed attorneys' fees and costs are unreasonable and should be reduced by 50%. (Dkt. No. 32.)
Under the FDCPA, a successful plaintiff is entitled to receive reasonable attorneys' fees and costs as part of the damages from the liable debt collector. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3); see also Camacho v. Bridgeport Financial, Inc., 523 F.3d 973 (9th Cir. 2008) ("The FDCPA's statutory language makes an award of fees mandatory"). "[A] reasonable fee 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). This calculation is referred to as the "lodestar." Friend v. Kolodzieczak, 72 F.3d 1386, 1389 (9th Cir. 1995). "The fee applicant bears the burden of documenting the appropriate hours expended in the litigation and must submit evidence in support of those hours worked." Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1397 (9th Cir. 1992). A court should not uncritically accept a party's representation of attorneys' fees. Sealy, Inc. v. Easy Living, Inc., 743 F.2d 1378, 1385 (9th Cir. 1984). Thus, an independent review of the record is required. Ferland v. Conrad Credit Corp., 244 F.3d 1145, 1151 (9th Cir. 2001). "Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. The final award of attorneys' fees is within the discretion of the Court. Kerr v. Screen Extras Guild, Inc., 526 F.2d 67, 69 (9th Cir. 1975).
I. The Requested Hourly Rates are Reasonable.
Brown requests a $450 per hour rate for his attorney Fred Schwinn and a rate of $350 for Raeon R. Roulston, Schwinn's associate. A requested rate should be compared to reasonable rates charged for similar work performed by attorneys with comparable experience in the forum state. Camacho, 523 F.3d at 980 (9th Cir. 2008). Affidavits of the plaintiff's attorneys and other attorneys in the area are sufficient for a plaintiff to meet this burden. Id. Once a party submits evidence supporting its fees, "[t]he party opposing the fee application has a burden of rebuttal that requires submission of evidence to the district court challenging the accuracy and reasonableness of the hours charged or the facts asserted by the prevailing party in its submitted affidavits." Gates, 987 F.2d at 1397-98.
In 2011, the statewide average rate for small consumer law firms was $406. (Dkt. No. 31 at 12.) This court has previously awarded Schwinn his requested rate of $450. See Rivera v. Portfolio Recovery Associates, LLC, No. 13-2322 MEJ, 2013 WL 5311525, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 23, 2013). Moreover, Brown filed declarations from his attorneys, as well as from other consumer law attorneys in the Bay Area, each of which stated that the sought-after $450 and $350 rates are reasonable for consumer law attorneys with their respective experience. ( See Decl. of Fred W. Schwinn, Dkt. No. 31-1; Decl. of Raeon R. Roulston, Dkt. No. 31-3; Expert Decl. of Ronald Wilcox, Dkt. No. 31-4; Expert Decl. of Scott Maurer, Dkt. No. 31-5.)
In Camacho the defendant provided expert declarations to rebut the plaintiff's evidence and show that the requested hourly rates were unreasonable. 523 F.3d at 980. In contrast, Defendants have not provided any evidence to challenge the accuracy or reasonableness of Brown's requested rates. Rather, Defendants merely criticize Brown's supporting declarations, contending that these rates are unreasonable because: (1) the rates are based on a range for the entire State of California, as opposed to the Northern District, and (2) Schwinn's years of legal experience outside of California should not count towards the Northern District rate.
Although Defendants are correct that the Northern District of California is the relevant community for determining the prevailing market rate, see id. at 979, their assertion provides them no relief. Defendants fail to provide evidence of the prevailing rates for the Northern District, let alone evidence that those rates are lower than what Plaintiff requested. Indeed, narrowing the statewide California rate to reflect only the Northern District would likely result in a prevailing market rate higher than what Brown requests. In In re HPL Technologies, Inc. Securities Litigation, for example, the court determined appropriate rates by referencing the Laffey Index, an objective measure that indicates prevailing attorneys' fee rates in Washington D.C., and then adjusting it relative to the 2005 Federal locality pay differentials. 366 F.Supp.2d 912, 921 (N.D. Cal. 2005). The prevailing rates were adjusted upwards by 9% to reflect the market difference in the San Francisco Bay Area. Id. Using the In re HPL Technologies formula with the 2013 Federal locality pay differentials indicates that the San Francisco Bay Area has the highest differential in California. See Judiciary Salary Plan Base and Locality Pay Tables, http://jnet.ao.dcn/human-resources/human-resources-management/compensation/pay-tables-united-states-courts/2013-pay-tables/judiciary-salary-plan-jsp-base-and-locality-pay-tables. To compare: the Bay Area's differential would be .93%; Los Angeles's would be .94%; San Diego's would be -0.03%; Sacramento's would be -2.02%.
As for Defendants' second argument, they do not cite any authority to support the notion that Schwinn's experience should not reflect the time he practiced consumer law outside of California. To the contrary, courts have acknowledged Schwinn's experience in both Kansas and California. See Johnson v. CFS II, No. 12-1091 LHK, 2013 WL 6841964, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 27, 2013) (finding that Schwinn's requested hourly rate was reasonable in light of the 16 years he spent practicing consumer law, which included time in both Kansas and California). The Court can discern no ...