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Rich v. Lange

United States District Court, S.D. California

June 6, 2017

ERIKA MACIAS AND CYNTHIA RICH, Plaintiff,
v.
MYRON LANGE, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFF ERIKA MACIAS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS AND DENYING PLAINTIFF ERIKA MACIAS' MOTION FOR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF [Dkt. No. 157.]

          Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Erika Macias' motion for attorneys' fees and costs and a motion for entry of injunctive relief. (Dkt. Nos. 156, 157.) Defendant did not file an opposition. Macias filed a reply arguing that the Court should grant both motions for Defendant's failure to file an opposition. (Dkt. No. 169.) Based on the reasoning below, the Court GRANTS in part Plaintiff Macias' motion for attorneys' fees and costs and DENIES her motion for injunctive relief.

         Background

         On November 19, 2014, Plaintiffs Erika Macias (“Macias”) and Cynthia Rich[1](“Rich”) filed a complaint against Defendant Myron Lange (“Defendant”) for violations of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq.; California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), Cal. Gov't Code sections 12927, 12955, et seq.; California Civil Code section 51.9 (“section 51.9"); California Ralph Act, (“Ralph Act”), Cal. Civ. Code section 51.7; California Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”), Cal. Civ. Code section 51; breach of the covenant of quiet use and enjoyment; and invasion of privacy. (Dkt. No. 1, Compl.) Defendant is the owner of about eight rental houses and apartments in the San Diego area. Macias was a tenant of Defendant from 2001 until the end of 2013.

         On April 1, 2016, the Court denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment as to Macias' claims. (Dkt. No. 63.) On May 16, 2016, defense counsel sought to withdraw as counsel for Defendant. (Dkt. No. 89.) On June 1, 2016, the Court conditioned defense counsel's withdrawal on participation with Plaintiff's counsel in lodging a pretrial order. (Dkt. No. 92.) Once a pretrial order was lodged, the Court granted defense counsel's motion to withdraw. (Dkt. No. 93.)

         On June 10, 2016, at the pretrial conference, Defendant, now proceeding pro se, orally requested that his prior waiver of a jury trial be withdrawn. (Dkt. No. 94.) After briefing on the issue, the Court granted Defendant's request to withdraw his waiver of jury trial. (Dkt. Nos. 99, 100, 101, 103.) Motions in limine were then held on October 7, 2016. (Dkt. No. 110.)

         On October 17 and 18, 2016, a jury trial was held as to Plaintiff Erika Macias' claims against Defendant Myron Lange. (Dkt. Nos. 122, 123.) On October 18, 2016, a jury verdict was entered on Macias' claims. (Dkt. No. 129.) Of the remaining five causes of action[2], the jury found in favor of Plaintiff on the claim for hostile housing environment under the Fair Housing Act and California Civil Code section 51.9 (“Civil Code section 51.9"). (Id.) The jury awarded Plaintiff $35, 320.00 in compensatory damages under the FHA and $20, 000 in compensatory damages under Civil Code section 51.9. (Id. at 4, 6[3].) The jury found in favor of Defendant on the remaining claims for violations of the Ralph Act, quid pro quo harassment under the Fair Housing Act and for gender discrimination under the Unruh Act. (Id. at 2, 3, 5.) The jury also found that punitive damages were not warranted. (Id. at 7.) Judgment was entered on March 29, 2017. (Dkt. No. 154.) On April 25, 2017, Defendant filed a notice of appeal.[4] (Dkt. No. 160.)

         Discussion

          Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule) 54, Macias seeks attorneys' fees as the prevailing party under the FHA and Civil Code section 51.9 in the amount of $97, 316.50 for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Inc. (“Legal Aid Society”) and costs in the amount of $4, 117.35.[5] (Dkt. No. 157 at 8; Dkt. No. 157-3, Butler Decl., Ex. 1 at 1.) She also seeks $86, 500.00 in attorney's fees for Brancart & Brancart and non-taxable costs in the amount of $5, 328.00.[6] (Dkt. No. 157-10, Brancart Decl., Exs. 1-2 at 2-31.)

         The FHA provides that a prevailing party may be awarded reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2). Moreover, a defendant who violates Civil Code section 51.9 is also liable for attorneys' fees. Cal. Civil Code § 52(b)(3). Because the jury found in favor of Plaintiff under the FHA and Civil Code section 51.9 claims, Plaintiff is a prevailing party and entitled to attorneys' fees and costs under both the federal and state statute.

         A. Attorneys' Fees

         Attorney's fees are based on the “lodestar” calculation which undergo a similar analysis under both federal and state law. See Hensley v. Eckerhardt, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1131 (2001); Lane v. Facebook, Inc., No. C 08-3845 RS, 2010 WL 2076916, at *1 (N.D. Cal. May 24, 2010) (lodestar approach similar under federal and state law). The Court must first determine a reasonable fee by multiplying “the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation” by “a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433.

         Under federal law, once calculated, the lodestar amount is presumptively the reasonable fee amount. Van Gerwen v. Guarantee Mut. Life Ins., 214 F.3d 1041, 1045 (9th Cir. 2000). A multiplier may then be used to adjust the lodestar amount upward or downward only in “‘rare' and ‘exceptional' cases, supported by both ‘specific evidence' on the record and detailed findings by the lower courts” that the lodestar amount is unreasonably low or unreasonably high. Id. (citations omitted). Under state law, the lodestar may be adjusted by a multiplier based on such factors as the contingent nature of the fee award and the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved. Ketchum, 24 Cal.4th at 1132.

         Plaintiff has the burden to establish entitlement to fees and provide supporting evidence. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. The Court may reduce an award based on inadequate documentation of hours or rates requested. Id. at 433. Once the applicant submits evidence of the appropriate hours spent on litigation, “the 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.” Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1397 (9th Cir. 1992).

         1. Reasonable Hourly Rate

         Plaintiff seeks rates of $320.00 per hour for Attorney Branden Butler, (Dkt. No. 157-1, Butler Decl. ¶ 6), $295.00 per hour for Attorney Rosalina Spencer, (Dkt. No. 157-4, Spencer Decl. ¶ 6), $500.00 per hour for Attorney Christopher Brancart, (Dkt. No. 157-9, Brancart Decl. ¶ 14), and $175.00 per hour prior to December 1, 2016 and $200.00 after December 1, 2016 for Attorney Danielle Tailleart. (Dkt. No. 157-6, Tailleart Decl. ¶ 5).

         “When assessing a reasonable hourly rate under both federal and state law, a court must consider the prevailing market rate charged by attorneys of comparable experience, expertise, and skill for comparable work.” Coles v. City of Oakland, No. C03-2961 TEH, 2007 WL 39304, at *4 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n. 11 (1984); Children's Hosp. & Med. Ctr. v. Bonte, 97 Cal.App.4th 740, 783 (2002)). Courts look to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community for similar work by attorneys of comparable skill, experience, and reputation. Camacho v. Bridgeport Fin., Inc., 523 F.3d 973, 979 (9th Cir. 2008); PLCM Grp. v. Drexler, 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095 (2000). Generally, the relevant community is the “forum in which the district sits.” Camacho, 523 F.3d at 979. The moving party has the burden to produce “satisfactory evidence, in addition to the affidavits of its counsel, that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services of lawyers of reasonably comparable skill and reputation.” Jordan v. Multnomah County, 815 F.2d 1258, 1263 (9th Cir. 1987). Affidavits by the plaintiff's counsel and other counsel concerning the prevailing fees in the community, and rate determination in other cases, are satisfactory evidence of the prevailing market rate. United Steelworkers of America v. Phelps Dodge Corp., 896 F.2d 403, 407 (9th Cir. 1990).

         Here, Plaintiff provides declarations of each counsel detailing their education, years of practice and experience in the area of fair housing law. (Dkt. Nos. 157-1, 157-4, 159-6, 157-9.) She also includes declarations of other counsel in the community and citation to cases supporting these rates. (Dkt. No. 157-10 at 32-54.) Based on these documents, the Court concludes that Plaintiff's counsels' hourly rates are reasonable.

         2. Hours Reasonably Expended

         “Under both federal and state law, an award of attorneys' fees should include compensation for all hours reasonably spent on the litigation, absent circumstances rendering an award unjust.” Coles, 2007 WL 39304, at 8 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 429; Serrano v. Unruh, 32 Cal.3d 621, 624, 639 (1982)). The district court has wide discretion in determining the reasonableness of attorney's fees. Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1398 (9th Cir. 1992); Montgomery v. Bio-Med Specialities, Inc., 183 Cal.App.3d 1292, 1297 (1986).

         The moving party bears the burden of documenting the appropriate hours spent in the litigation and submit evidence in support of the hours worked. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Counsel should exclude hours that are “excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary.” Id. at 434. The Court should decrease the hours that were not “reasonably expended.” Id. The opposing party must provide “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 (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 892 n. 5 (1984)); McGrath v. County of Nevada, 67 F.3d 248, 255 (9th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted) (there must be evidence to challenge the accuracy and reasonableness of the hours charged). The party opposing fees must specifically identify defects or deficiencies in the hours requested; conclusory and unsubstantiated objections are insufficient to warrant a reduction in fees. Cancio v. Fin. Credit Network, Inc., No. C04-03755 THE, 2005 WL 1629809, at *3 (N.D. Cal. July 6, 2005).

         Even if the opposing party has not objected to the time billed, the district court “may not uncritically accept a fee request, ” but is obligated to review the time billed and assess whether it is reasonable in light of the work performed and the context of the case. Common Cause v. Jones, 235 F.Supp.2d 1076, 1079 (C.D. Cal. 2002) (citing Sealy, Inc. v. Easy Living, Inc., 743 F.2d 1378, 1385 (9th Cir. 1984)); see also McGrath, 67 F.3d at 254 n.5 (noting that court may not adopt prevailing party's representations without conducting an independent review of the fee application). When the district court makes its award, it must provide a “concise but clear” explanation of its reasons. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437.

         If a plaintiff is only partially successful in the case, he or she may not recover attorney's fees for work on unsuccessful claim that are not related to the successful ones. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-35. Apportionment is required when disproportionate time is spent against each defendant in order to ensure that a “defendant is not liable for a fee award greater than the actual fees incurred against that defendant.” Jones v. Espy, 10 F.3d 690, 691 (9th Cir. 1993). Despite the general rule of apportionment, it might not be required if “it is impossible to differentiate between work done on claims.” Gracie v. Gracie, 217 F.3d 1060, 1069-70 (9th Cir. 2000) (where “claims are so inextricably intertwined that even an estimated adjustment would be meaningless.”) Some cases involve claims for relief that involve a common core of facts or are based on related legal theories. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. In these cases, counsel's time will be spent generally to the litigation as a whole making it difficult to divide the hours spent on a claim by claim basis. Id. In such a case, the court should “focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation.” Id. If a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, full recovery is allowed because an enhancement may be justified. Id. Therefore, just because plaintiff did not prevail on every contention raised in the lawsuit, does not mean the fee award should be reduced. Id. “[T]he most critical factor is the degree of success ...


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