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Willis v. City of Fresno

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 27, 2018





         Currently pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' renewed motion for attorneys' fees following remand from the Ninth Circuit. (Doc. 376). On January 20, 2018, Defendants filed an opposition to the motion. (Doc. 377). Plaintiffs filed a reply on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 378). The Court deemed the matter suitable for decision without oral argument pursuant to Local Rule 230(g) and took the matter under submission. (Doc. 379). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions, as well as the entire record in this case, the Court (1) GRANTS IN PART Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs and awards Plaintiffs $1, 141, 865.70 in attorneys' fees and $108, 078.47 in costs for a total award of $1, 249, 944.17, and (2) ORDERS Defendants to bear their own fees and costs. (Doc. 376).


         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         On March 28, 2009, Stephen Willis was fatally shot by Defendants Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio, who are Officers with the Fresno Police Department. Stephen Willis's parents, Chris and Mary Willis (“Plaintiffs”), alleged that Stephen Willis's Fourth Amendment rights were violated as a result of the shooting. Plaintiffs further alleged that Officer Catton and Officer Astacio were negligent in causing the death of Stephen Willis.

         After over four years of extensive litigation and a ten-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that Officer Catton used excessive force in violation of Stephen's Fourth Amendment rights, and Officer Catton was negligent in causing Stephen's death. The jury found Officer Astacio was not liable on Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and negligence claims. On Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim, the jury awarded $1 in nominal damages. On Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim, the jury awarded funeral and burial expenses in the amount of $10, 224.00, and further awarded Plaintiffs $1, 500, 000.00 in compensatory damages. However, the jury found that Stephen Willis was 80% comparatively at fault in causing his injuries. Accordingly, on January 31, 2014, the Court entered judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs, and awarded Plaintiffs $1 on Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim, and $302, 044.80 (20% of $1, 510.224.00) on Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim. (Doc. 251).

         B. Determination of the Initial Fee Request

         Following the verdict and post-trial motions, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees on May 14, 2014, seeking $2, 590, 173.75 in fees (lodestar fees of $1, 726, 782.50 with a 1.5 multiplier), and costs in the amount of $197, 490.57 for over 3, 500 hours of work performed by eight attorneys and two legal assistants. (Doc. 299, Attach. 1). Defendants opposed the fee request, asserting that Plaintiffs were not entitled to any attorneys' fees based on the nominal damages awarded on Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim, but in the alternative, Defendants argued that the unreasonableness of both Plaintiffs' requested hourly rate and the number of hours Plaintiffs' counsel expended on the litigation warranted a significant reduction in requested costs. (Doc. 305).

         On July 17, 2014, the Court granted the Initial Fee Motion in part (“Initial Fee Order”), awarding $717, 642.74 in attorneys' fees and $106, 852.20 in costs. The Court ruled that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties entitled to attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. But the Court made minor reductions to the hours claimed based on limited instances of impermissible block billing. (Doc. 316 at 26-28). The Court also ruled that Plaintiffs failed to prove that the rates requested were reasonable because they were improperly based on San Francisco hourly rates rather than hourly rates in the local Fresno legal community. (Doc. 316 at 14-18). Further, the Court also denied Plaintiffs' request for a lodestar enhancement and instead made a 35% across-the-board downward adjustment to the lodestar calculation given the limited success achieved by Plaintiffs. (Doc. 316).

         C. Ninth Circuit Mandate

         Plaintiffs timely appealed the jury verdict and this Court's “determination of Plaintiffs reasonable hourly rates” and the “reduction to the lodestar amount in granting Plaintiffs award for attorney's fees.” (Doc. 329). On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed all aspects of the trial court proceedings, except this Court's refusal to permit pre-death pain and suffering damages. See Willis v. City of Fresno, 680 Fed.App'x.589, 592 (9th Cir. 2017); (Doc. 343 at 5). The Ninth Circuit issued an opinion vacating this Court's judgment on Plaintiffs' 28 U.S.C. §1983 claim and remanded the case so that Plaintiffs “may present evidence in support of their claim for pre- death pain and suffering damages, ” in light of the intervening change of controlling law established in Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 751 F.3d 1096, 1105 (9th Cir. 2014). Id.

         The Ninth Circuit also remanded the matter for reconsideration of attorneys' fees and costs consistent with its ruling that Plaintiffs were entitled to seek damages for pre-death pain and suffering as follows:

We decline to rule on plaintiff's contentions that the district court abused its discretion by reducing counsel's hourly rates and by imposing an across-the-board 35% reduction. The district court should revisit these issues following the limited re-trial on the issue of pre-death pain and suffering damages.

(Doc. 343 at 7).

         D. Proceedings Following Remand

         On remand, the parties stipulated to a bench trial on the remaining pre-death damages issues with briefing and based upon evidence already in the record. (Docs. 348, 353). This Court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law and awarded Plaintiffs an additional $25, 000 for Stephen Willis's pre-death pain and suffering. (Doc. 251.) Following the bench trial, this Court also ordered:

Consistent with the Ninth Circuit's instruction that this court revisit its decision to reduce counsel's hourly rates and to impose an across-the-board 35% reduction (Doc. 343), [Plaintiffs shall file a renewed motion for attorneys' fees.] Any motion for attorneys' fees and costs shall be filed by December 20, 2017. The motion should be full and complete, in and of itself, and include any prior requests Plaintiffs wish the Court to consider.

(Doc. 373).

         E. Additional Fees and Costs Sought on Remand

         Plaintiffs renewed Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs following remand seeks an award of $1, 790, 307.50 in attorneys' fees, and an award of costs of $108, 078.47. (Doc. 376-1, Appendix A). This amount includes $1, 726, 782.50 in lodestar fees as of May 2014; fees in the amount of $21, 675.00 for attorney work performed in opposing Defendants' writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court; fees in the amount of $32, 737.50 for attorney work in connection with the pre-death pain and suffering bench trial; and an additional $9, 112.50 for preparing the renewed motion for attorneys' fees. (Doc. 376 at 1-2). Unlike the Initial Fee Motion, Plaintiffs' do not seek a multiplier on their lodestar fees in the renewed motion. With respect to costs, Plaintiffs seek $106, 852.20 that the Court previously awarded in the Initial Fee Order and additional costs of $1, 226.27 incurred since that award in May 2014.[1]

         III. ...

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