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AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Yeager

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 30, 2018

AT&T MOBILITY LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL CHARLES E. “CHUCK”YEAGER RET.; ED BOWLIN; CONNIE BOWLIN; AVIATION AUTOGRAPHS; BOWLIN & ASSOCIATES, INC.; LAW OFFICES OF JOANNA R. MENDOZA, P.C.; DE LA PENA & HOLIDAY, LLP; LESSER LAW GROUP, Defendants.

          ORDER

         California law mandates an attorney fee and cost award to the prevailing defendants on a special motion to strike. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(c). The court previously granted the special motion to strike filed by cross-defendants Connie Bowlin, the Estate of Ed Bowlin, Aviation Autographs, and Bowlin & Associates, Inc. (collectively “Bowlins”). Order, ECF No. 338 (granting ECF No. 283). The Bowlins now seek an award totaling $49, 892.33. See Mot., ECF No. 340; Reply, ECF No. 358.

         The party responsible for paying any awarded fees, Victoria Yeager, opposes, arguing the Bowlins are entitled to no more than $1, 506.50. Opp'n, ECF No. 354. As explained below, the court AWARDS the Bowlins $20, 053.43 in fees and costs.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Multiple orders in this case detail relevant background information. See ECF Nos. 263, 306, 338-39, 357. The court therefore dispenses with a background section here, and relies on the information in the prior orders.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         As noted, the Bowlins succeeded on their special anti-SLAPP[1] motion to strike and are thus statutorily entitled to a cost and fee award. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(c) (providing “a prevailing defendant on a special motion to strike shall be entitled to recover his or her attorney's fees and costs.”). It is the court's job to calculate a “reasonable” sum. Robertson v. Rodriguez, 36 Cal.App.4th 347, 362 (1995). California law governs the inquiry. See Metabolife Int'l, Inc. v. Wornick, 213 F.Supp.2d 1220, 1221-22 (S.D. Cal. 2002); Lee-Tzu Lin v. Dignity Health-Methodist Hosp. of Sacramento, No. CIV. S-14-0666 KJM, 2014 WL 5698448, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 4, 2014). California courts calculate a reasonable statutory fee award in an anti-SLAPP case using the familiar lodestar figure, which multiplies the number of hours counsel “reasonably expended” litigating the motion by counsel's “reasonable hourly rate.” PLCM Group v. Drexler, 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095 (2000). The lodestar figure is presumptively reasonable, Cunningham v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 879 F.2d 481, 488 (9th Cir. 1988), but may be adjusted based on “such factors as the nature of the litigation, the complexity of the issues, the experience and expertise of counsel and the amount of time involved.” Wilkerson v. Sullivan, 99 Cal.App.4th 443, 448 (2002) (citations omitted).

         Here, the Bowlins submit bills showing they incurred $49, 892.33 in legal fees and costs litigating both the anti-SLAPP motion and the instant motion for fees. Mot. at 13 (initial sum of $47, 204.33); Reply at 5, 11 (adding $2, 688.00 incurred in drafting the reply).[2] As noted, Mrs. Yeager contends the Bowlins are entitled to no more than $1, 506.50. Opp'n at 11. The court's independent analysis demonstrates an award between these two sums is justified.

         III. LODESTAR CALCULATION

         A. Reasonable Number of Hours

         The first step in the lodestar analysis is determining how many hours counsel reasonably expended drafting the motions at issue. As the prevailing party, the Bowlins have the “burden of submitting billing records to establish that the number of hours [they have] requested [is] reasonable.” See Gonzalez v. City of Maywood, 729 F.3d 1196, 1202 (9th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

         The Bowlins submit billing records for two attorneys, Mr. Todd Noonan and Ms. Jaqueline Loyd, and one paralegal, Mr. Thomas McManus. Mot. at 8-9; Noonan Decl., ECF No. 341, ¶¶ 12-13. The Bowlins request fees for 92.3 hours total: 64.3 hours of Mr. Noonan's time; 17.7 hours of Ms. Loyd's time; and 10.3 hours of Mr. McManus's time. Noonan Decl. ¶ 13; Reply at 11.

         Although the billing records are the “starting point” for the “hours reasonably expended” component of the lodestar calculation, the court is not bound by this number or this evidence. Christian Research Inst. v. Alnor, 165 Cal.App.4th 1315, 1324 (2008) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see Prison Legal News v. Schwarzenegger, 608 F.3d 446, 453 (9th Cir. 2010) (The court “‘has a great deal of discretion'” in determining reasonableness of the hours claimed) (quoting Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1398 (9th Cir. 1992)); cf. Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1138 (2001) (“To the extent a trial court is concerned that a particular award is excessive, it has broad discretion to adjust the fee downward or deny an unreasonable fee altogether.”). The court may, for instance, “reduce the hours if it concludes the attorneys performed work unrelated to the motion at issue, or work that was unnecessary, excessive or duplicative in light of the issues presented.” 569 E. Cty. Boulevard LLC v. Backcountry Against the Dump, Inc., 6 Cal.App. 5th 426, 440 (2016) (citation omitted).

         Here, the court elects to reduce the claimed hours. The Bowlins were litigating three motions simultaneously. See ECF Nos. 283, 284, 288 (motion to dismiss, anti-SLAPP motion, and motion to declare Victoria Yeager a vexatious litigant, all filed on Oct. 3, 2017). As detailed below, several of the Bowlins' billing entries conflate counsel's work on the motions such that the court cannot with precision ascertain what percentage of the billing entries are “inextricably intertwined” with the anti-SLAPP motion. The lack of precision alone can support a reduction in a requested award. See Backcountry Against the Dump, 6 Cal.App. 5th at 440 (“[The court] may reduce the hours if it concludes the attorneys performed work unrelated to the anti-SLAPP motion” or “work that was unnecessary or duplicative or excessive in light of the issues fairly presented.”) (citations omitted), as modified on denial of reh'g (Dec. 29, 2016); cf. Fitbit, Inc. v. Laguna 2, LLC, No. 17-CV-00079-EMC, 2018 WL 306724, at *8-9 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2018) (noting same concern where work on anti-SLAPP motion overlapped with motion to dismiss), reconsideration denied, 2018 WL 620121 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 30, 2018); Uriarte v. Bostic, No. 15CV1606-MMA (PCL), 2017 WL 3387612, at *3 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2017) (noting where parties litigate several related motions, the risk of inefficient or duplicative efforts is heightened as is the need for thorough fee documentation).

         Specifically, the following billing entries do not clearly identify compensable work dedicated to the anti-SLAPP motion alone: Mr. Noonan reportedly spent 3.5 hours reviewing “prior docket entries and Yeager filings”; outlining and refining “potential defenses, including potential SLAPP and vexatious litigant motions”; and outlining a “letter to V. Yeager re same.” Ex. D, ECF No. 341-4 at 2. Mr. Noonan also reportedly spent 3.4 hours revising a “demand letter to V. Yeager”; corresponding with “V. Yeager . . . C. Bowlin . . . and M. Serlin[3]”; analyzing “AT&T docket and procedural defenses”; outlining “responsive motions”; drafting a “stipulation to extend time to respond”; and holding a “telephone conference with M. Serlin” and another “with V. Yeager re requested dismissal of action.” Ex. G, ECF No. 341-7 at 2. Ms. Loyd reportedly spent 5.6 hours meeting with Mr. ...


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