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Gonzalez v. Machado

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division

July 10, 2019

GABRIEL GONZALEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ROY P. MACHADO, et al., Defendants. Attorney Requested Rate Requested Hours Total Fees Attorney Hourly Rate Sought Hourly Rate Awarded Hours Sought Hours Awarded Fees Sought Fees Awarded

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES, Re: ECF No. 85

          LAUREL BEELER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Gabriel Gonzalez, who has physical disabilities, cannot walk, and uses a wheelchair for mobility, sued the defendants for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act after he visited their taqueria and was unable to sit at a table because the table legs did not “allow for the proper toe clearance.”[1] The parties settled the case.[2] The damages settlement was $6, 000.[3] The parties did not settle the fees (although on March 25, 2019, the defendants' counsel offered $18, 000 for fees, and the plaintiff accepted the offer on April 1, 2019).[4] The deal apparently was not consummated, and the plaintiff moved for $39, 565 in fees and $1, 260 in costs for a total of $40, 825.[5] The defendants oppose the fees as unreasonable on the grounds that (1) seven attorneys expending 70.1 hours on a non-complex case with no discovery is excessive (contrasting his own fees of $5, 000), and (2) the hourly rates are excessive.[6]The court can decide the motion without oral argument. N.D. Cal. Civ. L. R. 7-1(b). The court awards $18, 787.50 in fees and $1, 260 in costs.

         STATEMENT

         1. Relevant Procedural History

         The plaintiff filed the complaint on April 20, 2017.[7] The defendants answered on May 15, 2017.[8] On August 11, 2017, the parties conducted a joint-site inspection, and the parties thereafter filed a notice for need of mediation on September 22, 2017.[9] A pre-mediation phone conference was held on November 21, 2017.[10] On December 19, 2017, the parties filed a joint notice that the case had settled and they would file a stipulated dismissal within sixty days.[11] They did not file it.[12]

         On March 19, 2018, the plaintiff reported that “[d]espite due diligence by [the] Plaintiff, signatures on the settlement documents and funding of the settlement remain outstanding from [the] Defendant.”[13] Defense counsel did not appear at the March 29 case-management conference, and the court ordered the defendants to show cause why the settlement documents had not been finalized and set a hearing for April 19, 2018.[14]

         On April 19, defense counsel reported that he had lost contact with his clients.[15] The court set a further case-management conference for May 31, 2018 and directed the parties to submit a joint update before the conference.[16] On May 17, 2018, the parties filed a joint case-management statement that did not clarify whether defense counsel had regained contact with his clients.[17] The court asked for a further joint update by May 21, 2018, [18] and on that date, the plaintiff reported that he had tried to contact defense counsel and received no response.[19] The court issued another order to show cause “why the settlement agreement has not been signed, why the agreed-upon settlement consideration has not been delivered, and why the court should not strike the defendants' answer.”[20] On June 4, 2018, the defendants responded that they did not have the money to pay the plaintiff's settlement demand, asked for a trial date, and asked for an early settlement conference or mediation where the parties might settle on a payment plan.”[21]

         On June 11, 2018, the court referred the case for a settlement conference.[22] The settlement judge had two scheduling calls with the parties on July 18, 2018 and August 3, 2018, set an in-person settlement conference for September 21, 2018, and ordered the parties to lodge settlement statements by September 11, 2018.[23] The defendants did not file their statement, and on September 13, 2018, the settlement judge ordered them to do so by 9 a.m. the next day.[24] When they did not, she vacated the settlement conference and ordered the parties to schedule a new date.[25] On September 23, 2019, the undersigned ordered the parties to contact the settlement judge to schedule a new date.[26] They ultimately had a settlement conference on March 8, 2019, where the case settled (except for fees).[27]

         2. Facts Relevant to Attorney's Fees Motion

         2.1 The Parties' Settlement Discussions

         On May 17, 2019, the plaintiff reported that he had “been in an extended [meet and confer] process with counsel for Defendants, Michael Welch, where it was believed that an agreement had been reached on the planned motion for attorney's fees. However, this agreement has fallen through as it appears that counsel for Defendant never had authority to convey the offer that was accepted.”[28] In an e-mail exchange, the defense counsel suggested an $18, 000 settlement for fees on March 25, 2019, and the plaintiff accepted that amount on April 1, 2019.[29] By April 23, 2019, defense counsel responded that the defendants were “trying to figure out how to divide it.”[30] On May 22, 2019, the plaintiff filed the fees motion, and on June 5, 2019, the defendants opposed it.[31]

         2.2 Attorneys, Billing Records, Requested Hourly Rates, and Requested Hours

         The following chart summarizes the hourly rates and hours billed by twelve attorneys.[32]

Attorney
Requested Rate
Requested Hours
Total Fees
Mark Potter
$650
17.733
$11, 505
Russell Handy
$650
6.0
$ 3.900
Phyl Grace
$650
11.2
$ 7, 280
Maiy Melton
$500
3.6
$ 1, 800
Dennis Price
$500
17.0
$ 8, 500
Chris Carson
$500
1.1
$ 550
Amanda Seabock
$500
4.0
$ 2.000
Isabel Masanque
$500
.5
$ 250
Khushpreet Mehton
$500
1.0
$ 500
Sara Gunderson
$410
1.1
$ 451
Prathima Reddy Price
$410
5.9
$2, 419
Farrell Goodman
$410
1.0
$ 410
All Attorneys
70.1
$39, 565

         Mark Potter $650 17.7[33] $11, 505 Russell Handy$650 6.0 $ 3, 900 Phyl Grace$6501L2$ 7.280 Maiy Melton $500 3.6 $1, 800 Dennis Price $500 17.0 $8, 500 Chris Carson $500 1.1 $ 550 Amanda Seabock $500 4.0 $ 2, 000 Isabel Masanque $500 .5 $ 250 Khushpreet Mehton $500 1.0 $ 500 Sara Gunderson $410 1.1 $ 451 Prathima Reddy Price $410 5.9 $2, 419 Farrell Goodman $410 1.0 $ 410 All Attorneys 70.1$39, 565 Mark Potter, an attorney on the case and the managing partner for the Center for Disability Access, submitted a declaration in support of the fees motion.[34] He has "devoted more than 95% of [his] practice to disability issues for 20 years[, ]" been involved in disability rights organizations, given ADA seminars throughout California, litigated over 2, 000 disability cases, and appeared on the news as an ADA expert.[35]

         Mr. Potter summarized the other attorneys' qualifications.

         Russell Handy “graduated Magna Cum Laude from California Western, has taught as an adjunct professor, has clerked for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and has devoted his private practice to disability litigation for the last 19 years.”[36] He has prosecuted over one thousand ADA cases, over forty trials, has been named one of San Diego's “Top Attorneys” by a local periodical, received an award for his disability work, and has appeared on the news as an ADA expert.[37]

         Phyl Grace has been practicing law for over twenty-two years, focusing on disability issues for ten.[38] She has litigated hundreds of civil-rights cases and has substantial litigation experience.[39]

         Mary Melton graduated from the UC Davis School of Law in 1992, has been licensed to practice for twenty-four years, and has significant litigation experience in several areas of law.[40]

         Dennis Price graduated from Loyola Law School in 2011, clerked for the California Court of Appeal, and worked for a large non-profit firm before joining Potter Handy.[41] He has been involved in litigating hundreds of disability-rights cases.[42]

         Chris Carson graduated from California Western School of Law in 2011, where she was a writer and editor for two journals, and she has litigated disability-access cases for more than five years.[43]

         Amanda Seabock graduated from California Western School of Law in 2011, where she served as a representative to the Student Bar Association and participated in various other activities.[44] She joined Potter Handy in 2012 first as an intern and then as an attorney.[45] She began overseeing the firm's disability-rights cases in California's Northern District in 2018.[46]

         Isabel Masanque graduated cum laude from California Western School of Law in 2012, where she was a writer and editor for two of the school's journals.[47] She interned for the San Diego Public Defender's Office and began her career at the Center for Disability Access in 2012 first as an intern and then as an attorney after her admission to the bar in 2013.[48]

         Khushpreet Mehton graduated from California Western School of Law in 2010 and has litigated hundreds of civil-rights cases throughout California since 2011.[49] He has tried two Title III cases in the Central and Southern Districts of California.[50]

         Sara Gunderson graduated from California Western School of Law in 2013, where she participated in a number of school clubs and activities.[51] She has worked exclusively on disability-civil-rights cases for the last two years.[52]

         Prathima Reddy Price graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law and has litigated various civil-rights cases.[53] She obtained “one of the highest settlements in the history of New York State” in a suit against the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.[54]

         Farrell Goodman graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1985 and has substantial civil-litigation experience, including jury and bench trials.[55] He has been a mediator and arbitrator in Ohio, and (as a solo practitioner) was outside counsel for several corporations.[56]

         Mr. Potter stated that because his practice relies on billing at a market rate, he has “extensive experience with respect to what attorneys specializing in disability law and civil rights bill for civil litigation and what courts are routinely awarding and can attest that the rates billed by the Center for Disability Access for its attorneys are well within market rates.”[57]

         ANALYSIS

         1. Legal Standards

         The federal and state statutes authorize fees for the claims in the complaint. In an ADA case, a district court has the discretion to award the prevailing party reasonable attorney's fees. 42 U.S.C. § 12205. “The Supreme Court has explained that, in civil rights cases, the district court's discretion is limited. A prevailing plaintiff under the ADA should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Jankey v. Poop Deck, 537 F.3d 1122, 1130 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Unruh Act allows for attorney's fees as “may be determined by the court.” Cal. Civ. Code § 52.

         “A reasonable fee is a fee that is sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious civil rights case. The district court must strike a balance between granting sufficient fees to attract qualified counsel to civil rights cases and avoiding a windfall to counsel. The way to do so is to compensate counsel at the prevailing rate in the community for similar work; no more, no less.” Vogel v. Harbor Plaza Ctr., LLC, 893 F.3d 1152, 1158 (9th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         California state and federal courts use the lodestar method to determine a reasonable fee award.[58] Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Jordan v. Multnomah Cnty., 815 F.2d 1258, 1262 (9th Cir. 1987); Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1131 (2001). “The ‘lodestar' is calculated by multiplying the number of hours the prevailing party reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate.” Morales v. City of San Rafael, 96 F.3d 359, 363 (9th Cir. 1996). The next two sections address the hourly rates and the hours billed.

         1.1 ...


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