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Base v. Fca U.S. LLC

United States District Court, N.D. California

September 25, 2019

GLEN R. BASE, Plaintiff,
v.
FCA U.S. LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES, COSTS AND EXPENSES RE: DKT. NO. 99

          JOSEPH C. SPERO CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Galen Base filed this action in Sonoma County Superior Court, asserting claims against Defendant FCA U.S. LLC (“FCA”) under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (“Song-Beverly Act”), Cal. Civ. Code section 1790, et seq. FCA removed the action to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction and the parties eventually entered into a settlement agreement. Plaintiff now brings a Motion for Attorneys’ Fees, Costs and Expenses (“Motion”) as the prevailing party under California Civil Code section 1794(d). A hearing on the Motion was conducted on Friday, August 30, 2019 at 9:30 a.m. For the reasons stated below, the Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.[1]

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff purchased a 2012 Dodge Ram 2500 on December 16, 2012. Complaint ¶ 9. According to Plaintiff’s attorney, Steve Mikhov, the vehicle began exhibiting “serious transmission, engine, and electrical issues” within the applicable express warranty period. Mikhov Decl. ¶ 4. Although Plaintiff took the vehicle to an FCA repair facility many times, FCA was never able to fix the problem. Id. ¶ 5.

         On October 21, 2016, Plaintiff filed this action, retaining Knight Law Group (“Knight Law”) to represent him on a contingent basis. Id. ¶¶ 8-9. On November 16, 2016, FCA offered to repurchase the vehicle for $82, 500. Tudzin Decl. ¶ 5 & Ex. A. Plaintiff rejected that offer. Mikhov Decl. ¶ 10. The parties then engaged in discovery. Id. ¶ 11. They attended a mediation on February 19, 2017, but it was unsuccessful. Id. ¶ 12.

         On January 29, 2018, the law firm of Hackler Daghighian Marino & Novack P.C. (“HDMN”) associated in to the case to assist Knight Law with trial preparation; attorney Sepehr Daghighian was to act as lead trial counsel in the case. Id. ¶ 15.

         On October 23, 2018, FCA made Plaintiff a “reasonable settlement offer that accounted for FCA’s egregious actions under the Song-Beverly Act.” Mikhov Decl. ¶ 16 & Ex. E (“Rule 68 Offer”). Under the Rule 68 Offer, FCA offered to pay Plaintiff $133, 000 plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. Id. Plaintiff rejected the offer, but at a settlement conference on April 5, 2019 agreed to settle the case for $135, 000 plus attorneys’ fees and costs. Id. ¶ 16. According to Mikhov, this amount amounted to a “full statutory ‘buy-back’ of Plaintiff’s defective vehicle, incidental and consequential damages, and a civil penalty.” Id.

         In the Motion, Plaintiff asks the Court to award attorneys’ fees in the amount of $124, 215.00, that is, a lodestar amount of $82, 810.00 plus a .5 multiplier enhancement of $41, 405.00. Plaintiff also seeks an award of costs in the amount of $14, 797.93. The lodestar amount consists of fees incurred by Knight Law in the amount of $44, 392.50 and fees incurred by HDMN in the amount of $38, 417.50. Mikhov Decl. ¶ 2 & Ex. A (Knight Law time sheets); Daghighian Decl. ¶ 8 & Ex. A (HDMN time sheets). Plaintiff’s costs are set forth in his Bill of Costs. Mikhov Decl., Ex. B.

         FCA challenges the amounts Plaintiff requests in the Motion. FCA contends the rates requested are unreasonable, the time billed is excessive, and that no multiplier should be awarded. FCA asks the Court to reduce the hourly rates requested by Plaintiff, reduce fees for “duplicative billing, travel, unnecessary ‘review, ’ purely clerical tasks, and unsupported or anticipated time, ” and reduce HDMN’s fees by 20% based on its use of 15-minute increments, which FCA argues has resulted in excessive fees.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standards

         In diversity actions, federal courts look to state law in determining whether a party has a right to attorneys’ fees and how to calculate those fees. Mangold v. Cal. Pub. Util. Comm’n, 67 F.3d 1470, 1478 (9th Cir. 1995). Under California law, buyers who prevail in an action under the Song-Beverly Act are entitled to “the aggregate amount of costs and expenses, including attorney’s fees based on actual time expended, determined by the court to have been reasonably incurred by the buyer in connection with the commencement and prosecution of such action.” Cal. Civ. Code section 1794(d). A party is a prevailing party if the court, guided by equitable principles, decides that the party has achieved its “main litigation objective.” Graciano v. Robinson Ford Sales, Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 140, 150–51 (2006); see also Wohlgemuth v. Caterpillar Inc., 207 Cal.App.4th 1252, 1262 (2012) (holding that “consumers who successfully achieve the goals of their litigation through a compromise agreement” may recover attorneys’ fees and costs as prevailing parties under the Song-Beverly Act).

         California courts have found that in awarding fees under the Song-Beverly Act, the trial court must “make an initial determination of the actual time expended; and then [must] ascertain whether under all the circumstances of the case the amount of actual time expended and the monetary charge being made for the time expended are reasonable.” Nightingale v. Hyundai Motor Am., 31 Cal.App.4th 99, 104 (1994). In evaluating the reasonableness of counsel’s charges, the court may consider “factors such as the complexity of the case and procedural demands, the skill exhibited and the results achieved.” Id. The prevailing party has the burden of showing that the attorneys’ fees it requests are reasonable. Id.

         California courts have further held that the Song-Beverly Act permits the trial court to award a multiplier where it deems appropriate under the lodestar adjustment method. Robertson v. Fleetwood Travel Trailers of California, Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 785, 819 (2006) (citing Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1132 (2001)). In Ketchum, the California Supreme Court explained:

[T]he lodestar is the basic fee for comparable legal services in the community; it may be adjusted by the court based on factors including, as relevant herein, (1) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (2) the skill displayed in presenting them, (3) the extent to which the nature of the litigation precluded other employment by the attorneys, (4) the contingent nature of the fee award. . . . The purpose of such adjustment is to fix a fee at the fair market value for the particular action. In effect, the court determines, retrospectively, whether the litigation involved a contingent risk or required extraordinary legal skill justifying augmentation of the unadorned lodestar in order to approximate the fair market rate for such services.

24 Cal.4th at 1132 (citing Serrano v. Priest, 20 Cal.3d 25, 49 (1977)). A court may also, “for an appropriate reason, ” make a downward adjustment under the lodestar adjustment method, for example where the court finds that time billed was excessive or that the tasks performed were in connection with unrelated claims upon which the party did not prevail. Graciano v. Robinson Ford Sales, Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 140, 161 (2006). It is improper, however, to limit a fee award under the Song-Beverly Act to a percentage of the prevailing party’s recovery. Id. at 164. The “[l]odestar analysis is generally the same under California law and Federal law.” Rodriguez v. Cnty. of Los Angeles, 2014 WL 8390755, *2 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 29, 2014).

         B.Lodestar Amount

         Plaintiff has provided time sheets reflecting the time his counsel spent on this litigation, broken down by specific task. Mikhov Decl. ¶ 2 & Ex. A; Daghighian Decl. ¶ 8 & Ex. A. The timesheets reflect the following time billed and requested rates for the attorneys who worked on the case:

Knight Law
• Alastair Hamblin: 2.2 hours at ...

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