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Sekula v. FCA U.S. LLC

United States District Court, E.D. California

October 17, 2019

CARLA S. SEKULA, Plaintiff,
FCA U.S. LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company, and DOES 1 through 10 inclusive, Defendants.


         This matter came before the court on May 7, 2019 for hearing on plaintiff Carla Sekula's motion for attorneys' fees, costs, and expenses. (Doc. No. 88.) Attorney Sepehr Daghighian appeared telephonically on behalf of plaintiff, and attorney Leon Roubinian appeared telephonically on behalf of defendant FCA UC LLC (“FCA”). The court has considered the parties' briefs and oral arguments and, for reasons set forth below, will grant plaintiff's motion in part.


         On June 20, 2016, plaintiff commenced this action against FCA by filing suit in Tulare County Superior Court. (See Doc. No. 1-1.) Plaintiff alleged that a new Dodge Durango that she purchased in 2013 was delivered to her with serious defects and nonconformities to warranty. (Id. at 5.) The complaint asserted causes of action for: (1) breaches of express and implied warranties, in violation of the Song-Beverly Act, California Civil Code § 1790 et seq.; and (2) fraudulent inducement or concealment. (Id. at 25-29.) On March 20, 2017, FCA removed the action to this federal court. (Doc. No. 1.) Thereafter, a February 26, 2019 trial date was set. (Doc. No. 10.)

         On February 25, 2019, the parties informed the court that they had reached a settlement. (Doc. No. 78.) Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68, FCA offered to allow judgment to be entered against it and in favor of plaintiff in the sum of $142, 000.00 to be paid to plaintiff. (Doc. No. 79 at 2.) Plaintiff accepted the Rule 68 offer. (Id. at 4.) The offer noted that FCA would provide plaintiff with “attorney's fees based on actual time reasonably incurred in connection with . . . this action . . ., to be determined by the court if the parties cannot agree.” (Id. at 2.)

         Apparently unable to agree on the appropriate amount of attorney's fees to be paid to plaintiff's counsel, on April 8, 2019, plaintiff filed the pending motion for attorneys' fees, costs, and expenses. (Doc. No. 88.) On April 23, 2019, FCA filed its opposition to the pending motion, and on April 30, 2019, plaintiff filed her reply thereto. (Doc. Nos. 89, 90.)


         Under California's Song-Beverly Act, “if [a] buyer prevails in an action . . ., the buyer shall be allowed by the court to recover as part of the judgment a sum equal 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. § 1794(d). “The plain wording of the statute requires the trial court to base the fee award upon actual time expended on the case, as long as such fees are reasonably incurred-both from the standpoint of time spent and the amount charged.” Robertson v. Fleetwood Travel Trailers of CA, Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 785, 817 (2006).

It requires the trial court to make an initial determination of the actual time expended; and then to 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. These circumstances may include, but are not limited to, factors such as the complexity of the case and procedural demands, the skill exhibited and the results achieved. If the time expended or the monetary charge being made for the time expended are not reasonable under all the circumstances, then the court must take this into account and award attorney fees in a lesser amount. A prevailing buyer has the burden of showing that the fees incurred were allowable, were reasonably necessary to the conduct of the litigation, and were reasonable in amount.

Nightingale v. Hyundai Motor Am., 31 Cal.App.4th 99, 104 (1994) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Goglin v. BMW of North America, LLC, 4 Cal.App. 5th 462, 470 (2016). Under a contingent fee arrangement, “a prevailing buyer represented by counsel is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees for time reasonably expended by his or her attorney.” Nightingale, 31 Cal.App.4th at 105 n.6.

         “The determination of what constitutes a reasonable fee generally begins with the ‘lodestar,' i.e., the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate.” Graciano v. Robinson Ford Sales, Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 140, 154 (2006) (quoting PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler, 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095 (2000)). The court will apply the lodestar method to the Song-Beverly Act because “the statutory language of section 1794, subdivision (d), is reasonably compatible with a lodestar adjustment method of calculating attorney fees, including use of fee multipliers.” Robertson, 144 Cal.App.4th at 818; see also Warren v. Kia Motors America, Inc., 30 Cal.App. 5th 24, 35 (2018). Moreover, because “[the California] Supreme Court has held that the lodestar adjustment method is the prevailing rule for statutory attorney fee awards to be applied in the absence of clear legislative intent to the contrary, [the lodestar adjustment method] . . . is applicable to attorney fee awards under section 1794, subdivision (d).” Robertson, 144 Cal.App.4th at 818-19 (citing Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1135-36 (2001); see also Warren, 30 Cal.App. at 35-36.).

[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.
* * *
As we [have] explained . . .: “ ‘[a] contingent fee contract, since it involves a gamble on the result, may properly provide for a larger compensation than would otherwise be reasonable.' ”

Ketchum, 24 Cal.4th at 1132 (internal citation omitted).

         If a fee request is opposed, “[g]eneral arguments that fees claimed are excessive, duplicative, or unrelated do not suffice.” Etcheson v. FCA U.S. LLC, 30 Cal.App. 5th 831, 848 (2018) (quoting Premier Med. Mgmt. Sys. v. Cal. Ins. Guarantee Assoc., 163 Cal.App.4th 550, 564 (2008)). Instead, the opposing party must demonstrate that the hours claimed are duplicative or excessive. Premier Med. Mgmt. Sys., 163 Cal.App.4th at 562, 564; see also First American Title Ins. Co v. Spanish Inn, Inc., 239 Cal.App.4th 598, 606 (2015) (“Although defendants argued to the trial court that the ‘amount claimed for attorneys fees is not reasonable,' defendants did not respond to First American's evidence with evidence of their own, as required.”); Gorman v. Tassajara Dev. Corp., 178 Cal.App.4th 44, 101 (2009) (“The party opposing the fee award can be expected to identify the particular charges it considers objectionable.”).

         With this guidance in mind, the court turns to consider plaintiff's pending motion.[1]


         Plaintiff, as the auto buyer who prevailed in this suit, is entitled to reasonably incurred attorneys' fees, costs, and expenses. See Cal. Civ. Code § 1794(d). Here, plaintiff seeks: (1) an award of attorneys' fees in the amount of $67, 627.50; (2) a lodestar multiplier of 0.5, in the amount of $33, 813.75; and (3) an award of actual costs and expenses incurred in the amount of $22, 488.21. (Doc. No. 88-1 at 7.) Plaintiff seeks a total award of $123, 929.46. (Id.) FCA contends that the lodestar requested by plaintiff is unreasonable and that an upward multiplier is ///// not warranted in this case. (Doc. No. 89 at 6.) FCA also objects to various costs and expenses for which plaintiff seeks reimbursement. (Doc. No. 87.)

         A. Attorneys' Fees Request

         Plaintiff was represented by two law firms in this matter: the Knight Law Group (“Knight Law”), who commenced this action on plaintiff's behalf and provided legal services leading up to trial, and Hackler Daghighian Martino & Novak, P.C. (“HDMN”), who associated into this action to provide services relating to and in anticipation of the trial of this matter. (Doc. ...

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