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Garrison v. Ringgold

United States District Court, S.D. California

November 1, 2019

TOMMY GARRISON, an individual, and CHRISTINE GARRISON, an individual, Plaintiffs,
v.
REGINALD BUDDY RINGGOLD, III aka Rasool Abdul Rahim El, an individual, ROSEGOLD INVESTMENTS, LLP, a Delaware Partnership, and MASTER INVESTMENT GROUP, INC., a California Corporation, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFFS/COUNTERDEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES [Dkt. No. 33.]

          Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is Plaintiffs/Counterdefendants' motion for attorney's fees pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute under California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16(c). (Dkt. No. 33.) Defendant/Counterclaimant Reginald Buddy Ringgold, III filed an opposition. (Dkt. No. 38.) Plaintiffs/Counterdefendants replied. (Dkt. No. 39.) Based on the reasoning below, the Court GRANTS in PART Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees.

         Background

         Plaintiff Tommy Garrison, who is over 65 years old, and his wife, Plaintiff Christine Garrison (collectively “Plaintiffs” or “Garrisons”) filed a complaint for securities violations and financial elder abuse against Defendant Reginald Buddy Ringgold, III aka Rasool Abdul Rahim El, (“Defendant” or “Ringgold”), Rosegold Investments LLP, and Master Investment Group, Inc.[1] (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 16, 21, 22.) On May 13, 2019, the Court granted in part and denied in part Defendant Ringgold's motion to dismiss with leave to amend. (Dkt. No. 16.) On May 28, 2019, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging the same three causes of action. (Dkt. No. 17.) Defendant Ringgold, proceeding pro se, filed an answer and a counterclaim. (Dkt. No. 18.) The counterclaim alleged malicious prosecution and abuse of process, defamation, emotional distress, and sought punitive damages. (Dkt. No. 18 at 18-20.) On July 9, 2019, Plaintiffs/Counterdefendants filed a motion to strike the counterclaims under California's anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“anti-SLAPP statute”) pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16(e)(4), or in the alternative, motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Dkt. No. 20.) Defendant/Counterclaimant did not file an opposition. On August 26, 2019, the Court granted the Garrisons' motion to strike and dismissed the counterclaims as unopposed. (Dkt. No. 20.) In that order, the Court denied without prejudice Plaintiffs' request for attorney's fees as they did not demonstrate that they were “prevailing parties” as required under the anti-SLAPP statute. On September 13, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a motion for attorney's fee under the anti-SLAPP statute seeking fees in the amount of $8, 150.00. (Dkt. No. 33.) On this motion, Ringgold filed an opposition. (Dkt. No. 38.) The Garrisons also filed a reply. (Dkt. No. 39.)

         Discussion

         A. Prevailing Parties under anti-SLAPP Statute

         The anti-SLAPP statute provides that “a prevailing defendant on a special motion to strike shall be entitled to recover his or her attorney's fees and costs.” Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(c). Under the anti-SLAPP statute, an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant is mandatory. Christian Research Inst. v. Alnor, 165 Cal.App.4th 1315, 1321 (2008). The anti-SLAPP statute is “intended to compensate a defendant for the expense of responding to a SLAPP suit. To this end, the provision is broadly construed so as to effectuate the legislative purpose of reimbursing the prevailing defendant for expenses incurred in extracting herself from a baseless lawsuit.” Graham-Sult v. Clainos, 756 F.3d 724, 752 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Wanland v. Law Offices of Mastagni, Holstedt & Chiurazzi, 141 Cal.App.4th 15, 21 (2006)).

         The Garrisons, relying on Gottesman v. Santana, 263 F.Supp.3d 1034, 1043-44 (S.D. Cal. 2017), argue they are prevailing parties under the anti-SLAPP statue even if the anti-SLAPP motion was unopposed or the action was voluntarily dismissed after the anti-SLAPP motion was filed. Ringgold responds that due to recent hardships, he was unable to file an opposition to the motion to strike because he was homeless for a couple of months and was unable to access the internet to view the courthouse records.

         In Gottesman, the district court recognized a split in California courts in “determining whether a defendant is a prevailing defendant under the anti-SLAPP statute when that defendant has been voluntarily dismissed from the action” and followed the pragmatic approach of Coltrain v. Shewalter, 66 Cal.App.4th 94, 107 (1998), an analysis that most federal courts follow. Gottesman, 263 F.Supp.3d at 1043. This Court also recently relied on the reasoning in Gottesman. See Primacy Eng'g, Inc. v. ITE, Inc., Case No. 18cv1781-GPC(MDD), 2019 WL 2059668, at *3-4 (S.D. Cal. May 9, 2019) and applied it to dismissal due to Plaintiff's non-opposition to a motion to dismiss. (Case No. 18cv1781-GPC(MDD), Dkt. No. 45 at 4 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 4, 2019) (citing Pfeiffer Venice Properties v. Bernard, 101 Cal.App.4th 211, 218 (2002) (“[A] defendant who has been sued in violation of his or her free speech rights is entitled to an award of attorney fees . . . even if the matter has been dismissed prior to the hearing on that motion.”); Wilkerson v. Sullivan, 99 Cal.App.4th 443, 446 (2002); Plevin v. City and Cnty. of San Francisco, No. C 11-02359 CW, 2011 WL 3240536, at *4 (N. D. Cal. July 29, 2011)).

         The court of appeal in Coltrain noted that when “the plaintiff voluntarily dismisses an alleged SLAPP suit while a special motion to strike is pending, the trial court has discretion to determine whether the defendant is the prevailing party for purposes of attorney's fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, subdivision (c).” Coltrain, 66 Cal.App.4th at 107. A SLAPP plaintiff's voluntary dismissal or failure to oppose a motion to dismiss raises a rebuttable presumption that the defendant is the prevailing party. Id. Then a plaintiff “may try to show it actually dismissed because it had substantially achieved its goals through a settlement or other means, because the defendant was insolvent, or for other reasons unrelated to the probability of success on the merits.” Id. In determining whether to exercise their discretion to deem a defendant a prevailing party, courts must consider the “critical issue” of “which party realized its objectives in the litigation.” Id. In Coltrain, the SLAPP plaintiffs dismissed the case after the anti-SLAPP motion was filed because they ran out of money yet they did not produce any evidence so the presumption was not rebutted. Id. The court of appeal held that the trial court correctly concluded that the defendants were the prevailing parties. Id. at 108.

         Here, because Ringgold did not oppose the motion to strike, a presumption arises that the Garrisons are the prevailing parties. In opposing the attorney's fee motion, Defendant explains that he is proceeding pro per and suffered recent hardship which caused him to become homeless for a couple of months preventing him from accessing the internet in order to access the courthouse records. (Dkt. No. 28.) Therefore, he claims he was unable to file an opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion before the deadline.

         Yet, Ringgold has not provided any evidence, such as by declaration, to support his claim that he suffered hardship and was unable to access the court's docket or file his opposition because he did not have access to the internet. He also does not state when he was homeless. Moreover, even if Ringgold was homeless, he had the option to access the court records by visiting the Clerk's Office. The Court notes that Ringgold attended an Early Neutral Evaluation conference with the Magistrate Judge on August 16, 2019, prior to the Court's ruling. (See Dkt. No 24.) On that date, he could have visited the Clerk's Office to look up his case and could have sought an extension of time to file a late opposition. He does not claim that he never received the anti-SLAPP motion, filed on July 9, 2019, or the Court's order ruling on the motion filed on August 26, 2019. After he received the Court's order granting dismissal of the counterclaim, he could also have sought relief from the Court's order. Ringgold did not object until he filed his opposition to the instant motion on October 10, 2019. (Dkt. No. 38.) Thus, by failing to produce any evidence to support his argument, the Court concludes that Ringgold has failed to rebut the presumption that the Garrisons are the prevailing parties under section 425.16(c). See Coltrain, 66 Cal.App.4th at 107 (presumption not rebutted due to failure to produce any evidence). The Garrisons are prevailing parties under the anti-SLAPP statute and the Court now considers what amount of attorney's fees are reasonable.

         B. Amount of Attorney's Fees

         The district court has wide discretion in determining the reasonableness of attorney's fees. Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1398 (9th Cir. 1992). California courts use the lodestar method to compute attorney fees. See Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1133-36 (2001); Serrano v. Priest, 20 Cal.3d 25, 48-49 (1977). The lodestar method is calculated on the “careful compilation of the time spent and reasonably hourly compensation of each attorney.” Ketchum, 24 Cal.4th at 1131-32 (quoting Serrano, 20 Cal.3d at 48). The lodestar “may be adjusted by the court based on factors including . . . (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.” Ketchum, 24 Cal.4th at 1132. Plaintiff has the burden to establish entitlement to fees and provide supporting evidence. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). The Court may reduce an award based on inadequate ...


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