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Very Plaintiff Friendly Attorney’s Fee Award – C.D. Ca.

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  • Very Plaintiff Friendly Attorney’s Fee Award – C.D. Ca.

    Very Plaintiff Friendly Attorney’s Fee Award – C.D. Ca.

    Attached is a case out of the Central District of California, Maurice, et. al. v. Life Insurance Company of North America, et. al. The case is before the court on Plaintiff’s petition for attorney’s fees and costs. Plaintiff is seeking $237,780 in attorney’s fees and $3,865.66 in costs. In the end, the court cuts the award slightly but still awards $227,635 in attorney’s fees and the entire amount of costs.

    B. Reasonable Hourly Rate

    In determining a reasonable hourly rate, a court should look to the prevailing market rates in the relevant legal community. Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 551 (2010). By multiplying this rate by the number of hours expended on the litigation, the fee award will “roughly approximate[ ] the fee that the prevailing attorney would have received if he or she had been representing a paying client who was billed by the hour in a comparable case.” Id. In determining a reasonable hourly rate, a district court should consider “the experience, skill, and reputation of the attorney requesting fees.” Chalmers v. City of Los Angeles, 796 F.2d 1205, 1210 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Moreno v. City of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1114 (9th Cir. 2008) (factors to consider include the novelty and difficulty of the issues, the experience of counsel, and fee awards in similar cases).

    In support of the attorneys’ fees request, plaintiffs submit declarations by their counsel. See Dkt. 74-1, Declaration of Russell G. Petti (“Petti Decl.”); Dkt. 74-2, Declaration of Nichole D. Podgurski (“Podgurski Decl.”); Dkt. 74-3, Declaration of Michael B. Horrow (“Horrow Decl.”). Plaintiffs submit that a reasonable rate of work performed by Petti and Horrow is $650 per hour through April 2018, and $700 per hour afterward. Petti Decl. ¶ 11. Petti is an experienced trial lawyer who has litigated over 200 civil matters. Id. ¶ 9. Petti has also had numerous defendants pay him his fees at his then current rate of $650 per hour. Id. ¶ 22. Petti also submits the declaration of another experienced ERISA attorney who charges $700 per hour, id. ¶ 11, Ex. F, Declaration of Ronald Dean, and two attorneys who attest to Petti’s experience and skill and the reasonableness of his rate, id. Ex. G (Declaration of Dave Scheper); Ex. H (Declaration of George Newhouse).1 Petti also documents several fee awards he has received from federal district courts in California, including his two most recent awards which were granted at his then-current rate of $650 per hour. Id. ¶¶ 14–17 (describing fee awards in Tash v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company et al., SACV 14-1914 AG(RNBx), and Popovich v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 2:15-cv-09791-AB(MRWx)). Horrow is a similarly experienced trial attorney who has been in private practice since 1992. Horrow Decl. ¶¶ 3, 6. In the same two cases referenced by Petti, Horrow was awarded his then current rate of $650 per hour. Id. Exs. B, C. Petti and Horrow both raised their rates to $700 in May of 2018. Id. ¶ 19; Petti Decl. ¶ 23.2 Podgurski has been in private practice since 2005 and seeks an hourly rate of $400. Podgurski Decl. ¶¶ 3–4, 11. Podgurski attests that her rate is reasonable based on her capabilities and experience as well as the rates of ERISA practitioners of comparable experience. Id. ¶ 11.

    Defendant contends that plaintiffs’ hourly rates are excessive because they have not demonstrated that “paying clients” would pay their rates and because the method of relying on self-serving declarations and prior court orders results in “perpetuating rate inflation.” Opp’n at 9–10. Defendant, however, fails to submit any declarations or evidence controverting plaintiffs’ proposed rates. The cases defendant cites to suggest that courts are not “routinely awarding $650-plus rates” are inapposite because they either involve younger attorneys with less experience than plaintiffs’ counsel or counsel whose proposed rates were lower than the prevailing market rate. Accordingly, the Court finds that the requested rates are commensurate with the experience and skill of counsel and the prevailing market rates for similar work in the relevant community

    C. Reasonable Hours

    Plaintiffs request a lodestar of $237,780 based on approximately 384.9 attorney hours. Mot. at 16. Defendant raises several objections to the number of hours for which plaintiff seeks to recover. Opp’n at 13–19. The Court addresses defendant’s arguments in turn.
    1. Excessive and Redundant Hours

    Defendant argues that plaintiffs’ counsel spent too much time on this case given that this was a “garden-variety ERISA action,” and that plaintiffs’ counsel should have spent less time on each motion and task at every stage of this action. Opp’n at 13, 15–17. Plaintiffs reply that this action was “extremely complex from a factual perspective, and presented a number of difficult legal issues,” and that “LINA provides no foundation for its ability to serve as an arbiter of what constitutes a reasonable number of hours for a particular task.” Reply at 12–13. The Court agrees that this action involved complicated factual and legal issues and declines to reduce plaintiffs’ fee award on this basis. Having reviewed the time entries to which defendant objects, the Court finds that the hours expended by plaintiffs’ counsel were not excessive or redundant.
    1. Vague Entries

    Defendant argues that approximately a quarter of plaintiffs’ attorneys’ entries lack sufficient detail to demonstrate that their hours were reasonable. Opp’n at 14–15. The majority of the disputed entries are billing increments ranging from 12 minutes to 24 minutes described as “Discussion re case analysis” and “Emails to & from [client/defense counsel].” Opp’n at 14–15. Defendant accordingly seeks to reduce plaintiffs’ fee bill by ten percent. Id. at 15. Plaintiffs respond that the disputed time entries provide sufficient information for the Court to understand how that time was expended. Reply at 15. “Plaintiff’s counsel . . . is not required to record in great detail how each minute of his time was expended.” Lytle v. Carl, 382 F.3d 978, 989 (9th Cir. 2004). After reviewing the disputed entries, the Court finds that plaintiffs have generally satisfied their burden.
    1. Intra-Office Communications

    Defendant argues that plaintiffs’ entries for intra-office communications that add up to 32.7 hours should be eliminated. Opp’n at 15. Plaintiffs respond that such conferences were “helpful in getting Ms. Maurice the relief she was seeking.” Reply at 17. Having reviewed these disputed entries, the Court declines to find that the hours spent by counsel on intra-office communications were unnecessary.
    1. Work on the Appeal

    Defendant argues that plaintiffs cannot seek fees based on 10.8 hours of appeal work because neither party has demonstrated success on the merits with respect to their appeals. Opp’n at 17. Plaintiffs respond that “numerous cases stand for the proposition that post-litigation work, even on a separate but related case, is compensable when it is ‘useful and of a type ordinarily necessary to secure the litigation’s final result.’” Reply at 16 (quoting Stewart v. Gates, 987 F.2d 1450, 1452 (9th Cir. 1993)). The Court declines to award attorneys’ fees based on the parties’ appeal at this time.
    1. Administrative Tasks

    Defendant requests that the Court exclude 3.8 hours of Petti’s time spent on administrative work such as billing, filing, and creating tables. Opp’n at 18. Plaintiffs do not appear to respond to this argument.

    Clerical or secretarial tasks that contribute to the work product “should not be billed at a paralegal [or attorney’s] rate, regardless of who performs them,” and instead billed separately, at market rates, following the given practice in a community. Davis v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 976 F.2d 1536, 1543 (9th Cir. 1992). However, purely secretarial or clerical tasks are generally not recoverable and should instead be considered a part of normal overhead costs. See Nadarajah v. Holder, 569 F.3d 906, 921 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting that “filing, transcript, and document organization time was clerical in nature and should have been subsumed in firm overhead rather than billed at paralegal rates.”). Here, the disputed entries involve preparing tables, “[p]utting time together,” and filing and serving papers. See Opp’n at 9. Because these tasks appear to be clerical in nature, the Court will exclude the corresponding fees from the lodestar.

    In accordance with the foregoing, the Court concludes that a total of three hours, amounting to $2,100 in fees, should be excluded from Horrow’s lodestar request based on the time spent on the appeal. The Court also concludes that a total of 11.6 hours, amounting to $8,045 in fees, should be excluded from Petti’s lodestar request based on the time spent on the appeal and non-recoverable clerical tasks.

    Accordingly, Petti is entitled to collect $121,690 in attorneys’ fees based on 183 hours of work performed on this case. Horrow is entitled to collect $80,105 in attorneys’ fees based on 122.7 hours of work performed on this case. No hours will be excluded from Podgurski’s requested lodestar figure of $25,840 based on 64.60 attorney hours.
    Defendant has appealed the award.
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