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J.E. v. Wong

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

August 31, 2017

J.E., THROUGH HIS PARENT SUZANNE EGAN, for themselves and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated; and HAWAII DISABILITY RIGHTS CENTER, in a representative capacity on behalf of its clients and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
RACHAEL WONG, in her official capacity as Director of the State of Hawaii, Department of Human Services, Defendant. Name Title Rate/ Hour Name Rate/Hour Total Hours TOTAL FEE

         (1) ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE SUPPLEMENT TO PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND RELATED NON-TAXABLE EXPENSES; (2) FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUPPLEMENTAL FEES; AND (3) ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION OF AMENDED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND RELATED NON-TAXABLE EXPENSES [ECF NO. 167]

          KENNETH J. MANSFIELD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         The issues resolved by the Court in this decision arise from claims filed against Rachael Wong, in her capacity as Director of the State of Hawaii's Department of Human Services (“the State”) by Plaintiffs J.E., through his parent Suzanne Egan, for themselves and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated; and Hawaii Disability Rights Center (“HDRC”), in a representative capacity on behalf of its clients and all others similarly situated (collectively, “Plaintiffs”). The background of the litigation is detailed in the district court's August 12, 2016 Order Granting, in Part, and Denying, in Part, Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (“August 12 Order”). See ECF No. 123.

         In its August 12 Order, the district court concluded that Plaintiffs were the prevailing party in the action and “entitled to attorneys' fees in presenting their entire case, ” even though there were issues that were either unresolved or on which Plaintiffs did not prevail. See ECF Nos. 123 at 48-49. The matter was subsequently referred to this Court to determine the amount of reasonable attorneys' fees in accordance with Local Rule 54.3.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The parties in this action are familiar with the procedural history of Plaintiffs' attorneys' fee requests made pursuant to the district court's August 12 Order. The procedural history is also set forth in this Court's Amended Findings and Recommendation to Grant in Part and Deny in Part Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Related Non-Taxable Expenses issued on July 20, 2017 (“July 20 Findings and Recommendation”). See ECF No. 123 & 167. The Court thus details the background of Plaintiffs' attorneys' fee requests only to the extent necessary to analyze the matters presently before the Court.

         Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Related Non-Taxable Expenses on August 26, 2016 (“Original Fees Motion”). Prompted by the State's use of the Declaration of James P. Schratz (“Schratz Declaration”) as the State's substantive opposition to Plaintiffs' Original Fees Motion, the parties subsequently submitted additional briefing on the propriety of the Schratz Declaration. See ECF Nos. 133-34, 137-38.

         On February 2, 2017, the Court ordered the parties to meet and confer, and to file Statements of Consultations. Id. The parties subsequently engaged in settlement discussions between February 14, 2017, and March 6, 2017. See ECF Nos. 147-48, 150, 151-53. On March 10, 2017, the parties reached a settlement subject to legislative approval. ECF No. 155. The Court permitted Plaintiffs to re-notice the Original Fees Motion if legislative approval could not be obtained, but indicated that it would not permit any further briefing on the Original Fees Motion. Id.

         The State was unable to obtain legislative approval of the settlement. On June 23, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Request for a Decision on the Original Fees Motion, requesting that the Court issue a decision on the Original Fees Motion. See ECF No. 160. On June 30, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Leave to Supplement Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Related Non-Taxable Expenses (“Supplemental Fees Motion”), seeking leave to supplement their Original Fees Motion for the time period beginning on 08/25/16, and ending in July of 2017. See ECF No. 162. The State filed its opposition to the Supplement Fees Motion on July 14, 2017. See ECF No. 165. Plaintiffs filed their reply on July 19, 2017. See ECF No. 175.

         The July 20 Findings and Recommendation issued by this Court addressed only the attorneys' fees requested by Plaintiffs in their Original Fees Motion for the following periods: (1) the period beginning on 07/16/14 and ending on 06/06/16 for Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing (“AHFI”); and (2) the period beginning on 06/24/14 and ending on 08/12/16 for the HDRC. See ECF Nos. 126-6 (08/26/16 Fees breakdown from AHFI) & 126-10 (08/26/16 Fees breakdown from HDRC). On August 3, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Reconsideration (“Motion for Reconsideration”), requesting that this Court reconsider its July 20 Findings and Recommendation. See ECF No. 171. The State filed its opposition to the Motion for Reconsideration on August 16, 2017. See ECF No. 174. Plaintiffs filed their reply on August 23, 2017. See ECF No. 175.

         The matters presently before the Court are Plaintiffs' Supplemental Fees Motion and Plaintiffs' Motion for Reconsideration. The Court resolves each of these motions in this decision.

         (1) ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE SUPPLEMENT TO PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS'

         FEES AND RELATED NON-TAXABLE EXPENSES;

         (2) FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUPPLEMENTAL FEES

         Plaintiffs' Supplemental Fees Motion seeks leave to supplement their Original Fees Motion. ECF No. 162. The State does not object to Plaintiffs' request to supplement their Original Fees Motion; it objects only to the reasonableness of the fees requested in Plaintiff's Supplemental Fees Motion. Based on the lack of opposition from the State, and the Court's own finding that Plaintiffs are entitled to the supplemental attorneys' fees they incurred litigating the attorneys' fees issue, the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs' request for leave to supplement the Original Fees Motion.

         Notwithstanding this Court's finding that Plaintiffs are entitled leave to supplement their Original Fees Motion, Plaintiffs' requested fees must nonetheless be reasonable. Accordingly, the Court must evaluate the reasonableness of the fees requested by Plaintiffs in their Supplemental Fees Motion.

         DISCUSSION

         Courts use the lodestar method for calculating an award of reasonable attorneys' fees in Section 1983 cases. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (providing reasonable attorney's fees to prevailing parties of actions enforcing a provision of Section 1983). “Under the lodestar method, the district court multiplies the number of hours the prevailing party reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate.” Gonzalez v. City of Maywood, 729 F.3d 1196, 1202 (9th Cir. 2013). “Adjustments to that fee then may be made as necessary in the particular case.” Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984).

         I. Reasonable Hourly Rate

         The “district court must determine a reasonable hourly rate to use for attorneys and paralegals in computing the lodestar amount.” Gonzalez, 729 F.3d at 1205. Reasonable fees under § 1988 are calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community. Dang v. Cross, 422 F.3d 800, 813 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Sorenson v. Mink, 239 F.3d 1140, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001) (noting that the district court must use the market rate to determine a fee under § 1988). Generally, “the relevant community is the forum in which the district court sits.” Camacho v. Bridgeport Fin., Inc., 523 F.3d 973, 979 (9th Cir. 2008).

         In its July 20 Findings and Recommendation, based on the Court's experience with attorneys' fees motions, the Court's knowledge of the prevailing rates in the community, and the information provided by Plaintiffs' counsel, including information regarding their experience, skill, and reputation, this Court recommended the following hourly rates for Plaintiffs' counsel related to the work expended on their Original Fees Motion:

Name

Title

Rate/ Hour

Paul Alston

Partner

$525

Kristin Holland

Of Counsel

$325

Louis Erteschik

Director

$300

Aryanna Abouzari

Associate

$200

Maile Osika

Associate

$165

Wendi A. Chang

Paralegal

$110

Kelly Guadagno

Paralegal

$110

Kanani Akina-Lee

Paralegal

$110

         Plaintiffs argue in their Reply to the Supplemental Fees Motion that these foregoing rates are not reasonable. Plaintiffs assert that the Ninth Circuit “teaches that the fees should be based upon the record evidence about current rates” and thus, the foregoing recommended rates are not the “prevailing market rates.” ECF No. 166 at 3. Plaintiffs argue that it is an abuse of discretion under Ninth Circuit law to apply market rates in effect more than two years before the subject work was performed. Id. at 6. Plaintiffs thus assert that this Court erred by applying stale rates and that the Court should instead, apply the following rates to their Supplemental Fees Motion:

Name
Title
Rate/ Hour
Paul Alston
Partner
$647.46
Kristin Holland
Of Counsel
$375.00
Maile Osika
Associate
$195.00
Wendi A. Chang
Paralegal
$135.00

See id. at 5.

         The Court appreciates Plaintiffs' arguments regarding reasonable rates in this district. “[A] critical inquiry in determining a reasonable attorneys' fee for purposes of § 1988 is the reasonable hourly rate.” Jordan v. Multnomah County, 815 F.2d 1258, 1262 (9th Cir. 1987). Accordingly, this Court recognizes the importance of determining reasonable hourly rates for these cases in this district. The Court thus takes this opportunity to expound further its reasoning for applying the rates recommended in its July 20 Findings and Recommendation.

         First, statutes providing for the award of attorney's fees “were not designed as a form of economic relief to improve the financial lot of attorneys, nor were they intended to replicate exactly the fee an attorney could earn through a private fee arrangement with his client.” Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 565, (1986), supplemented, 483 U.S. 711 (1987). “Instead, the aim of such statutes was to enable private parties to obtain legal help in seeking redress for injuries resulting from the actual or threatened violation of specific federal laws.” Id. Thus, if a plaintiff finds it “possible to engage a lawyer based on the statutory assurance that” the lawyer will be paid a “‘reasonable fee, ' the purpose behind the fee-shifting statute has been satisfied.” Id.; see also Blum v. Stenson, ...


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