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Hawaii Annuity Trust Fund for Operating Engineers v. Kauai Veterans Express Company, Ltd.

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

July 31, 2019

HAWAII ANNUITY TRUST FUND FOR OPERATING ENGINEERS, BY ITS TRUSTEES, ET AL.; Plaintiff,
v.
KAUAI VETERANS EXPRESS COMPANY, LTD., A HAWAII CORPORATION; Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFFS TRUSTEES OF THE HAWAII ANNUITY TRUST FUND FOR OPERATING ENGINEERS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND NON-TAXABLE COSTS

         Before the Court is Plaintiffs Trustees of the Hawaii Annuity Trust Fund for Operating Engineers' (“Plaintiffs”) Motion for Attorney's Fees and Non-Taxable Costs (“Motion”) (ECF No. 108). The Court finds this matter suitable for disposition without a hearing pursuant to Rule 7.2(d) of the Local Rules of Practice of the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii (“Local Rules”).

         Plaintiffs request $122, 201.52 in attorneys' fees for 528.90 hours of work, inclusive of G.E.T. Plaintiffs also request non-taxable costs in the amount of $4, 877.04. The total amount of attorneys' fees and costs sought in Plaintiffs' Motion is $127, 078.56.

         After reviewing the parties' submissions, records in this case, and relevant law, the Court FINDS AND RECOMMENDS that the Motion be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court RECOMMENDS that the district judge find that $225.00 an hour for attorneys' fees and $85.00 an hour for paralegals' fees are reasonable. The Court FINDS that Plaintiffs' requested fees should be reduced by: (1) 20% for block billed entries; (2) 4.2 hours for duplicative entries; (3) 3.7 hours for calendaring; and (4) 10% across-the-board reduction for quarter-hour billing. The Court thus RECOMMENDS that the district judge award Plaintiffs $103, 603.67 in attorneys' fees, inclusive of G.E.T., and $4, 877.04 in non-taxable costs for a total of $108, 480.71.

         BACKGROUND

         On November 16, 2016, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint for Specific Performance, Assumpsit and Damages (ECF No. 1). The Court has federal question subject-matter jurisdiction over this case as Plaintiffs' action arises from the Labor-Management Relations Act, 1947, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, and the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980 (ECF No. 1, p.2). Defendant Kauai Veterans Express Company, Ltd. (“Defendant”) filed an Answer on December 5, 2016 (ECF No. 7).

         On April 10, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Motion to Strike Answer or, in the Alternative, Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (“Motion to Strike Answer”) (ECF No. 21). Defendant filed a Counter-Motion for Summary Judgment on April 24, 2017 (“Counter-Motion”) (ECF No. 24). On June 29, 2017, the Court issued its Order denying Defendant's Counter-Motion (ECF No. 32) and Order Denying Plaintiffs' Motion to Strike Answer (ECF No. 33).

         On August 8, 2017, Defendant filed its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 39), but later withdrew the motion (ECF No. 52). On August 29, 2017, Defendant filed an Amended Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 48). On November 16, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Strike Defendant's Reply Brief (ECF No. 63). The Court heard the parties' motions on November 28, 2017 (ECF No. 72). On December 1, 2017, the Court filed its Order Granting Plaintiffs' Renewed Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and Denying Defendant's Motions for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 78).

         On October 10, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their Motions for Summary Judgment (“MSJ”) (ECF No. 87). On January 7, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiffs' MSJ (ECF No. 99). On March 12, 2019, the Court filed its Order granting Plaintiffs' MSJ (ECF No. 100). The Court ordered that the parties meet and confer in attempt to reach an agreement on liquidated damages and interest, unpaid contributions and interest, audit fees, and reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. If the parties were unable to reach an agreement, Plaintiffs were required to file a declaration by April 8, 2019 explaining all interest calculations and audit fees. The parties did not reach an agreement. On April 5, 2019, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Entry of Final Judgment Against Defendant (ECF No. 101). On April 8, 2019, the Court ordered Defendant to show cause why it should not be sanctioned for failing to meet and confer in compliance with the Court's Order granting Plaintiffs' MSJ (ECF No. 102). On April 17, 2019, the Court filed its Order (1) Vacating Order to Show Cause and (2) Granting Plaintiffs' Motion for entry of Final Judgment (ECF No. 105).

         On April 17, 2019, Judgment was filed (ECF No. 106). On April 18, 2019, an Amended Judgment was filed (ECF No. 107).

         On May 2, 2019, Plaintiffs filed their Motion. Defendant opposed Plaintiffs' Motion on June 21, 2019. Defendant objects to the attorneys' fees based on the following allegations: (1) Plaintiffs have block billed; (2) Plaintiffs inappropriately seek fees for conferring with one another; (3) Plaintiffs request for calendaring should be denied; and (4) Plaintiffs' redacted billing entries lack sufficient detail.

         Defendant proposes that the Court permit Plaintiffs to (1) revise their attorneys' fees by breaking down block billed entries and (2) submit a declaration describing the redacted billing. Defendant further proposes that the Court deny 67.40 hours or $15, 140.00 billed for attorneys and paralegals conferring with each other; and deny 3.7 hours or $493.75 for calendaring tasks.

         However, Defendant does not dispute that the attorneys' fees and costs requested are mandatory under Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2). Defendant does not dispute Plaintiffs' requested hourly rates of $225.00 per hour for attorneys and $125.00 per hour for paralegals. Defendant also do not oppose Plaintiffs' request for costs.

         On May 16, 2019, Plaintiffs filed their Statement of Consultation to the Motion. (ECF No. 112). On July 5, 2019, Plaintiffs filed their Reply Memorandum to their Motion for Attorney's [sic] Fees and Non-Taxable Costs (“Reply”) (ECF No. 125). Plaintiffs argue that block billing may be acceptable, and the attorneys' descriptions adequately describe the work performed. In support of their argument, Plaintiffs cite to California and Oregon law. However, Plaintiffs request for leave to submit revised attorneys' fees if the Court is inclined to deny the block billed entries.

         Plaintiffs argue that most of the fees for conferring were not duplicative. For most of these entries, only one attorney charged for the meeting even though others attended. However, Plaintiffs argue that for those entries where multiple participants billed for conferring, at most 0.25 hour was spent. Thus, Plaintiffs do not object to a 0.25 reduction for these days. Plaintiffs argue that the fees for conferring are not excessive, but if the Court found them excessive, Plaintiffs would not object to a 10% reduction.

         In addition, Plaintiffs accede to Defendant's objection regarding calendaring and agree to reduce their fees by 3.7 hours or $473.75 as clerical and not recoverable. Plaintiffs also provided the Declaration of Jerry P. S. Chang to describe the redacted billing entries.

         DISCUSSION

         In determining an award of reasonable attorneys' fees, the Court must first address whether Plaintiffs are entitled to their attorneys' fees. The Court will next determine whether the hourly rates requested are reasonable and whether the hours expended were reasonably necessary to achieve the results obtained. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The Court will then use the Lodestar method to calculate the reasonable attorneys' fees. Id.

         The Court must also determine whether Plaintiffs' request for costs is reasonable. As the prevailing party, Plaintiffs are entitled to reasonable costs. Defendant does not object to Plaintiffs' request for costs. Nevertheless, the Court must examine whether recovery of the costs requested are allowable.

         A. Entitlement to Attorneys' Fees

         Plaintiffs' claims arise from ERISA. Under ERISA, Plaintiffs are entitled to their attorneys' fees if there is a judgment in Plaintiffs' favor. Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiffs are entitled to recover attorneys' fees under ERISA. In relevant part, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2)(D) states:

(g) Attorney's fees and costs; awards in actions involving delinquent contributions
(1) In any action under this subchapter (other than an action described in paragraph (2)) by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary, the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs of action to either party.
(2) In any action under this subchapter by a fiduciary for or on behalf of a plan to enforce section 1145 of this title in which a judgment in favor of theplan is awarded, the ...

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