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Jackson v. Board of Trustees of Wolf Point

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

April 21, 2014

RONALD JACKSON, RUTH JACKSON, ROBERT MANNING, PATRICIA McGESHICK, LAWRENCE WETSIT, LANETTE M. CLARK, and BILL WHITEHEAD, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF WOLF POINT, MONTANA, SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 45-45A, MARTIN DEWITT, TRACY JUVE-MIRANDA, GLENN STRADER, Defendant.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES

KEITH STRONG, Magistrate Judge.

I. Synopsis

Plaintiffs are the prevailing party in a lawsuit that addressed mal-apportioned voting districts, which violated Plaintiffs' equal protection rights. Plaintiffs were entirely successful on one claim, and entirely unsuccessful on their second claim.

Plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys fees and costs by statute. However, they are not entitled to the amount requested because they did not show that all attorney hours spent on the case were reasonable, and because they achieved only partial success. Plaintiffs should be awarded $135, 921.61 in fees and costs.

II. Jurisdiction

The district court has subject matter jurisdiction because this case presents questions of federal law under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and U.S. Const. amend 14. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Venue is proper in the District of Montana pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2), and in the Great Falls Division pursuant to Local Rule 1.2(c)(3) because the condition at issue is in Roosevelt County, Montana. The case is assigned to United States District Judge Brian Morris. Doc. 40. The case is referred to the undersigned to conduct hearings and submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition of all motions excepted from the magistrate judge's jurisdiction by 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1)(A). Doc. 23. A post-judgment motion for attorney's fees is excepted from 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1)(A). Estate of Conners v. O'Connor, 6 F.3d 656, 658-659 (9th Cir. 1993).

III. Status

The parties jointly submitted a proposed Consent Decree. Doc. 70. The District Court adopted and entered the Consent Decree. Docs. 77, 78. Plaintiffs' moved for an award of attorneys fees on March 14, 2014. Doc. 71. The Motion is supported by a brief and affidavits. Docs. 72, 73, 74, 75. Defendants did not respond to the motion, and the time to do so has passed. Local Rule 7.1(d)(1)(B) (providing 14 days for response to non-dispositive motions). However, the parties agreed in the Consent Decree that "any requests by Plaintiffs for costs and fees shall be determined by the Court." Doc. 70 at 8.

IV. Standards

In an action to enforce 14th Amendment voting rights or other civil rights, the court has discretion to award the prevailing party attorney fees, expert fees, and other reasonable litigation expenses. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973l(e); 1988. "A prevailing plaintiff in a § 1988 case "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983)(quoting S. Rep. No. 9401011, p. 4(1976)).

Uncontradicted motions

Failure to file a response brief may be deemed an admission that the motion is well-taken. Local Rule 7.1(d)(1)(B). However, this does not relieve the court of its duty to independently analyze a request for attorney fees. When attorney fees are requested in a 42 U.S.C. § 1988 case:

It is essential that the judge provide a reasonably specific explanation for all aspects of a fee determination, including any award of an enhancement. Unless such an explanation is given, adequate appellate review is not feasible, and without such review, widely disparate awards may be made, and awards may be influenced (or at least, may appear to be influenced) by a judge's subjective opinion regarding particular attorneys or the importance of the case.

Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 558-59 (2010).

Lodestar

The proper method of calculating an attorney-fees award, including in a civil rights case brought under § 1988, is the "lodestar" method. Morales v. City of San Rafael, 96 F.3d 359, 363 (9th Cir. 1996). The "lodestar" method multiplies the hours reasonably expended by the prevailing party on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. Id. That total can then be adjusted if warranted under the circumstances of the case. Id.

Billing rates

An attorney's hourly rates "are to be calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1984). The party seeking fees has the burden of proving the reasonableness of the claimed rates. Id. Rates must be based on the attorney's "experience, skill, and reputation." Chalmers v. Los Angeles, 796 F.2d 1205, 1210 (9th Cir. 1986) opinion amended on denial of reh'g. Determination of a reasonable hourly rate is not made by reference to rates actually charged by the attorney, but through consideration of the going rate in the community for similar work performed by attorneys of comparable skill, experience, and reputation. Id.

Reasonable hours

The party seeking fees bears the burden of submitting detailed time records justifying the hours claimed. Chalmers, 796 F.2d at 1210. Contemporaneous records of hours worked are preferred in the Ninth Circuit. Fischer v. SJB-P.D., Inc., 214 F.3d 1115, 1121 (9th Cir. 2000).

In Hensley, the United States Supreme Court explained:

The district court also should exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were not "reasonably expended." Cases may be overstaffed, and the skill and experience of lawyers vary widely. Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission.

461 U.S. at 434 (internal citations omitted).

The court may credit that party with fewer hours if the time claimed is "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Cunningham v. County of Los Angeles, 879 F.2d 481, 484 (9th Cir. 1988).

Adjustment factors

To determine if an adjustment is warranted, courts previously applied the 12 Kerr [1] factors. Those factors predate the lodestar calculation, however, and have been partially subsumed by it. The remaining Kerr factors - those not subsumed by the lodestar calculation - should be applied by the district court to determine if an adjustment is appropriate. Morales, 96 F.3d at 363-364.

Among the factors that must still be applied is "the results obtained." Id. at 364. This factor is particularly crucial where a plaintiff has succeeded on some, but not all, of the claims for relief. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. If claims are unrelated, attorney fees should not be awarded on the unsuccessful claims. Id. On the other hand, if the claims involve a common core of facts or a related legal theory, the attorneys' hours are not easily divided. "Instead, the District Court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation." Id. Still, if a plaintiff has achieved only partial success, the ...


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