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Garza v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Associates, P.C.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 27, 2016

CHRISTOPHER GARZA et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MITCHELL RUBENSTEIN & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Defend ant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          George J. Hazel United States District Judge

         Presently pending before the Court is Christopher Garza and George Easton Jr.'s (together. "Plaintiffs"') Motion for Attorneys* Fees. BCF No. 17. arising out of their successful class action lawsuit against Mitchell Ruhenstein & Associates. P.C. ("Defendant") for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act ("FDCPA"). 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. No hearing is necessary. Foe. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons. Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case began as a class action lawsuit against Defendant for violating § 1692g(a)(4) of the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act ("FDCPA") by failing to provide proper disclosures for how consumers could verify and dispute the legitimacy of the debts they owed. ECF No. 1. On April 1 I. 2016. Plaintiffs Hied a Consent Motion for Settlement. FCF No. 16. Following a settlement hearing on April 25. 2016. the Court entered an Order of Final Approval of Class Action Settlement. ECF No. 22. The settlement agreement included, in relevant part, that Defendant would pay the two named Plaintiffs. Garza and Easton. $1, 000.00 each, and that it would create a common fund in the amount of $12, 425.00 to he distributed on a pro rata basis to each of the 884 class members. Id. at 3.[1] In addition, as highlighted in Plaintiffs' Consent Motion for Settlement. Defendant agreed to change the language in its debt collection letters going forward, to address Plaintiffs" concerns. ECF No. 16 at 4.

         Contemporaneously with their Consent Motion for Settlement. Plaintiffs also moved for an award of attorneys" fees and costs. ECF No. 17. In their motion. Plaintiffs noted that, pursuant to the settlement agreement. Defendant would not oppose the first $20, 000.00 in requested fees and expenses, and that Plaintiffs would not seek more than $35, 000.00 in fees and expenses. Id. at 3, Reflecting this agreement. Plaintiffs requested $35, 000.00 in attorneys' fees and expenses, based on 87.5 hours of work completed by four attorneys from the law firm of Greenwald, Davidson Radbil PLCC. ("GDR"'): 11.7 hours completed by local counsel: and an estimated $1. 234.53 in litigation related costs. ECF No. 17- 1. Defendant submitted a Response to Plaintiffs Motion on April 25, 2016. amended on April 26, 2016. arguing that the Court should award Plaintiff only $20, 000.00 in fees and expenses. ECF No. 23. Plaintiffs filed a Reply in support of their Motion on May 12. 2016. reiterating their request for $35, 000.00 in fees and expenses. ECF No. 24. They noted that GDR attorneys had dedicated an additional 32.2 hours on the case, bringing the total compensable hours to 131.4 hours, and submitted a final bill of expenses totaling $1.166.52. a slight downward departure from their previous estimate. ECF No. 24 at 1: ECF No. 24-1 at 14.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         While the payment of attorneys" fees and costs to plaintiffs who prevail on FDCPA claims is mandatory. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3), "the statute makes clear that calculation of the appropriate award must be left to the district court." Carroll v. Wolpoff & Ahramson, 53 F.3d 626. 628 (4th Cir. 1995). To recover attorney's fees and costs, a plaintiff must be a "'prevailing party." a threshold question for which the Court accords a "generous formulation." Hensley v. Eckerhurt, 461 U.S. 424. 433 (1983). A plaintiff is a "prevailing party" for the purpose of attorney's fees if the plaintiff succeeds "on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Id. Plaintiffs here obtained payment following the parties" settlement agreement, which was affirmed by this Court, and is therefore a ""prevailing party"' entitled to attorney's fees. See Nelson v. A & H Motors, Inc., Civil No. JKS 12-2288. 2013 WL 388991. at *1 (D. Md. Jan. 30. 2013). This contention is not disputed by the parties.

         The most useful starting point for establishing the proper amount of an award is the "lodestar." or "the number of hours reasonably expended, multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhurt, 461 U.S. 424. 433 (1983): see also Rum Creek Coal Sales. Inc. v. Caperton, 31 F.3d 169. 174 (4th Cir. 1994). The court must adjust the number of hours to delete duplicative or unrelated hours, and the number of hours must be reasonable and represent the product of "billing judgment." Caperton, 31 F.3d. at 175 (citing Hensley. 461 U.S. at 437). '"When the plaintiff prevails on only some of the claims, the number of hours may be adjusted downward; but where full relief is obtained, the plaintiffs attorney should receive a fully compensatory fee and in eases of exceptional success, even an enhancement." Id. at 174-75 (internal citations omitted). In assessing the overall reasonableness of the lodestar, the court may also consider the twelve factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express. Inc., 488 F.2d 714. 717-19 (5th Cir. 1074) ("the Johnson factors”), specifically:

(1) The time and labor required; (2) The novelty and difficulty of the questions raised: (3) The skill requisite to perform the legal services properly: (4) The preclusion of employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case: (5) The customary fee; (6) Whether the fee is fixed or contingent: (7) Time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances: (8) The amount involved and the results obtained: (9) The experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) The undesirability of the case; (11) The nature and length of the professional relationship between the attorney and the client: and (12) Attorney's fee awards in similar cases.

See Caperton, 31 F.3d at 175. These factors, however, "usually are subsumed within the initial calculation of hours reasonably expended at a reasonable hourly rate [, i.e., the lodestar]." Randle v. H & P Capital. Inc., 513 F.App'x 282. 283-84 (4th Cir. 2013)(quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434 n. 9)(alteration in original). Furthermore, "[i]n considering the Johnson/Barber factors, the court is to consider all twelve factors, but need not robotically list each factor or comment on those factors that do not apply." Dodeka, L.L.C. v. Amrol Davis, No. 7:10-CV-17-D. 2010 WL 3239117. at *2 (E.D. N.C. Aug. 16. 2010).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Reasonable Rate

         In determining whether counsel's hourly rates are reasonable, the court must consider whether "the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886. 890 n.11 (1984). "[D]etermination of the hourly rate will generally be the critical inquiry in setting the reasonable fee. and the burden rests with the fee applicant to establish the reasonableness of a requested rate." Plyler v. Evatt, 902 F.2d 273. 277 (4th Cir. 1990)(citation omitted). As part of its inquiry, the court may rely on "affidavits from other attorneys attesting to the reasonableness of the hourly rates." and also the court's "knowledge of the market." Beyond Sys.. Inc. v. World Ave. [ISA. LLC, No. PJM-08-921. 2011 WL 3419565 at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 11. 2011). In this District, the Court's "market knowledge" is set forth in Appendix B of the U.S. District Court of Maryland Local Rules, which provides Guidelines Regarding Hourly Rates based upon length of professional experience, as follows:

(a) Lawyers admitted to the bar for less than five (5) years: $150- 225."
(b) Lawyers admitted to the bar for live (5) to eight (8) years: $165-300.
(c) Lawyers admitted to the bar for nine (9) to fourteen (14) ...

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