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Braxton v. Eldorado Lounge, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 28, 2018

BRAXTON et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ELDORADO LOUNGE, INC. et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          BETH P. GESNER, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         A jury trial was held in this case from July 23 to July 26, 2018. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs. (ECF No. 241). Currently pending before the court is: (1) Plaintiff's Petition for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs (“Plaintiff's Motion”) (ECF No. 248); (2) Defendants' Joint Motion for Opposition of Plaintiff's Requests for an Enhanced Judgment to Gain Unreasonable Attorneys' Fees (“Defendants' Opposition”) (ECF Nos. 251-1, 252); and (3) Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Its Petition for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs (“Plaintiff's Reply”) (ECF No. 253). The issues are fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion (ECF No. 123) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 5, 2015, plaintiff Maurlanna Braxton filed a Class and Collective Action Complaint, on behalf of herself and other similarly situated individuals, against defendants Eldorado Lounge, Inc. (“Eldorado”), Four One Four, LLC d/b/a King & Diamonds (“King & Diamonds”), and Kenneth Jackson (“Jackson”) to recover unpaid wages and statutory damages for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.; the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (“MWHL”), as amended, Md. Code (2016 Repl. Vol.), §§ 3-401 et seq. of the Labor and Employment Article (“L.E.”); and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (“MWPCL”), as amended, L.E. §§ 3-501 et seq. (ECF No. 1). In plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, plaintiffs Brittany Scott and Stephanie Gamble were joined. (ECF No. 19). Plaintiff Brionna Williams was joined in plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 28). Plaintiffs sought damages amounting to all wages owed, liquidated damages under the FLSA, liquidated damages under the MWHL, and treble damages under the MWCPL. (ECF No. 220).

         Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment as to defendants' liability and with respect to their affirmative defenses. (ECF No. 39). This motion was denied in part[1] (ECF No. 148) and the case proceeded to trial.[2] The jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs and found that defendants owed Maurlanna Braxton $5, 000 for work after December 1, 2013, Brittany Scott $910 for work after July 5, 2014, and Stephanie Gamble $120 for work after July 5, 2014, under the FLSA only. (ECF No. 241). The court further ordered an award of liquidated damages under the FLSA in an additional equal amount to the unpaid wages awarded by the jury. (ECF No. 249).

         Plaintiffs filed the instant motion on August 8, 2018. (ECF No. 248). Plaintiffs seek an award of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to the FLSA. (ECF No. 248 at 1). Plaintiffs request $104, 189.00 in attorneys' fees[3] and $3, 150.00 in costs. (ECF No. 248 at 2). In support of this motion, plaintiffs include a statement of fees and costs and an affidavit from counsel. (ECF Nos. 248-1, 248-2). Defendants challenge this request and argue that the amount was caused in large part by plaintiffs' failure to review discovery and engage in settlement discussions. (ECF No. 252 at 4, 13).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The FLSA declares that the court “shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). While the payment of attorney's fees is mandatory, the amount “is within the sound discretion of the trial court.” Burnley v. Short, 730 F.2d 136, 141 (4th Cir. 1984). “The proper calculation of an attorney's fee award involves a three-step process. First, the court must ‘determine the lodestar figure by multiplying the number of reasonable hours expended times a reasonable rate.'” McAfee v. Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Robinson v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 560 F.3d 235, 243 (4th Cir. 2009)). In making this determination, “the court is bound to apply the factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974).” Id. (citing Robinson, 560 F.3d at 243-44). The twelve Johnson factors include:

(1) The time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney's opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attorney's expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorney; (10) the undesirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys' fees awards in similar cases.

Id. at 88 n.5. Second, “the court must ‘subtract fees for hours spent on unsuccessful claims unrelated to successful ones.'” Id. at 88 (quoting Robinson, 560 F.3d at 244). Lastly, “the court should award ‘some percentage of the remaining amount, depending on the degree of success enjoyed by the plaintiff.'” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Lodestar Calculation

         Plaintiffs request attorneys' fees in the amount of $104, 189.00 for a total of approximately 345 hours.[4] The vast majorities of the time entries presented by plaintiffs list an hourly rate of $300[5] (ECF No. 248-1) and plaintiffs specifically request a billing rate of $300 (ECF No. 248 at 7). Plaintiffs also note that this rate is squarely within the guidelines listed in Appendix B of the U.S. District Court of Maryland Local Rules, which identifies a range of $225-$350 per hour for attorneys admitted to the bar for nine to fourteen years. (ECF No. 248 at 7). The attorneys here, Ken C. Gauvey, Gregg Greenberg, and Jennifer Lubinski have been admitted to the Maryland bar for approximately eleven, ten, and twenty years, respectively. Id. Defendants have not asserted any objection to the use of this billing rate. (ECF Nos. 251, 252). Accordingly, I find that $300 is a reasonable hourly rate. At the outset, I will reduce plaintiffs' requested attorneys' fees by $700 to $103, 489.00 to adjust for the hours charged at a higher billing rate.

         Plaintiffs additionally argue that the amount of hours worked is reasonable under a Johnson factor analysis. Counsel presented a billing statement that identified the amount of time expended and tasks performed and recorded these entries contemporaneously. (ECF No. 248 at 6). Plaintiffs cite to defendants' actions in ignoring court orders, failing to cooperate, and filing of frivolous motions as a cause for increased time and labor necessary for the case. (ECF No. 248 at 7). Plaintiffs also argue that the case addressed novel questions of fact and law and that counsel litigated these issues with expert skill. (ECF No. 248 at 8). As to the fourth factor, counsel claim that they suffered significant opportunity costs due to the years spent on this case. (ECF No. 248 at 9). Additionally, this case was taken on a contingency basis. Id. Plaintiffs also argue that the jury returned a significant recovery for plaintiffs that serves to discourage employers from theft of employee pay. (ECF No. 248 at 10). Plaintiffs argue that they obtained this recovery despite the many complications with the case, including the lack of evidence regarding hours worked and pay received. Id. Plaintiffs state that each plaintiffs' attorney has a significant, positive reputation in employment law, including the designation of “SuperLawyer.” Id. Finally, plaintiffs cite to comparable awards of attorneys' fees in matters with similar and even lesser results. (ECF No. 248 at 11) (citing Almendarez et al. v. J.T.T. ...


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