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Kreuze v. Vca Animal Hospitals, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 14, 2019

MOLLY WEINGARTEN KREUZE, Plaintiff
v.
VCA ANIMAL HOSPS., INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          Charles B. Day, United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Molly Weingarten Kreuze's filing in support of her request for attorneys' fees and expenses, ECF No. 142, submitted in response to this Court's orders awarding Plaintiff sanctions pursuant to her two Motions for Sanctions. ECF Nos. 51, 128. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, and Local Rule 301, the Honorable Peter J. Messitte referred this matter to the undersigned for all discovery related purposes. The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's filing, as well as Defendants' opposition thereto. No. hearing is deemed necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons stated herein, the Court will award attorneys' fees to Plaintiff in the amount of $30, 157.50 and costs in the amount of $1, 673.00.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff commenced the underlying proceeding on April 27, 2017. Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 1. In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants VCA Anima l Hospitals, Inc. (“VCA”) and VCA Southern Maryland Veterinary Referral Center (“SMVRC”) (collectively “Defendants”) discriminated against her because of her disability and refused to accommodate her as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Pl.'s Compl. 9-11. After receiving Plaintiff's Rule 34 discovery requests, Defendants served their response and objected to certain categories. Plaintiff found these responses to be insufficient and ultimately filed a motion with this Court pursuant to Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure seeking to compel Defendants to respond or supplement their responses. Pl.'s Mot. to Compel, Sept. 18. 2017, ECF No. 19. On October 25, 2017, this Court granted Plaintiff's Motion to Compel in part and ordered Defendants to comply with the discovery requests as outlined during the hearing. See Paperless Order (“Order to Compel”), ECF No. 34. On November 22, 2017, Defendants appealed the Order to Compel to Judge Messitte. Mot. to Appeal Certain Rulings, ECF No. 46. Judge Messitte denied Defendants' appeal on December 21, 2017. Mem. Op., Messitte, J., ECF No. 49; Order, Messitte, J., ECF No. 50. According to Plaintiff, despite this Order to Compel and Judge Messitte's ruling upholding it, Defendants still did not fully comply with the discovery requests.

         On January 2, 2018, Plaintiff filed her first motion for sanctions (“Plaintiff's First Motion for Sanctions”) pursuant to Rule 37, seeking an order from this Court sanctioning Defendants for their failure to obey this Court's Order to Compel and awarding Plaintiff attorneys' fees and costs. Pl.'s 1st Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 51. After this motion was fully briefed, but before this Court could hold a hearing on the matter, Plaintiff filed a second motion for sanctions (“Plaintiff's Second Motion for Sanctions”) pursuant to Rule 37, seeking additional sanctions against Defendants for their alleged “failure to timely produce adequate discovery, their ill-timed ‘document dump' on the eve of depositions, and failure to prepare corporate designees . . . .” Pl.'s 2d Mot. for Sanctions 2, July 27, 2018, ECF No. 128. On July 31, 2018, Defendants filed a motion to continue the hearing for Plaintiff's First Motion for Sanctions until after the Second Motion for Sanctions was briefed. ECF No. 130. On August 2, 2018, this Court granted Defendant's request, postponing a hearing until both motions were fully briefed. ECF No. 132.

         On September 13, 2018, this Court heard oral arguments for both of Plaintiff's Motions for Sanctions. ECF No. 140. After reviewing the parties' filings and hearing arguments from both sides, this Court granted Plaintiff's First Motion for Sanctions in full and granted Plaintiff's Second Motion for Sanctions in part. Paperless Order, ECF No. 138; Paperless Order, ECF No. 139. As discovery had already closed in the matter, the Court ruled that Plaintiff would be awarded attorneys' fees and costs as follows: For Plaintiff's First Motion for Sanctions, the Court awarded Plaintiff reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred seeking Defendants' compliance with this Court's Order to Compel for the period beginning November 25, 2018. See Sept. 13, 2018, Hearing Tr. (“Hearing Tr.”) 47:7-48:3, ECF No. 141. This included reasonable fees and costs associated with drafting and filing Plaintiff's First Motion for Sanctions and preparing for and conducting arguments during the subsequent hearing. See Id. at 47:23-25. In granting Plaintiff's Second Motion for Sanctions, the Court awarded the following:

1. Costs related to the January 25, 2018, deposition of Dr. David Michael Barnett;
2. Costs and attorneys' fees related to the March 12, 2018, deposition of Maria Druse, reduced by 50%;
3. Attorneys' fees related to Plaintiff's document review of the newly produced discovery by Defendant between January 18, 2018, and January 26, 2018, reduced by 50%;
4. Costs related to Plaintiff's efforts to serve Michael Lofton, subject to Defendants' showing of when they knew that Mr. Lofton's address had changed and when it communicated that information to Plaintiff.

See Id. at 82:7-90:25.[1] This award also included reasonable fees and costs associated with drafting and filing Plaintiff's Second Motion for Sanctions and preparing for and conducting arguments during the subsequent hearing. See Id. at 83:18-84:1. The Court gave Plaintiff ten (10) days by which to submit an affidavit in support of the amount of fees and costs that she sought to be awarded. The Court also gave Defendants ten (10) days to submit any opposition.

         On September 24, 2018, Plaintiff submitted her request for fees through an affidavit by her counsel and several exhibits to support her request (collectively “Pl.'s Req.”). See Aff. of Jonathan C. Puth (“Puth Aff.”) in Support of Pl.'s Req. for Fees & Costs, ECF No. 142. In her request, Plaintiff seeks to recovery attorneys' fees in the amount of $35, 645.00 and costs in the amount of $2, 173.00. Id. at ¶¶ 26-27. In their response to Plaintiff's Request, Defendants assert that “certain time expended by Plaintiff's attorneys is excessive, unnecessary, and duplicative, is clerical or administrative in nature, or is otherwise non-compensable . . . .” Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Req. 2, ECF No. 145. In light of this, Defendants argue that Plaintiff should receive at most $22, 335.00 in fees and $1, 673.00 in costs.[2] Id. at 8-9.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may seek sanctions against another party for failing to comply with a court's discovery order. If a court finds that a party did fail to obey the discovery order, Rule 37(b) lists the sanctions a court may impose on that party, which include: directing that the matters covered by the order be taken as established for purposes of the action; prohibiting the non-compliant party from proceeding on certain theories or introducing certain evidence; dismissing the action in whole or part; and treating the failure to comply as contempt of court. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A). Regardless of whether the court imposes one of the enumerated sanctions, it must award reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party “unless the failure [to comply] was substantially justified or other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(C); see also Stephens v. U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n, Civ. A. No. DKC-15-1780, 2017 WL 1832202, at *3 (D. Md. May 8, 2017) (awarding “reasonable expenses caused by Plaintiffs' failure to comply with the discovery order or appear at their depositions”).

         In calculating an award of attorney's fees, the Court must determine the lodestar amount, defined as a “reasonable hourly rate multiplied by hours reasonably expended.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Grissom v. Mills Corp., 549 F.3d 313, 320 (4th Cir. 2008) (same); Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creativ e Pipe, Inc., No. MJG-06-2662, 2016 WL 1597119, at *14 (D. Md. Apr. 20, 2016) (same). The Fourth Circuit has further identified factors that a court is to use as a guide when determining what is “reasonable”:

(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 abilit y 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.

Robinson v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 560 F.3d 235, 243-44 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Barber v. Kimbrell's Inc., 577 F.2d 216, 226 n. 28 (4th Cir.1978)).

         In order to recover for attorney's fees, counsel must submit appropriate materials supporting his or her claim. This typically includes billing records and affidavits regarding the services provided. Since reasonableness is the touchstone for the award of fees, the party seeking the award of fees bears the burden of proof and “must provide ‘detailed records' that specify ‘the services performed, by whom they were performed, the time expended thereon, and the hourly rate charged.'” Bel Air Plaza Ltd. P'ship v. Ross Dress for Less, Inc., Civ. No. CCB-14-2533, 2016 WL 3440191, at *1 (D. Md. Jun. 23, 2016) (citing Rauch v. McCall, 134 Md.App. 624, 639 (2000) [citation omitted]). When a claim for attorney's fees is filed in the federal court in Maryland, there is an extra layer of complexity arising from the Court's adoption of its Guidelines as enumerated in Appendix B of the Local Rules. The Guidelines address the format for filing the fee request, the recording of time and the submission of quarterly statements. They also provide direction regarding what is compensable and non-compensable time. For the convenience of counsel, these Guidelines list a presumptive range of reasonable hourly rates. Gonzales v. Caron, Civ. A. No. CBD-10-2188, 2001 WL 3886979, at *2 (D. Md. Sept. 2, 2011) (“[G]enerally this Court presumes that a rate is reasonable if it falls within these ranges.”). Once a fee request is submitted, it becomes the responsibility of the party challenging the request to articulate the areas where an award would be inappropriate. “[T]he Court will not review any challenged entry in the bill unless the challenging party has identified it specifically and given an adequate explanation for the basis of the challenge.” Thompson v. U.S. Dept. of Hous. and Urban Dev., No. Civ. A. MJG-95-309, 2002 WL 31777631, at *10 (D. Md. Nov. 21, 2002).

         III. Analysis

         To support Plaintiff's request, the Puth Affidavit details the efforts spent pursuing Defendants' compliance with this Court's Order to Compel. Additionally, exhibits with time entries of tasks broken down into areas of litigation and receipts for various costs incurred for delivery and transcript services were included. See ECF No. 142. The Court finds Plaintiff complied with the Guidelines' requirements for formatting her request and has provided details necessary to justify the amount requested. Accordingly, this Court will turn to reviewing the reasonableness of her request and the specific challenges raised by Defendants.

         A. Lodestar Amount

         i. Reasonable Hourly Rate[3]

         Plaintiff seeks compensatio n for attorneys' fees according to the following rates: Jonathan C. Puth, who has over 25 years of experience, at a rate of $475.00/hour; Andrew M. Adelman, who has approximately 5 years of experience, at a rate of $225.00/hour; and law clerks at a rate of $150.00/hour.[4] Puth Aff. ¶¶ 2, 6, 15. In his affidavit, Mr. Puth discusses in detail the qualifications and experience of the attorneys representing Plaintiff. Id. at ΒΆΒΆ 2-7. He also goes to great lengths to outline his firm's usual rates of compensation, the standard rates of compensation used in other district courts, as well as his reasoning for why those higher rates are actually reasonable rates of compensation in today's market. ...


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