United States District Court, D. Maryland
MEMORANDUM GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART
PLAINTIFFS MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS (ECF NO.
MARK COULSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
underlying claim in this matter involves Defendants'
alleged failure to comply with their support obligations
pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1183(a) and its implementation
regulations, 8 C.F.R. Part 213a, after sponsoring the
immigration of Plaintiff, a family member from South Africa
to the United States. Those obligations, crystalized in
Immigration Form 1-864, require that the immigration sponsor
support the immigrant at 125% of poverty level (currently
$21, 137 per year or $1761.42 per month) if he or she cannot
do so alone, until one of five terminating events has taken
place, none of which has occurred. Plaintiff brought suit on
March 7, 2019 claiming that his immigration sponsors failed
to so maintain him at various times since he became a lawful
permanent resident in 2015. (ECF No. 1.)
after filing suit, on May 29, 2019, Plaintiff obtained a
preliminary injunction from this Court ordering Defendants to
pay a fixed monthly amount of $61.42 pending the resolution
of the case based on a snapshot of Plaintiff s financial
situation at that time. (ECF No. 38). In so doing, the Court
agreed that Plaintiff had established a likelihood of
ultimately prevailing on the merits, although both past
arrearages and future support obligations were strongly
5, 2019, the parties presented for a settlement conference
before me. Ultimately, Defendants agreed to pay $21, 250,
with $9, 475 earmarked to settle all claims of past
liability, and the remaining $11, 750 as a "credit"
against future support obligations. (ECF No. 52-2 at pp.
98-109). Beyond the future support credit, the settlement
agreement did not otherwise impair Plaintiffs ability to seek
damages in the future to the extent Defendants were
delinquent (i.e., Plaintiff was not releasing
Defendants from any future 1-864 support obligations).
However, Defendant would agree to apply the $11, 750 credit
towards those obligations, fully preserving his ability to
seek further support payments beyond that amount.
(Id. at p. 101). As for attorney's fees and
costs, the parties agreed to consent to my jurisdiction,
brief the issue, and have me render a binding determination.
of the United States Code H83a(c) provides for the
"payment of legal fees and other costs of
collection" among the remedies for successful
enforcement of 1-864 obligations. See Younis v.
Farooqui, 597 F.Supp.2d 552, 554 (D. Md. 2009) (noting
sponsor "may also be liable for legal fees and costs of
collection"). The Fourth Circuit utilizes a so-called
"lodestar" analysis. McAfee v. Boczar, 738
F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir. 2014). First, a court must arrive at
the lodestar figure by multiplying the number of reasonable
hours expended by a reasonable hourly rate. Id. In
determining reasonableness of both hours and rate, the court
must consider twelve "reasonableness"
factors. Id. Next, the court must subtract
fees for unsuccessful claims unrelated to successful ones.
Id. Finally, the court should award some percentage
of the remaining amount, depending on the degree of success
enjoyed by the plaintiff. Id.
case, Plaintiff seeks a base amount of fees and costs of $45,
775.31 reflecting approximately 125 hours of work and modest
costs, and a multiplier of 1.5 pursuant to the lodestar
analysis set forth above. Defendants challenge this based on
two chief arguments. First, Defendants allege that Plaintiff
was not forthcoming with certain financial information that
might have justified an offset to the amount sought, delaying
resolution of the case. Second, Defendants contend that the
degree of success obtained by Plaintiff was minimal in
comparison to what was sought, as reflected in the
preliminary injunction award of $61.42 per month. The Court
begins its analysis below.
Reasonableness of Hours Expended
considering the total number of hours expended, the Court
employs factors one, two, and seven. In doing so, the Court
finds that the roughly 125 hours are largely
reasonable under the circumstances, after a review of
the detail provided by Plaintiffs counsel both in terms of
individual time entries and then in the "stage of
litigation" format as required by this Court's Local
Rule, Appendix B. (ECF No. 51-2 at pp. 11 et seq).
In addition to the usual tasks, i.e., investigating
the claim, researching the law and drafting initial pleadings
and discovery, Plaintiff also filed a successful preliminary
injunction and participated in a successful mediation
session. The "novelty and difficulty" factor cuts
both ways. On the one hand, this type of litigation is
uncommon and somewhat esoteric, which generally requires
additional research by the average attorney approaching this
subject for the first time. On the other, given Counsel's
expertise in this subject area, Counsel was in advantageous
position to leverage his expertise in order to address the
issues in the case, as he has done in many previous cases.
(ECF No. 51-2 at pp. 1-2 and 140). The time entries, in the
Court's view, demonstrate that those efficiencies were
obtained. As for factor seven-urgency-it is true that the
circumstances of a plaintiff arguing for monetary support
might provide urgency, but there is no showing that this
particular situation was more urgent than any other. This was
partially evidenced by Judge Bredar's award of only a
modest amount of monthly support in the preliminary
injunction order, a reasonable assessment of Plaintiff's
financial condition at that snapshot in time. (ECF No. 38).
Court does note that Plaintiff was unsuccessful in his motion
to strike some of Defendant's affirmative defenses.
Accordingly, the Court will deduct 5.91 hours. Additionally,
the Court notes that on June 5, 2019, Plaintiffs counsel
billed 5 hours for travel from Baltimore back to his office
in Seattle, Washington. However, he also billed 8.09 hours
for that very same travel (which included 45 minutes spent
beginning the settlement agreement draft and 4.25 hours
preparing a draft of the attorney fee petition). Therefore,
the Court will deduct the first 5-hour entry as duplicative.
argument as to the hours spent is that Plaintiff and his
counsel's behavior inordinately protracted what otherwise
could have been a prompt settlement of the case by masking
Plaintiffs true financial situation (which, in turn, would
have allegedly mitigated Defendants' support obligation).
This is not supported by the record. To be sure, financial
information informally exchanged between the parties
pre-suit, and various affidavits and information exchanged
post-suit makes it unlikely that Plaintiff would have
recovered full statutory damages due to likely mitigation.
But it is hardly uncommon in litigation that a party's
initial broad assertions in a complaint regarding damages go
unchallenged during litigation.
the pre-suit settlement correspondence exchanged evidences
efforts by Plaintiffs counsel to narrow the items in dispute.
Further, it included his candid acknowledgment that
Defendants' past and present support obligations might
well be mitigated by factors such as any earnings by
Plaintiff and further evidence of past material support from
Defendants. Those efforts are detailed below.
Plaintiffs counsel's initial pre-suit letter on December
17, 2018 generally asserted Defendants' support
obligation and the components that should be considered in
that calculation. (ECF No. 51-2 at p. 51).
Defendants responded on December 27, 2018, submitting
documentation regarding revenues of Plaintiff s limited
liability company during 2017, one of the years for which
past arrearages were potentially being claimed. (ECF No.
54-1, pp. 1-18).
Plaintiffs counsel responded on January 4, 2019, arguing that
the gross revenues for Plaintiffs company would need to be
adjusted by any expenses to determine whether Plaintiff had
any true earnings. Further, Plaintiffs counsel asked whether
similar assertions of earnings attributable to Plaintiff were
being made for 2018 and, if so, for Defendants to provide
documentation of same. Plaintiffs counsel also invited,
"a sensible conversation" as to how to calculate
any past support obligation, acknowledging that any such
obligation would be mitigated by any earnings by Plaintiffs.
(ECF No. 54-1 at pp. 18-19).
same day, Defendants requested time to retain counsel in the
case. (ECF No. 54-1 at p. 20).
Defendants' counsel's response, later in January,
acknowledged the 1-864 obligation generally, but contested
any outstanding support liability based, premised in part, on
allegations that Plaintiff had income from various sources.
Thus, they demanded various financial information ...