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Knox v. Hooper's Crab House, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 18, 2019

Casey Knox On behalf of herself and others similarly situated Plaintiffs
Hooper's Crab House, Inc., et al Defendants


          J. Mark Coulson United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Casey Knox brought suit against Defendants Hooper's Crab House, Inc., Pete Shepard, Royette Shepard, Patrick Brady, and Ryan Intrieri (“collectively Defendants”) on behalf of herself and all other similarly situated persons (collectively “Plaintiffs”) for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and related state laws in a so-called “hybrid” class/collective action. On August 22, 2019, after conducting a fairness hearing, the Court entered a final judgment approving the settlement of the matter and certifying the settlement class. (ECF No. 157). Pursuant to the terms of their settlement agreement, the parties consented to be bound by my determination as to the appropriate amount of attorneys' fees and costs to be awarded to Plaintiffs. (ECF No. 114-1 at 16). I have considered Plaintiffs' Motion, Defendants' Response in Opposition thereto, and Plaintiffs' Reply in support thereof. (ECF Nos. 159, 165 and 166). The issue is fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the foregoing reasons, I will grant Plaintiffs' Motion in part, but will also reduce the requested amount as detailed below. I will also deny Plaintiffs' request for post-judgment interest.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The pending dispute arises from the resolution of a “two-year long hybrid class/collective action, ” involving fifty[1] workers, and recovery amounting to more than $400, 000. (ECF No. 166 at 11). Plaintiffs request an award of attorneys' fees in the amount of $440, 049.00, as well as costs and expenses in the amount of $21, 478.16, for a total of $461, 527.15, plus post-judgment interest at the rate of 10% from August 22, 2019, through the date of payment. (ECF No. 159 at 49). Defendants do not challenge the $21, 478.16 in costs. Accordingly, the Court evaluates the fees sought below.


         Section 216(b) of the FLSA expressly provides that “in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, ” the Court must “allow a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Though a settlement is not a judgment, attorneys' fees are virtually always part of an FLSA resolution, and here the parties have specifically provided for a binding determination of such fees by the Court as part of their settlement agreement. (ECF 157). In such cases, the Court is guided by a “reasonableness” standard. Amaya v. Power Design, Inc., 2018 WL 690838, at *2 (D. Md. Feb. 2, 2018).

         The “lodestar” analysis outlined by the Supreme Court in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), is the starting point for calculating an award of reasonable attorneys' fees. Eastern Associated Coal Corp v. Director, 724 F.3d 561, 570-71 (4th Cir. 2013). A lodestar amount is defined as “a reasonable hourly rate multiplied by hours reasonably expended.” Grissom v. Mills Corp., 549 F.3d 313, 320 (4th Cir. 2008). In this Circuit, in arriving at an appropriate figure, courts consider twelve so-called “Johnson” factors: These include:

(1) [T]he time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill requisite to properly perform the legal service; (4) the preclusion of other 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 with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.

Thompson, 2002 WL 31777631, at *6 n.19 (citing Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974)).

         When considering the total number of hours expended, the Court generally considers factors one, two, and seven, although Defendants' Opposition focuses primarily on factor one. In assessing the reasonableness of the rates charged per hour, factors three, four, five, six, nine, eleven, and twelve are potentially relevant, although Defendants' Opposition chiefly addresses factors three, five, nine and twelve (focusing mostly on a perceived lack of support for the rates given the relative lack of experience of some counsel involved, and the rates for some of these same counsel in other cases).

         Once a court determines the lodestar figure, courts “subtract fees for hours spent on unsuccessful claims related to successful ones” and award “some percentage of the remaining amount, depending on the degree of success enjoyed by the plaintiff.” Robinson v. Equifax Information Servs., 560 F.3d 235, 244 (4th Cir. 2009). A trial court may exercise its discretion in determining the lodestar amount because it possesses “superior understanding of the litigation, ” and the matter is “essentially” factual. Thompson, 2002 WL 31777631, at *6 n.18.


         As outlined above, there is a three-step process for awarding statutory fees under the FLSA. At the outset, the Court notes that Defendants' opposition does not argue for a reduction based on the “most critical factor in determining the reasonableness of a fee award - the degree of success obtained by the Plaintiff.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37. Rather, Defendants seek a forty percent reduction overall, arguing that Plaintiffs' lodestar calculation includes unreasonable hourly rates and an unreasonable number of hours worked at virtually every stage of litigation. (ECF No. 165 at 9). Given that Plaintiffs' degree of success apparently is not contested, the Court will address Defendants' arguments regarding rates and time spent.

         A. Reasonable Hourly Rate

         A court's first task in determining an appropriate rate is to look to the prevailing markets in the relevant community. Prusin v. Canton's Pearls, LLC, 2019 WL 4438609, at *3 (D. Md. Mar. 12, 2019). “The prevailing market rate may be established through affidavits reciting the precise fees that counsel with similar qualifications have received in comparable cases; information concerning recent fee awards by courts in comparable cases; and specific evidence of counsel's actual billing practice or other evidence of the actual rates which counsel can command in the market.” Spell v. McDaniel 824 F.2d 1380, 1402 (4th Cir. 1987). See also Eastern Associated Coal Corp, 724 F.3d at 572 (noting an attorneys' prior fee awards may serve as a “barometer” of the prevailing market rate).

         Here, Defendants take issue with the hourly rates requested by Plaintiffs' Counsel. The Plaintiffs were represented by seven attorneys from three separate law firms. (ECF No. 165 at 6). As for the senior attorneys involved, Messrs. Hoffman, Warbasse, and Rubin, each seeks compensation at the rate of $400 per hour. Counsel supports these rates in three ways: citing the comparable skill, expertise, and reputations of similar law lawyers in similar cases; the submission of a Declaration by each lawyer;[2] and providing declarations from Sally Dworak-Fisher, Marc Smith, and Mitchell I. Batt.

         Plaintiffs cite two recent fee decisions involving wage/hour lawyers with approximately the same amount of experience as Hoffman. (ECF No. 159 at 40). Accordingly, they contend that their rates are within the prevailing rates in the area for work of this nature. Plaintiffs further rely on three affidavits. First, they rely upon an affidavit from Sally Dworak-Fisher, Esquire, who indicates she is an attorney at the Public Justice Center (“PJC”), and is lead Attorney of the Workplace justice Project of the PJC, which represents workers seeking to recover minimum and overtime wages. (ECF No. 159-26 at 2). She testified that Counsel are experts in the field; the recovery obtained in this case is a significant victory, and the hourly rate charged is within the range of attorney's fees provided by the Local Rules and are consistent with the hourly rates she has been personally awarded. Id. Specifically, she notes that she has been involved in significant litigation in this court, and recently it found her rate of $400 per hour to be reasonable (the same rate sought by Messrs. Hoffman, Warbasse and Rubin here). Id. Declarations from experienced local practitioners, Marc Smith and Mitchell Batt, who are familiar with Mr. Rubin and his work, attest that the rate of $400 per hour is fair and reasonable, and consistent with market rates. Id. at 4; ECF Nos. 159-16 and 159-17. Defendants do not contest Mr. Warbasse's rate. (ECF No. 165 at 6 n.2).

         Considering all of the above, the Court finds that there is specific evidence of the prevailing market rates in the relevant community, which are consistent with Plaintiffs' rates. Additionally, these rates are well within the Court's guidelines for attorneys with similar experience, as set forth in this Court's Local Rules. See L.R. App'x. B(3). Although Defendants reference previous decisions affording a lower rate, the Court does not have the specifics of those matters before it and, in any event, finds sufficient justification in the materials discussed above to ...

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