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Sadler v. Balboa Capital Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 4, 2014

SEAN SADLER and S. SADLER, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
BALBOA CAPITAL CORP., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

On September 16, 2013, I entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order finding Defendant is entitled to attorney fees for the above-captioned case. ECF No. [116]. Because Defendant's motion lacked the documentation necessary for me to determine a reasonable fee award, I set a briefing schedule to allow Defendant to provide me with the appropriate materials and to give Plaintiffs an opportunity to respond. Defendant filed its brief and accompanying documentation as exhibits at ECF No. [119], and Plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition with supporting exhibits at ECF No. [127]. Defendant also filed a Reply at ECF No. [136]. Having carefully reviewed the submissions provided by both parties, I find that Defendant Balboa Capital Corp. is entitled to reasonable attorney fees in the amount of $69, 068.25.

Legal Analysis

I. Whether Defendant is Entitled to Attorney Fees

As stated in my September 16, 2013 Opinion and Order, Defendant is entitled to attorney fees pursuant to paragraph 27 of the Master Lease Agreement ("MLA") for which the jury found Plaintiff L.S. Sadler in breach. ECF No. 116, 5. Plaintiffs now argue that Defendant is not entitled to attorney fees because it did not prevail "on a substantial part of the litigation." Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 127, 5. Because Plaintiffs failed to make this argument when objecting to Defendant's post-trial motions, which have already been ruled upon, I deem it to be waived. Id. Nevertheless, even if Plaintiffs had raised the issue timely, I disagree.

Attorney fees may be awarded to a party who prevails on the merits of his claim or, in other words, is the "prevailing party." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992) (citing Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754 (1980) ( per curiam )). A prevailing party "succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.'" Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). In other words, the party seeking attorney fees must have obtained an enforceable judgment. Id. at 111. As the Supreme Court has explained, "the prevailing party inquiry does not turn on the magnitude of the relief obtained, ... [and] the degree of the [party's] success' does not affect eligibility for a fee award.'" Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114 (citing Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782 (1989) (emphasis in original)).

Accordingly, Defendant is a prevailing party eligible to seek attorney fees from Plaintiffs. Here, Defendant obtained an enforceable judgment against Plaintiff L.S. Sadler, Inc. ECF No. 117. The parties in this case asked the jury to determine the existence and potential breach of several discrete contracts. ECF No. 75 (jointly proposed verdict form); ECF No. 97 (jury verdict). The jury found, inter alia, that Plaintiff L.S. Sadler, Inc. entered into a contract, the MLA, with Defendant Balboa Capital Corp. and that Plaintiff breached the terms of the MLA, causing damages.[1] ECF No. 97, para. 8-10. The jury awarded Defendant $74, 500.00 for this breach. Id. Pursuant to the contract negotiated by the parties, paragraph 27 of the MLA entitles Defendant to attorney fees "[i]n the event of any legal action with respect to this Lease." Def.'s Ex. A. Thus, the only issue before me now is whether the amount requested by Defendant is reasonable.

II. Analysis of Plaintiffs' Objections to Defendant's Fee Request

A. Applicable law

When reviewing a prevailing party's claim for attorney fees, "[i]t remains for the district court to determine what fee is reasonable.'" Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Carpenter Tech. Corp. v. Armco, Inc., 808 F.Supp. 408, 409 n.2 (E.D. Pa. 1992) (relying on Hensley to award attorney fees in a contract case applying Pennsylvania law because "the Supreme Court's reasoning involving a statutory fee award is persuasive and applicable to a similar situation arising from a contract clause"); Evergreen Cmty. Power LLC v. Riggs Distler & Co., Inc., 513 Fed.Appx. 236 (3d Cir. 2013) (finding federal law regarding attorney fees in accord with Pennsylvania law); McMullen v. Kutz, 603 Pa. 602, 614-15 (2009). Courts initially assess reasonableness by using the lodestar formula which requires multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 24. "[O]nce the lodestar is determined, it is presumed to be the reasonable fee." Lanni v. New Jersey, 259 F.3d 146, 148 (3d Cir. 2001). Courts look to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community to determine a reasonable hourly rate. Loughner, 260 F.3d at 180.

The party seeking attorney fees has the burden to prove that its request is reasonable by submitting evidence documenting the hours worked and rates claimed. Id. ; Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177 (3d Cir. 1990). A court may reduce an award where the requesting party's documentation is inadequate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. A trial court may also exclude from its calculation hours that it finds were not "reasonably expended." Id. at 434. However, "[t]he court may not reduce an award sua sponte ; rather, it can only do so in response to specific objections made by the opposing party." Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 711 (3d Cir. 2005). Still, a district court has substantial discretion in awarding attorney fees so long as it "employs correct standards and procedures and makes findings of fact not clearly erroneous." Loughner v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 2001).

B. Hours Expended by Defendant's Attorneys

Plaintiffs object to the number of hours claimed by Defendant as (i) inadequately documented, (ii) duplicative, and (iii) non-recoverable. As stated above, the requesting party bears the burden of justifying its fee request. Interfaith Cmty., 426 F.3d at 711. A party seeking attorney fees must adequately document its request, and a district court may reduce its award where the documentation of hours is inadequate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. "In determining whether the moving party has met its burden, [the Third Circuit has] stressed that it is necessary that the [District] Court go line, by line, by line' through the billing ...


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