United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MAURICE B. COHILL, Jr., District Judge.
Pending before the Court is Joseph Meyers' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Expenses pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d) and §260.9a(f) of the Wage Payment and Collection Law 43 Pa. Stat. Ann. §260.1 et seq ("WPCL"). The WPCL states, "[t]he court in any action brought under this section shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow costs for reasonable attorneys' fees of any nature to be paid by the defendant." 43 Pa.C.S.A. § 260.9a(f). We will grant Plaintiff's Motion; however, as explained herein, we reduce the total amount of requested attorneys' fees.
Plaintiff Joseph Meyers was hired on July 28 2006, as Vice President of Clinical Operations in charge of conducting corporate development for Defendant Dr. Thomas Serena and his companies, which included Penn North Centers for Advanced Wound Care, P.C. Later in his tenure he became the National Sales Manager for an ointment Defendants were attempting to market. Finally, in July 2009, Mr. Meyers' position was changed to nurse/manager for a wound care center where he remained until he was terminated on September 11, 2009. Mr. Meyers filed this action seeking payment for unpaid wages for 2008, vacation pay for 2008 and 2009, and unpaid expenses for 2008 and 2009. Defendants admitted that Meyers was not paid wages for three pay periods in 2008, but explained that the company never had sufficient funds to pay the wages and thus the wages were never actually owed. Defendants further denied that Meyers was due any vacation pay. Finally, Defendants claimed they paid Meyers all expenses he was due, and in fact overpaid him, for which Defendants counterclaimed.
A bench trial in this matter was held on August 14 and August 15, 2013. Mr. Meyers was represented by Charles H. Saul, Esquire and Liberty J. Weyandt, Esquire of the law firm Margolis Edelstein. Defendants were represented by Christopher W. Callihane, Esquire, of Tucker Arensberg. Following trial the parties submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in which Plaintiffs requested a total judgment in their favor of $93, 780.38, and Defendants requested judgment against Plaintiff on all of his claims and a judgment of $13, 579.87 on their counterclaim.
On March 28, 2014, we entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff for a total net award of $11, 660.51. As we explained in our Opinion, we concluded that Plaintiff was owed wages for three pay periods in 2008 amounting to $20, 192.31, but that he was not due vacation pay or reimbursement for unpaid expenses. In addition, pursuant to Pennsylvania's Wage Payment and Collection Law we awarded Plaintiff $5, 048.07 in liquidated damages, for a total award in his favor of $25, 240.38. We further concluded that Plaintiff was overpaid for his expenses and therefore we entered judgment in favor of Defendants on their counterclaim, and set-off $13, 579.87 - the amount of expenses Plaintiff owed Defendants - against his award for unpaid wages, resulting in the net award of $11.660.51.
Given that Plaintiff was successful, in part, on his WPCL claim, he filed a petition for attorneys' fees pursuant to section 260.9(f) of the WPCL, seeking reimbursement of attorneys' fees of $62, 906.25 and expenses of $733.02. As previously noted herein, the WPCL states, "[t]he court in any action brought under this section shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow costs for reasonable attorneys' fees of any nature to be paid by the defendant." 43 Pa.C.S.A. §260.9a(f). Defendants have filed a Brief Opposing Plaintiff's requested fees and expenses, and instead argue that the appropriate amount of attorneys' fees Defendants owe is $12, 586.00.
II. Standard of Review
For purposes of attorneys' fees, a plaintiff is considered a prevailing party if the plaintiff succeeds on any significant issue which achieves some of the benefits sought in bringing suit. Farrar v. Hobby , 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992). An award for attorneys' fees to a prevailing party is calculated using the lodestar approach under which "a court determines the reasonable number of hours expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart , 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc. , 426 F.3d 694, 703 n.5 (3d Cir. 2005). "The district court has the discretion to make certain adjustments to the lodestar." Rode v. Dellarciprete , 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). "Attorneys seeking compensation must document the hours for which payment is sought with sufficient specificity'." Washington v. Phila. Cnty. Court of Common Pleas , 89 F.3d 1031, 1037 (3d Cir. 1996), quoting Keenan v. City of Phila. , 983 F.2d 459, 472 (3d Cir. 1992). To establish sufficient specificity, "[a] fee petition is required to be specific enough to allow the district court to determine if the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed.'" Id., quoting Kennan, 983 F.2d at 473. In assessing whether an attorney's time was "reasonably expended, " the court must ask whether the attorney exercised "billing judgment."
[c]ounsel for the prevailing party should make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission. "In the private sector, billing judgment' is an important component in fee setting. It is no less important here. Hours that are not properly billed to one's client also are not properly billed to one's adversary pursuant to statutory authority.
Hensley , 461 U.S. at 434 (quoting Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 891 (D.C. Cir. 1980 ( en banc )).
The fee applicant must "produce satisfactory evidence - in addition to the attorney's own affidavits - that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation." Blum v. Stetson , 465 U.S. 886, 896 n. 11 (1984). "The party opposing the fee award has the burden to challenge by affidavit or brief with sufficient specificity to give fee applicants notice, the reasonableness of the requested fee.'" Rode , 892 F.2d at 1183. Determining a reasonable hourly rate generally "is calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Loughner v. University of Pittsburgh , 260 F.3d 173, 180 (3d Cir. 2001). "[I]n most cases, the relevant rate is the prevailing rate in the forum of the litigation." Interfaith Community Organization , 426 F.3d at 705.
A three-step burden-shifting framework is followed to arrive at the appropriate hourly rate. First, the prevailing party must establish a prima facie case by producing sufficient evidence of a reasonable market rate for the essential character and complexity of the services rendered. See Lanni v. New Jersey , 259 F.3d 146, 149 (3d Cir. 2001). Second, if a prima facie case has been established, the opposing party must produce record evidence to contest this rate. See Id . Finally, if the reasonable market rate is in dispute, the Court must decide the appropriate market rate based on the record.
III. Legal Analysis
In his Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Expenses, Plaintiff requests reimbursement of $62.906.25 in total attorneys' fees and $733.02 in expenses. Defendants seek to reduce the requested attorneys' fees by approximately $50, 000, and argue for an award of $12, 586.00. We note that Defendants do not challenge Plaintiff's request for expenses.
Plaintiff's Voluntary Reductions
As explained in Plaintiff's Brief, the requested amount of attorneys' fees reflects two types of voluntary reductions made by counsel. First, each attorney's total number of hours has "been reduced for duplicative time with [co-counsel], work of a more clerical nature, time spent on a companion case involving another employee of Defendants, and time that might be deemed excessive in nature." P. Br. in Support of Motion for Attorneys' Fees 7. Taking these reductions into account results in a voluntary reduction of Mr. Saul's hours from 322.80 hours to 258 hours, and a voluntary reduction in Ms. Weyandt's hours from 504.40 hours to 254.50 hours. Adding in the work performed for the present motion amounts to an additional 10 hours for Mr. Saul and 5 hours for Ms. Weyandt. Thus, in total Plaintiff requests reimbursement of 268 hours at $300.00 per hour for Mr. Saul (or $80, 400), and 259.50 hours at $175.00 per hour for Ms. Weyandt (or $45, 412, 50).
In addition, counsel suggests that the above requested amounts be reduced an additional 50% to account for Plaintiff's limited success at trial. Therefore, Plaintiff seeks reimbursement for half of $125, 812.50 ($80, 400 $45, 412.50), which is $62, 906.25.
Defendants object to the attorneys' fees sought for reimbursement on five grounds: (1) Plaintiff's block billing and vague descriptions of performed tasks merits a reduction in the lodestar; (2) the number of hours billed to complete tasks is unreasonable, excessive, and duplicative; (3) the hourly rate of Mr. Saul requested to calculate the lodestar is not representative of an hourly rate for the Erie, Pennsylvania, market for a straightforward WPCL case; (4) Plaintiff's limited success at trial warrants a reduction of the loadstar greater than 50% proposed by counsel; and (5) Plaintiff's rejections of Defendants' numerous reasonable settlement offers should bar recovery of fees incurred after the date of such offers and/or reduce the lodestar. Def. Br. in Resp. 2.
Specifically, Defendants argue that we should further reduce the hours requested for reimbursement as follows: Mr. Saul's request for 268 hours should be reduced by 114 hours to 154 hours, and Ms. Weyandt's request for 259.50 hours should be reduced by 120 hours to 139.50 hours. Plaintiff also argues that Mr. Saul's' hourly rate should be reduced from $300 to $250. Accordingly, Defendants argue that the total attorneys' fees to be used as the lodestar should be $62, 192.50, rather than the $125, 812.50 requested by Plaintiff's counsel. Finally, Defendants argue that the appropriate percentage reduction to the lodestar amount should be 80%, instead of the 50% proposed by Plaintiff's counsel. Therefore, Defendants' propose that the amount of attorneys' fees owed to Plaintiff's counsel should be 80% of $62, 192.50, or $12, 586.00.
A. Lodestar Percentage Reduction based on Limited Success and Rejection of Settlement Offers
Defendants present a two-stage argument for reducing the lodestar by 80%. First, Defendants argue that the lodestar should be reduced by 67% because of Plaintiff's limited success. Def. Br. in Resp. 19. Plaintiff received judgment only on his unpaid wages claim, but lost on his claim for vacation pay and business expenses. Id . Defendants note that Plaintiff was only awarded 10% of the total damages he sought to recover. Id. at 18. Defendants support their argument for a reduction greater than 50% by citing to case law by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit stating that "counsel fees should only be awarded to the extent that the litigant was successful.'" Id. at 19, ...