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Tenorio v. San Miguel County Detention Center

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 26, 2019



          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for an Award of Attorneys' Fees, Costs, and Expenses, filed December 19, 2018. Doc. 363. This matter also comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Supplement to Motion for an Award of Attorneys' Fees, Costs, and Expenses, filed on December 20, 2018. Doc. 365. Defendants filed their response in opposition to plaintiff's motion on February 20, 2019. Doc. 371. Plaintiff filed her reply on March 6, 2019. Doc. 372. Plaintiff filed a supplement to her reply on March 7, 2019. Doc. 373. The Court held a hearing on the motion on May 30, 2019. Doc. 377. Having read the parties' briefing and heard the argument of counsel, and for the reasons stated below and at the hearing, the Court finds that the motion is well taken in part and will GRANT it in part and DENY it in part.

         I. Background Facts and Procedural Posture

         This case arises out of an incident that took place in the San Miguel County Detention Center on May 12, 2013. Plaintiff Estrella Tenorio alleged that detention officer defendants Elfigo Sandoval, Joey Romero, and Matthew Borrego violated her Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully seizing her and using excessive force against her. Ms. Tenorio further alleged that this constitutional violation resulted from the official policy or custom of the defendant Board of County Commissioners of San Miguel County (the “County”). In her First Amended Complaint, Ms. Tenorio brought seven causes of action against defendants. Doc. 128. The Court dismissed some of Ms. Tenorio's claims, see Docs. 156, 250, 264, and Ms. Tenorio settled her claims against defendants Health Care Partners Foundation, Inc. (“HCP”), and Rita Torres before trial. Doc. 229, 258.

         This case went to trial on civil rights and intentional tort claims against individual officers Elfigo Sandoval, Joey Romero, Matthew Borrego, and a municipal liability claim against the County. See Doc. 347. The jury found in favor of Ms. Tenorio on all claims that went to the jury[1] and awarded her a total of $150, 000.00 in compensatory and punitive damages. Doc. 334. On September 30, 2018, this Court entered a final judgment in favor of Ms. Tenorio. Doc. 346. As the prevailing party, Ms. Tenorio seeks attorneys' fees and costs from the County pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Specifically, Ms. Tenorio requests a total of $600, 841.47 in attorneys' fees (see Docs. 363-4 at 180, 365, 365-1, 373-1 at 6), [2] a total of $20, 980.10 in costs (see Docs. 363 at 23, 373 at 2, 373-1 at 7), [3] plus 7.875% in gross receipts taxes[4] on both the attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $48, 968.45 (Doc. 373 at 2), for a grand total of $670, 790.02 (Doc. 373 at 2).

         II. Discussion

         Section 1988 provides that, in certain civil rights actions, including those brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. §1988(b). In addition to attorney's fees, the prevailing party in a civil rights action is normally entitled to costs under 28 U.S.C. § 1920. Case v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 233, Johnson Cty., Kan., 157 F.3d 1243, 1249 (10th Cir. 1998). “A plaintiff who succeed[ed] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit is a prevailing party.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). “[A] prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Defendants do not dispute that plaintiff was a prevailing party on the claims that went to the jury, nor do defendants contend that an award of attorneys' fees would be unjust. Rather, defendants challenge the reasonableness of the requested award.

         A. Attorneys' Fees

         “To determine the reasonableness of a fee request, a court must begin by calculating the so-called ‘lodestar amount' of a fee, and a claimant is entitled to the presumption that this lodestar amount reflects a ‘reasonable' fee.” Robinson v. City of Edmond, 160 F.3d 1275, 1281 (10th Cir. 1998). “The lodestar calculation is the product of the number of attorney hours ‘reasonably expended' and a ‘reasonable hourly rate.'” Id. Counsel for the party claiming the fees has the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates. Case, 157 F.3d at 1249-50. The Court must examine the records to determine whether specific tasks are properly chargeable and whether the hours expended on each chargeable task are reasonable. Id. at 1250. “The prevailing party must make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request, hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Jane L. v. Bangerter, 61 F.3d 1505, 1510 (10th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Moreover, the hourly rates requested by counsel must reflect the prevailing market rates in the community. Id. Finally, certain factors may cause the court to adjust a fee upward or downward, “including the important factor of the ‘results obtained.'” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434.

         In her motion, plaintiff requests attorney's fees in the amount of $575, 845.97. Doc. 363-4 at 180. Plaintiff's supplemental motion requests an additional $13, 582.50 for “time and costs related to time spent on research, preparation, drafting and finalizing the motion for attorneys' fees.” Doc. 365 at 2. Plaintiff's supplement to her reply requests fees in the amount of $11, 413.00 for “time spent working on items since the filing of the Motion.” Docs. 373 at 1, 373-1 at 6. Defendants do not contest the hourly rates claimed by plaintiff's counsel. Doc. 371 at 6. Instead, defendants contend that plaintiff's request for fees for the number of hours worked are excessive and should be reduced by 40%. Id. The Court agrees with defendants that plaintiff's attorneys' fees should be reduced, but not to the extent requested by defendants.

         The Court will reduce plaintiffs requested fees for several reasons. First, the limited success obtained by plaintiff warrants a reduction in attorney's fees. See Barber v. T.D. Williamson, Inc., 254 F.3d 1223, 1230-31 (10th Cir. 2001) (analyzing the difference between the relief a plaintiff sought and the relief a plaintiff recovered in determining the reasonableness of attorney's fees). In this case, there was a substantial difference between the amount sought and the amount of the judgment. As defendants point out. plaintiff recovered less than 4% of what she sought at trial, and 13% of her lowest settlement demand prior to trial. Doc. 371 at 7.

         Further, only a portion of the claims asserted by plaintiff in her amended complaint merited presentation to the jury. Plaintiff asserted seven claims in her amended complaint. Doc. 128. Of those seven claims, only her Fourth Amendment claims, and her intentional tort claims against the three individual detention officers went to the jury. Plaintiff's claims against defendants HCP and Rita Torres were settled (Doc. 229), and plaintiff's other claims were dismissed. See Docs. 250, 264. Attorney time and fees that were expended on claims solely related to defendants HCP and Rita Torres should not be assessed against the County. Moreover, although many of plaintiff's claims were intertwined, plaintiff was not the prevailing party with regard to the claims that were dismissed by the Court. Nevertheless, plaintiff's Fourth Amendment case served a public purpose by affirming an important right and encouraging attorneys to represent civil rights litigants, and the fee award reflects this. See Barber, 254 F.3d at 1231 (viewing the public purpose served by a civil rights plaintiff in broad terms and recognizing that courts have concluded “that a public goal is accomplished if the plaintiff's victory encourages attorneys to represent civil rights litigants and affirms an important right, and/or provokes a change in the defendant's conduct”).

         A court may, in its discretion, reduce the lodestar amount of attorney's fees if it determines the number of hours claimed are duplicative, unproductive, excessive, or otherwise unnecessary. Case, 157 F.3d at 1250. Because identifying hours reasonably expended by reviewing each billing entry would be practically impossible in this case-plaintiff's counsel submitted 180 pages of billing records (Doc. 363-4)-the court will make a general reduction of the hours claimed. “[A] general reduction of hours claimed in order to achieve what the court determines to be a reasonable number is not an erroneous method, so long as there is sufficient reason for its use.” Case, 157 F.3d at 1250.

         Recognizing that at least a portion of the attorney's fees claimed may be excessive or duplicative, plaintiff has reduced her requested award from the lodestar amount by 10%. For the reasons stated above and at the hearing, the Court will further reduce the total amount of hours requested by ...

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