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Casias v. State of New Mexico Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 3, 2019

ISAHA CASIAS, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, TARACINA MORGAN and HERMAN GONZALES, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND LITIGATION EXPENSES AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR TAXABLE COSTS

          Joel M. Carson III United States Circuit Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Litigation Expenses (Doc. 230) and Plaintiff's Motion for Taxable Costs (Doc. 225). Having reviewed the arguments and the relevant law, the Court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Litigation Expenses (Doc. 230) and grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's Motion for Taxable Costs (Doc. 225).

         I.

         Plaintiff Isaha Casias brought this civil rights lawsuit against the State of New Mexico Department of Corrections (“NMDC”) and two individual NMDC transport officers, Taracina Morgan and Herman Gonzales. Plaintiff alleged Eighth Amendment violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law negligence claims against the individual defendants for their actions during a prison transport. Plaintiff claimed NMDC was vicariously liable for the actions of its officers.

         In April 2019, the Court held a four-day jury trial on this matter. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff, awarding him $1, 000, 000 in compensatory damages against all the defendants, jointly and severally, and $500, 000 in punitive damages against each individual defendant. On April 12, 2019, the Court entered Judgment on the Jury Verdict (“Judgment”) (Doc. 223). Plaintiff now seeks attorneys' fees and litigation expenses under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and taxable costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1920, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 54(d), and District of New Mexico Local Rule of Civil Procedure (“Local Rule”) 54.

         II.

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, prevailing parties in civil rights actions are entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Neither party disputes that Plaintiff is a prevailing party pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Thus, the only question is whether Plaintiff's fee request is “reasonable.” To determine the reasonableness of a fee request, the Court must calculate the “lodestar” amount. Robinson v. City of Edmond, 160 F.3d 1275, 1281 (10th Cir. 1998). The lodestar “is the product of the number of attorney hours reasonably expended and a reasonable hourly rate.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “Once an applicant for a fee has carried the burden of showing that the claimed rate and number of hours are reasonable, the resulting product is presumed to be a reasonable fee as contemplated by Section 1988.” Id. (quoting Cooper v. State of Utah, 894 F.2d 1169, 1171 (10th Cir. 1990)).

         Plaintiff requests $340, 403.29 in attorneys' fees.[1] Doc. 240 at 15. In support of this request, Plaintiff attached billing records showing that Matthew Coyte, Plaintiff's lead attorney, billed a total of 381.5 hours[2] at an hourly rate of $350 per hour. Doc. 230, Ex. 1; Doc. 240, Ex. 7. Additionally, Plaintiff requests reimbursement for 198.1 hours of time billed by Vanessa Jaramillo, a paralegal in Coyte's office, at a rate of $135 per hour. Doc. 230, Ex. 1; Doc 240, Ex. 7. Plaintiff also provides billing records of Coyte's co-counsel, Adam Baker. The records reflect that Baker billed 353.4 hours[3] at a rate of $300 per hour. Doc 230, Ex. 2; Doc. 240, Ex. 8. Finally, Plaintiff submits the records of his fee counsel, Philip Davis. Davis billed a total of 38.2 hours at a rate of $425 per hour. Doc. 230, Ex. 3; Doc 240, Ex. 10. Kristina Tice, a paralegal in Davis's office, billed a total of 9.9 hours at a rate of $135 per hour. Doc. 230, Ex. 3; Doc 240, Ex. 10. Plaintiff asks the Court to apply the Albuquerque gross receipts tax rate for Coyte, Davis, Jaramillo, and Tice. He asks the Court to apply the Santa Fe gross receipt tax for Baker.

         A. Merits Counsel

         Defendants do not dispute the reasonableness of Coyte and Baker's hourly rates. Further, Judge Yarbrough found the rates requested for Plaintiff's merits counsel were reasonable when awarding attorneys' fees for discovery violations earlier in this litigation. See Doc. 92. The Court concludes that a reasonable rate for Coyte's legal services is $350 per hour and that a reasonable rate for Baker's legal services is $300 per hour.

         i. Matthew Coyte

         Defendants contest two specific time entries by Coyte as being unreasonably long for the tasks described. Defendants also contest a series of time entries for inadequate documentation regarding the tasks performed.

         The first entry Defendants challenge is from October 18, 2016, in which Coyte recorded 2.7 hours with the description: “Review Defendant's [sic] Supplemental Initial Disclosures; discuss with staff.” Doc. 230, Ex. 1 at 12. Defendants' Supplemental Initial Disclosures were 40-pages long. Defendants claim 2.7 hours is an unreasonable amount of time for Coyte's review. Doc. 234 at 7. Defendants further claim the entry is unclear as to why Coyte needed to discuss the disclosures with staff. Id. Defendants ask the Court to reduce Coyte's hours for this task from 2.7 to 1.0 hour. Id.

         Coyte explains in his supplemental affidavit (Doc. 240, Ex. 7 at 1-2), that the 2.7 hours related to the hours spent reviewing the documentation and included a strategy meeting with the litigation team. Id. According to the affidavit, the late disclosure by Defendants included inflammatory information regarding the health of additional inmates in the van on the day of the incident, which made the additional meeting necessary. Id. The Court agrees with Plaintiff that 2.7 hours is a reasonable amount of time for the described tasks. The Court will award Plaintiff the full 2.7 hours of contested time.

         Next, Defendants challenge an entry from September 3, 2017, in which Coyte recorded 3.2 hours to “[r]ead the deposition of Herman Gonzales and review deposition exhibits.” Doc. 230, Ex. 1 at 14. Gonzales's deposition, however, was 35 pages long and contained no exhibits. Doc. 234 at 7. On that basis, Defendants ask the Court to reduce Coyte's time to 1.0 hour for that entry. Id. However, Coyte explains that his review of depositions exhibits did not reference exhibits to Gonzales's deposition, but exhibits from all the depositions taken in this case. Doc. 240, Ex. 7 at 2. The Court reads the billing entry to support Coyte's explanation of the tasks performed and finds he expended his time reasonably. Thus, the Court will award Plaintiff the entire 3.2 hours of contested time.

         Finally, Defendants challenge a series of Coyte's time entries for lack of specificity. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (“Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.”). For example, on September 15, 2017, Coyte billed 2.5 hours with the following description: “Reviewed depositions and made notes.” Doc. 230, Ex. 1 at 15. On September 18, 2017, Coyte billed 1.2 hours with the following description: “Continue reading depositions.” Id. On September 19, 2019, Coyte billed 4.1 hours with the following description: “Continue reading depositions, read Taracina Morgan's statement. Telephonic statement and reviewed for contradictions.” Id. Defendants contrast these time entries with others in which Coyte provided more detail about the tasks performed. See Doc. 234 at 7-8 (“[O]n 9/14/2017, Coyte had billed 5.5 hours to review the depositions and exhibits of Taracina Morgan, Derek Williams and to review DOC policies and procedures. Again on 9/21/2016, 3.4 hours was billed under the following time entry: ‘Finished Taracina Morgan's depo. Started witness depositions from family.' On 9/27/2017, Attorney Coyte billed 1.6 hours as follows: ‘Continued with reading remaining deposition. Derek Williams; discussed with law clerk how to get evidence of DWI not reported into evidence. Discussed Motion in Limine.'”). Defendants ask the Court for a reduction in hours billed because “Coyte has not documented accurately what hours were spent on which task.” Id. at 8.

         Defendants imply that Plaintiff may be seeking double recovery for certain deposition related tasks Coyte performed based on his purportedly vague descriptions of the tasks performed. The Court disagrees. Coyte's billing records are not sloppy or imprecise. See Robinson, 160 F.3d at 1284-85. Coyte's entries are sufficient for the Court to determine the general activity he was performing and that the amount of time spent was reasonable. Cf. Tenn. Gas Pipeline Co. v. 104 Acers of Land, More or Less, in Providence Cnty., State of R.I., 32 F.3d 632, 634 (1st Cir. 1994) (holding that district court did not abuse its discretion by finding that time sheets were not sufficiently detailed when they contained entries such as “‘Confer with co-counsel,' ‘Confer with client,' ‘Review materials,' ‘Review documents,' and ‘Legal Research' without any indication of the subject matter involved”). The Court will award Plaintiff this contested time.

         The Court finds that the hours Plaintiff requests with respect to Coyte are reasonable. The Court awards Plaintiff $144, 040.09-the product of 381.5 hours at an hourly rate of $350 and adjusted for the 7.8750% gross receipts tax.[4]

         ii. Adam Baker

         Defendants object to Baker's billing entries between December 13, 2016 and December 29, 2016. These entries relate to Baker's 29.3 hours spent preparing Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (“Response”) (Doc. 70). Doc. 230, Ex. 2 at 13. Defendants posit that “charging almost 30 hours to respond to Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is excessive and unreasonable.” Doc. 234 at 9.

         The Court disagrees. Plaintiff's Response was 25 pages, but it contained over 80 pages of exhibits, including affidavits from Plaintiff and Dr. William Foote (Plaintiff's expert witness). Doc. 70. These affidavits required Baker to spend time conferring with Plaintiff and Dr. Foote in addition to researching and drafting the Response. See Doc. 240, Ex. 8 at 1-3. The Court finds that the time Baker spent preparing Plaintiff's Response is reasonable.

         The Court concludes that the hours Plaintiff requests with respect to Baker are reasonable. Accordingly, the Court awards Plaintiff $114, 965.44-the product of 353.4 hours at an hourly rate of $300 and adjusted for the 8.4375% gross receipts tax.[5]

         iii. Vanessa Jaramillo

         Defendants dispute Plaintiff's requested rate of $135 per hour for Jaramillo's services. According to Defendants, a $135 rate does not reflect the prevailing market rate for a paralegal in the relevant community. See Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1984). Defendants urge the Court to adopt a rate of $55 per hour for paralegal services. See Gutwein v. Taos Cty. Det. Ctr., 2016 WL 9774935, at *2 (D.N.M. Nov. 16, 2016) (finding a rate of $55 per hour reasonable for a paralegal in New Mexico in 2016).

         The Court disagrees and finds Plaintiff's requested rate of $135 per hour for Jaramillo's paralegal services reasonable. Plaintiff provided Coyte's affidavit attesting to Jaramillo's skill and sixteen years of experience as a paralegal in New Mexico. Doc. 230, Ex. 1 at 6-7. Further, Plaintiff's requested rate is not at the high or low end of paralegal rates in Albuquerque that this Court found reasonable in 2018. See O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal in U.S. v. Duke (“O Centro”), 343 F.Supp.3d 1050, 1088 (D.N.M. 2018) (learning from plaintiff's counsel that the Modrall Sperling firm billed its paralegals at hourly rates between $160.00 and $185.00 per hour, the Peifer, Hanson, and Mullins, P.A. firm billed its paralegals at hourly rates between $115.00 and $135.00 per hour, and the Rodey Law Firm billed its paralegals at hourly rates between $105.00 and $125.00 per hour). Finally, Plaintiff provided the 2015 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), Table 3.4, at p. 3 (Doc. 240, Ex 6), which lists the average hourly rate charged in 2014 for paralegal/legal ...


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