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Lajeunesse v. BNSF Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 20, 2019



         This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant's Motion for Costs and Fees, filed September 9, 2019. (Doc. 134). Plaintiff filed a response on September 19, 2019, and Defendant filed a notice of completion of briefing on September 20, 2019. (Docs. 135 and 136). Considering the Motion and the accompanying briefing, the Court grants the Motion for Costs and Fees (Doc. 134), in part, in that the Court awards Defendant a total of $163, 500.47 in attorney's fees and costs.

         I. Background

         On March 6, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Federal Employers Liability Act claim against Defendant alleging he sustained a back injury while in the course and scope of his employment. (Doc. 1). Following Plaintiff's July 10, 2018, deposition, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint as a sanction for Plaintiff's abuse of the discovery process, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26, 37, and 41, and the Court's inherent authority. (Doc. 56). After considering the parties' briefing, on August 30, 2019, the Court found that Plaintiff “knowingly and intentionally lied under oath, made material and false misrepresentations, and abused the discovery process” in his answers to written discovery requests and during his deposition. (Doc. 133) at 48. Specifically, the Court found Plaintiff's answers were deliberately false as to: (1) his previous back injuries; (2) the extent of his injuries and post-incident activities; (3) instructions from his physical therapist; (4) his gym use; (5) prior complaints to his employer; (6) his prior drug use; (7) communications he made immediately after the incident; (8) his social media use; and (9) his motorcycle ownership. Id. at 4-30. Additionally, the Court found numerous incidents of obstructionist behavior by Plaintiff during his deposition. Id. at 30-40.

         Upon consideration of the factors set forth in Ehrenhaus v. Reynolds, 965 F.2d 916, 921 (10th Cir. 1992), the Court granted Defendant's motion to dismiss, dismissed Plaintiff's claims with prejudice, and granted Defendant's request for an award of costs and attorney's fees. Id. at 48. The Court ordered Defendant to file a “motion for costs and fees, supported by bills and/or affidavits, detailing which violations it believes warrant costs and fees, and totaling the claimed requests.” Id. at 47. The Court further ordered Plaintiff to “respond to the motion, including clear identification of disputed costs and fees.” Id.

         In its Motion for Costs and Fees, Defendant asserts this lawsuit should not have proceeded beyond Plaintiff's deposition, so Defendant asks for an award of all expenses incurred from that date forward, in the amount of $227, 669.00. (Doc. 134) at 1. In the alternative, Defendant requests an award of fees and costs directly related to Plaintiff's violations of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and abuse of the judicial process, in the amount of $151, 564.75. Id.

         In response, Plaintiff first notes that the Court has not concluded that he was not injured on the job or that Defendant was not negligent, and Plaintiff states that he has presented testimony and documents in support of his injury claim. (Doc. 1) at 1-2. Plaintiff further notes that he has not returned to his prior job at BNSF and has no other regular income. Id. at 2. Therefore, Plaintiff argues dismissal of his case as a sanction for his discovery abuses is sufficiently severe and that an award of attorney's fees and costs is not warranted. (Doc. 135) at 4-5. Plaintiff alternatively contends that Defendant should not recover “fees and costs associated with the ordinary prosecution or defense of a claim versus those associated with the alleged misconduct.” Id. at 5. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that fees relating to “the filing of motions for summary judgment, ” the “Bain report, ” and paralegal work, should not be included in the award. Id. at 6.

         II. Discussion

         District courts have “broad discretion to calculate fee awards” granted as sanctions for litigation misconduct. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 137 S.Ct. 1178, 1184 (2017). However, “such an order is limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct.” Id. A party seeking attorneys' fees bears the burden of proving “all hours for which compensation is requested and how those hours were allotted to specific tasks.” Case v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 233, Johnson Cty., Kan., 157 F.3d 1243, 1250 (10th Cir. 1998). Moreover, the party requesting fees must make “a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983).

         To determine the reasonableness of a fee request, the Court calculates the so-called “lodestar amount, ” which presumptively reflects a “reasonable” fee. Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 563-65 (1986); Cooper v. Utah, 894 F.2d 1169, 1171 (10th Cir.1990). The lodestar calculation is the product of the number of attorney hours “reasonably expended” and a “reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433; Phelps v. Hamilton, 120 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir.1997).

         A. Awarding Fees and Costs is Warranted

         Plaintiff first argues that dismissal of his case is a sufficient sanction for his discovery abuses, and notes that none of the cases cited by Defendant stand for the proposition that both dismissal of claims and an award of fees and costs are justified for discovery violations. (Doc. 135) at 4-5. Plaintiff cites to no authority holding that courts may not dismiss a party's claims and award fees and costs. Indeed, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow courts to dismiss an action in whole or in part and order attorney's fees as a sanction for failure to comply with a discovery order. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2)(C) (explaining award of attorney's fees is “[i]nstead of or in addition to” other sanctions, including dismissal of action). Moreover, the Tenth Circuit has upheld a district court's decision to dismiss a case with prejudice and award attorney's fees based on discovery violations. See Norouzian v. Univ. of Kan. Hosp. Auth., 438 Fed.Appx. 677, 680 (10th Cir. 2011) (holding district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing case with prejudice and awarding attorney's fees incurred in bringing motions to compel).

         Plaintiff also argues that awarding attorney's fees would “chill future employee injury claims, ” and he urges the Court to “consider the effect of such a sanction on BNSF employees who are injured in the future.” (Doc. 135) at 5. This assertion fails to recognize that the Court's decision to dismiss this case and award fees and costs is a result of finding Plaintiff “willfully, wantonly, and in bad faith failed to comply with his oath, failed to submit true and accurate interrogatory answers, and allowed misleading and incomplete responses to requests for production.” (Doc. 133) at 47. As such, the Court's decision will have no effect on future claims that are litigated absent such egregious conduct. For these reasons, the Court finds that awarding Defendant fees and costs is warranted.

         B. Blanket Award or Award Fees Incurred as a Result of Misconduct

         Defendant asks the Court to order Plaintiff to pay all fees and costs it incurred on and after the date of Plaintiff's deposition. (Doc. 134) at 2-10. Defendant relies on Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., wherein the United States Supreme Court affirmed sanctions in the entire amount of attorney's fees incurred by the aggrieved party in the litigation. 501 U.S. 32, 58 (1991) (affirming award of nearly one million dollars in attorney's fees). Defendant also relies on Farmer v. Banco Popular of N. Am., in which the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to sanction a litigant by awarding all fees incurred after the date the bad faith behavior began instead of tailoring the sanction to each particular wrong. 791 F.3d 1246, 1258-59 (10th Cir. 2015). Defendant argues the appropriate “trigger date” is the date of Plaintiff's deposition- July 10, 2018-because, even though Plaintiff had earlier been misleading and untruthful in his interrogatory answers, “a bulk of his bad faith behavior occurred at his deposition with extensive fallout afterward through to the briefing on the subject Motion [for Costs and Fees].” (Doc. 134) at 6. Defendant asserts that Plaintiff “would not have had a good faith basis to proceed with the litigation if he had told the truth at ...

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