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Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 25, 2014

COMMUNITY HOUSE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF BOISE, Idaho; JIM BIRDSALL and BRUCE CHATTERTON, in their official capacities, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

CANDY W. DALE, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs brought this action on July 15, 2005, against the City of Boise alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act, Idaho and United States Constitutions, and various laws of the State of Idaho. This matter has been smoldering along since then, and included two appeals to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Its history includes also several nondispositive and dispositive rulings by the Court, including a decision and order granting, in part, Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

In the Court's July 29, 2009 Order deciding Defendants' summary judgment motion, the Court held that Plaintiffs were precluded from seeking monetary damages on their state law claims for relief. These state law claims encompassed Counts 11-16 of the Second Amended Complaint, and alleged breach of contract and breach of partnership, as well as violation of the Idaho nonprofit corporations act, landlord tenant act, and the statute governing the sale of city owned property. While other aspects of the Court's ruling were presented to the Ninth Circuit on appeal, its ruling on Plaintiffs' inability to claim monetary damages for their state law claims was not.

The remaining interrelated claims based upon the Fair Housing Act and Idaho Constitution finally reached a jury in September of 2012. Of the seven counts remaining for trial, the jury found that Plaintiffs Community House, Inc. ("CHI"), Marlene Smith, and Jay Banta proved their claim that Defendants discriminated against them on the basis of gender or familial status in violation of the Fair Housing Act, and that CHI proved its claim that Defendants interfered with CHI in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The jury concluded also that Plaintiffs proved Defendants violated the Free Exercise clause of the Idaho Constitution.

The jury returned a special verdict on September 12, 2012, awarding Plaintiff CHI $1, 000, 000 in damages for the Defendants' conduct in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The individual Plaintiffs, Jay Banta and Marlene Smith, were awarded no money damages for their claims. The jury did not determine damages for the constitutional claim, because the Court instructed the jury that its determination was limited to liability only.

After the jury trial, the Court later conducted a bench trial regarding the Plaintiffs' equitable claims under state law, as well as the equitable relief, if any, to be awarded for Plaintiffs' claims under the Idaho Constitution and Fair Housing Act. The Court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of law on March 18, 2014, finding Plaintiffs were not entitled to relief on any of their equitable claims. The Court issued an amended judgment.

Consequently, Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney Fees, filed on October 24, 2012, and the related motion to strike, filed on January 17, 2013, are now ripe for judicial review. (Dkt. 390, 416.)[1] Plaintiffs submitted also a Bill of Cost on October 24, 2012. (Dkt. 389.) Plaintiffs seek an award of attorney's fees under the FHA in the amount of $1, 808, 017.50, and $21, 474.60 in costs, for a total award of $1, 829, 492.11. (Dkt. 390.) There is no need for Plaintiffs to submit further applications for attorney fees, as explained below.

DISPOSITION

1. Arguments of the Parties

Plaintiffs claim they are the victors in this matter, having initiated their fight to prevent closure of the Community House shelter, and then, receiving a jury verdict of $1, 000, 000 against the City. As prevailing parties under the FHA, Plaintiffs claim they are entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee and costs. Despite having their claims whittled away, Plaintiffs contend their lawsuit cannot be viewed as a series of discrete claims, and the Court should focus instead on the significance of the overall relief. Plaintiffs argue they achieved "excellent results." The results included not only money damages, but also the Court's directed verdict that City Ordinance 6404 stating a preference for men-only at the Community House shelter was discriminatory under the FHA.

The fees and costs claimed include time spent toward the prosecution of this matter and the first appeal. Counsel indicates he exercised billing judgment, excluding time he spent in conferences with co-counsel and 250 hours related to the second appeal to the Ninth Circuit, in which Plaintiffs did not prevail. There were several timekeepers on the case as well, and a chart related to their hourly rates, experience, and time billed, is below:

Howard Belodoff, 34 years $400 × 3, 400 hours $1, 360, 000.00 Lead Counsel experience Richard Eppink 5 years experience $275 × 497.4 $135, 758.00 Zoe Ann Olson 14 years $275 × 844 $232, 100.00 experience James Cook 15 years $275 × 227.9 $62, 672.50 experience Michael Witry No experience $225 × 13.5 $3, 037.50 noted. Vaughn Fisher 17 years $325 × 41.3 $13, 422.50 experience

The City counters with its argument that "Plaintiffs were not the overall prevailing party" because, along the way to the jury, Plaintiffs' claims were whittled down, they lost certain arguments, including the ability to claim money damages on their state law claims, and they lost their broad request for injunctive relief right out of the starting gate. The City proceeds to explain which claims or motions Plaintiffs lost, extracts the hours spent on those claims or issues, and then deducts hours for those claims from the overall total. Further, the City contends Plaintiffs claim fees for activities unrelated to the litigation, such as time entries related to a conditional use permit for the Interfaith Sanctuary shelter, obtaining IMPACT grant funds, revising CHODO bylaws, and other ancillary matters. The City argues also that the hourly rates are excessive, because they do not reflect what this Court has previously awarded in recent civil rights cases, citing Mays v. Stobie, No. 3:08-cv-552-EJL-CWD.

According to the City, the following non-compensable time should be excluded before calculating any award:

Category Belodoff Olson Eppink Fisher Witry Cook Motion to 124.3 1.3 dismiss Motion to 92.2 Compel First Appeal 535.6 524.8 5.2 154.1 Constitutional 232.2 6.8 11.4 37.3 claims Sale to BRM 204.3 9.2.4 Individual 272.3 127.9 21.4 Plaintiffs' Claims Summary 238.5 23.6 5.5 5.5 Judgment rulings Second appeal 11.7 Uncompensable 132.1 2.3.2.5 time Excessive time 178.1 5.7 13.5 30.6 TOTALS 2021 678.1 57 10.7 13.5 222.5

After its exercise in apportioning Plaintiffs' claims between successful and unsuccessful claims or motions and reducing the hourly rates, the City contends Plaintiffs were successful on one out of nineteen claims, and the Court should apportion the fees accordingly. Alternatively, the City urges the Court to adopt the rationale from Mays v. Stobie, which would require the Court to subtract non-compensable fees, and then permit Plaintiffs to recover 25% of the time devoted to hours which either required apportionment or involved hours on issues which Plaintiff's were clearly the prevailing party.

2. Attorney Fee Claims Under the Fair Housing Act

Under the Fair Housing Act, the Court, "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee and costs." 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2). In civil rights cases, a prevailing party is "one who has been awarded some relief by the court, " and has received some relief on the merits of his claim. Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 532 U.S. 598, 603-04 (2001) (considering attorney fees under the FHA). Even an award of nominal damages suffices, so long as there is a court-ordered "change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant." Id. at 604.

The City does not contend that Plaintiffs did not prevail. Rather, the City contends the Plaintiffs did not "prevail overall, " and therefore any fee awarded should be reduced, because the claimed fees are unreasonable. The City's "overall prevailing party" argument is not the standard under the FHA. Plaintiffs clearly prevailed, because they were awarded relief by the Court. CHI was awarded monetary damages, and although the individual Plaintiffs were not awarded damages, the jury found liability on the part of the City for their claims of discrimination. The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties under the FHA, and are entitled to an award of a reasonable attorney's fee and costs.

3. Reasonableness of the Claimed Fees

Upon determining Plaintiffs are entitled to attorney fees, the Court must calculate a reasonable fee award. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), cited in Goff v. Washington County, et al., Case No. CV 03-268-MHW, 2006 WL 1128222 at *2 (April 10, 2006). Generally, the "lodestar figure" is used, which multiplies the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. Id. The Court can then adjust the lodestar figure based upon the factors set forth in Kerr v. Screen Extras Guild, Inc., 526 F.2d 67 (9th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 951 (1976), [2] that have not been subsumed in the lodestar calculation.[3] Mendez v. County of San Bernardino, 540 F.3d 1109, 1126 (9th Cir.2008). After calculating the lodestar, the fee may be adjusted by any non subsumed factors identified in Kerr. Goff, 2006 WL 1128222 at *2.

In civil rights litigation, "the degree of the plaintiff's overall success goes to the reasonableness" of a fee award under Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114 (1992) (citing Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 793 (1989)). The most critical factor in determining the reasonableness of a fee award is "the degree of success obtained." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436). If a plaintiff has achieved only partial or limited success, "the product of hours reasonably expended on the litigation as a whole times a reasonable hourly rate may be an excessive amount." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 115 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436). In the absence of "excellent" results, a fully compensatory fee may be excessive and the court should reduce the lodestar figure to account for the limited success. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. Further, the Court may award low fees or no fees "without reciting the 12 factors bearing on reasonableness, ... or multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended... by a reasonable hourly rate.'" Id. at 115 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 430 n.3, 433).

The City essentially argues the time expended and the hourly rates claimed by Plaintiffs' attorneys are not reasonable and the fee award should be reduced significantly, either by carving out time for claims or motions lost, or by a percentage figure based upon Plaintiffs' limited success. As more fully ...


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