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Martin v. Knight

August 7, 2006

ROSIE MARTIN PLAINTIFF
v.
CHARLES DANNY KNIGHT, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS OF THE WATSON CHAPEL, ARKANSAS SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 24, A PUBLIC BODY CORPORATE; AND WATSON CHAPEL SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 24 BOARD OF EDUCATION, A PUBLIC BODY CORPORATE DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Leon Holmes United States District Judge

OPINION

Rosie Martin has petitioned the Court for an award of fees and costs as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 1988. She seeks $159,030.50 in fees for her lawyer and his paralegals, as well as $6,614.67 in costs, for a total of $165,645.17.

The Supreme Court explained the criteria that a court should consider in awarding fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed. 2d 40 (1983). "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id. at 433, 103 S.Ct. at 1939. See also Fish v. St. Cloud St. Univ., 295 F.3d 849, 851 (8th Cir. 2002).

Ms. Martin's lawyer, John W. Walker, has presented an itemization of the time that he has spent on this case, as well as the time spent by his paralegals. Mr. Walker has stated in an affidavit that his regular hourly rate presently is $375 per hour. He has requested compensation for 356.05 hours at that rate, for a total of $133,518.75 for his time. He was assisted in this case primarily by Joy Springer. The statement for Ms. Springer's time is $85 per hour for 291.6 hours, for a total of $24,786. Additional paralegal work was performed by Kiffinea Talley. Martin requests $85 per hour for 8.6 hours for Ms. Talley for a total, by Martin's calculation, of $725.75. In addition, Martin submits a statement of costs totaling $6,614.67. The defendants contend that the fees sought are excessive but do not contest the costs.

The defendants, while objecting to the total amount of the fee, do not claim that any of the time entries were inflated nor that any of the hours were unreasonably expended. The Court has carefully reviewed the itemization of time for Mr. Walker, Ms. Springer, and Ms. Talley. The time spent by each of them appears to be reasonable and appropriate. There are no entries in which the time appears to be inflated, nor does it appear that any of the hours charged were not reasonably expended.

Mr. Walker's hourly rate, by his own admission, is high. He states in his affidavit: My rates for legal services in the last 20 years have been among the highest in the State of Arkansas. I know those rates to now be in the $325 to $400 per hour range.

In 2005, I was awarded a legal fee by the Honorable Judge Jimm L. Hendren of $325 per hour for work which I performed in 2004 and 2005. In earlier years I regularly charged $325.00 per hour. My present hourly rate is $375.00 per hour. This rate is within the range of counsel of similar experience and qualifications with whom I work and with whom I am adversary.

Martin also submitted the affidavit of Morgan E. Welch, who has practiced law in Arkansas since 1975. Mr. Welch states in his affidavit, "I understand that Mr. Walker is seeking an hourly fee award for work in a civil rights case which arises in Jefferson County, Arkansas in the amount of $375.00. I believe this amount to be reasonable in the market in which Mr. Walker practices."

In response, the defendants argue, first, that the Court should exclude the time spent in the first two trials, both of which resulted in hung juries. Second, the defendants assert that Mr. Walker's requested rate of $375 per hour is not a reasonable rate in this case. The defendants state, "This Court can take judicial notice of reasonable hourly rates and fees awarded in this Court for similar work by attorneys in similar cases in the Eastern District of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division. Reasonable rates in similar cases in the community would be substantially less than the rate requested by Mr. Walker." The defendants also cite Firestine v. Parkview Health Sys., Inc., 374 F. Supp. 2d 658 (N.D. Ind. 2005), and McDonough v. City of Quincy, 353 F. Supp. 2d 179 (D. Mass. 2005), because in those two cases the hourly rates awarded were substantially less than $375 per hour. Finally, the defendants have submitted the itemized statements of their attorney, Michael J. Dennis, for this case. Mr. Dennis has charged his clients approximately one-third of the amount requested for Mr. Walker and his paralegals. Mr. Dennis's hourly rate when the case began in 2003 was $160; it is now $185. The discrepancy between the hourly rate charged by Mr. Dennis, on the one hand, and Mr. Walker, on the other hand, counts for the largest part of the difference in the fees of the two lawyers. The other major difference is that Mr. Dennis did not use a paralegal.

The Court does not agree that it would be appropriate to exclude the attorneys' fees for the time expended on the first two trials. The defendants cite no authority for the proposition that that time should be excluded. The ultimate result was that plaintiff prevailed. As it turned out, it was necessary to try the case three times before the plaintiff prevailed, so all of that time was reasonably expended.

It is true that Mr. Walker's hourly rate is at the high end of the market. His own affidavit says that it is. Nevertheless, the testimony in his affidavit that his hourly rate is within the range of counsel of similar experience and qualifications is undisputed and also is confirmed by the Court's knowledge of the market in Little Rock. Some lawyers in Little Rock who have more than 40 years of experience and who are thought to be among the best in their fields regularly charge between $300 per hour and $400 per hour. Although Mr. Walker's hourly rate is high, it is not out of line with hourly rates charged by lawyers in Little Rock with similar experience and qualifications. The cases that defendants cite did not involve lawyers of similar qualifications and experience.

Although Mr. Dennis did an excellent job of representing the defendants and did so for far less money than is sought by the plaintiff for attorneys' fees, neither the hourly rate charged by Mr. Dennis nor the total amount of his fees defines what is reasonable under Hensley v. Eckerhart. Mr. Dennis's hourly rate is much less than Mr. Walker's, but Mr. Dennis practices in Pine bluff where the hourly rates typically are lower than in Little Rock, and he has 19 years less experience than Mr. Walker, so one would expect his hourly rate to be less than Mr. Walker's. Mr. Dennis did not use a paralegal, but Mr. Walker did, and it was not unreasonable for him to do so. There is no doubt that Ms. Springer's assistance was quite valuable to Mr. Walker.

"Where a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, his attorney should recover a fully compensatory fee." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435, 103 S.Ct. at 1940. Here, Mr. Walker obtained an excellent result for Ms. Martin. He obtained for Ms. Martin the maximum amount of back wages she could have received, the maximum (in the Court's opinion) damages for mental anguish that would be justified, and the equitable relief that she sought. Therefore, the fee award should be "fully compensatory."

Although Mr. Walker stated in his affidavit that his current hourly rate is $375 per hour, he did not specifically say what his hourly rate was in 2003, 2004, or 2005. He did say in his affidavit that he was awarded $325 per hour in another case for time spent in 2004 and 2005. He also said, "In earlier years I regularly charged $325.00 per hour." Mr. Walker has not offered any reason as to why in this case he should be paid at a higher hourly rate for time spent in 2003, 2004, and 2005 than he was paid in the case mentioned in his affidavit. Accordingly, the Court will award attorneys' fees for Mr. Walker's time based ...


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