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Schofield v. Suraj Properties, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

August 21, 2019

ERIC W. SCHOFIELD as Father and Natural Guardian of E.D.S., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
SURAJ PROPERTIES, INC., et al, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS TO PLAINTIFF

          WILLIAM F. JUNG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court upon the motion by Plaintiff, the minor E.D.S. (Eric D. Schofield referred to here and at trial as "Eric, Jr.") for attorneys' fees. The Court received written submissions in support of Eric, Jr.'s motion (Dkt. 79) as well as a Response (Dkt. 88) and Reply (Dkt. 90). The Court also had the benefit of a hearing on the matter on August 14, 2019.

         The Court grants judgment for attorneys' fees to movant Eric Jr. in the amount of $23, 000.

         The Court's General Impression of the Trial and this Motion.

         This was a four-day jury trial involving wages and overtime sought by the movant Eric Jr., a high school student, his father Eric Sr.[1], and his father's girlfriend[2]. The three separate lawsuits by these three Plaintiffs were consolidated for trial. The Defendants were the low-end motels and the motel owners where the plaintiffs lived together and claimed they worked. Part of the wage remuneration for Eric Jr.'s father was rent at the motel. The three plaintiffs claimed they did janitorial, housekeeping, yard-work, etc. at the motels, and sought overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 9 U.S.C. § 203, and unpaid hourly wages under the Florida Minimum Wage Act. Fla. Stat. § 448.110. Both father Eric Sr. and his girlfriend lost their jury trials against the Defendant motels.

         Eric Jr. impressed the undersigned as a well-mannered young man, and he made a good witness. The jury found that he worked ten hours per week at the motels during the (partial) calendar year 2017, which resulted in $3, 483.00 in unpaid Florida minimum wages on Eric Jr.'s claim under the Florida Minimum Wage Act. Fla. Stat. § 448.110(6)(a). The Court has entered a judgment for Eric, Jr. in the amount of these wages, doubled under Fla. Stat. § 448.110(4)(c)(1) for statutory "liquidated damages" to a total judgment in Eric Jr.'s favor of $6966.00. Dkt. 76. Because Eric, Jr. received this judgment after overcoming defendants' legal and factual defenses, the Court finds him to be the "prevailing party" in his trial.[3]This amount of the judgment was a small fraction of what Eric Jr. asked the jury for. Initially Eric Jr. sought minimum wages plus overtime for five years, which was partly reduced by pretrial Order. At trial, the jury found one year's liability [actually a partial year-2017], and a greatly reduced amount of hours per week with no overtime. Eric Jr. is entitled to attorneys' fees under the Florida Minimum Wage Act. Id. at § 448.110(6)(c)(1). He seeks $98, 532.50 in attorneys' fees.[4]

         Calculating the Lodestar:

         The "lodestar" is simply the rate times the amount of time worked. The reasonable rate and number of hours are contemplated using the familiar Johnson v. Georgia Highway factors.[5] The Court agrees that the rates sought, $275 and $200 per hour for the one lead trial counsel, and $175 per hour for the second trial lawyer, are not unreasonable.

         As to the work done, and hours spent, the jury trial lasted just under four full days. Plaintiffs stated at the fees hearing that they spent approximately $230, 000 in fees all told, for the three plaintiffs in the three consolidated trials. In contrast, the sole defense counsel incurred just half that time, under $116, 000 in attorney time, inclusive of all three plaintiffs and claims. Dkt. 82-1. Eric Jr. here seeks for his own case fees of $98, 532.50, about the same fees that the defense spent to defend all three cases.

         It seems only fair to apportion the plaintiffs' fees among the three separate plaintiffs for whom the claimant lawyers prosecuted the three consolidated trials. Each of the three consolidated suits was tried at the same time, and the Court agrees that just trying Eric Jr.'s case alone would have taken several days. But he was only one-third of the claimants, and his father's suit was the driving force behind the prosecution. Eric Jr. moved into the hotels as a very young boy, and did not start helping out doing yard work, etc. for several years. In contrast, father Eric Sr. moved to the Bartow motels from south Florida expressly for this job, and Eric Sr.'s duty was the main focus of the case. The Court believes that the total fees, some $230, 000 according to plaintiff's counsel at the hearing, should be split into thirds, with Eric Jr.'s one-third share, and the presumptive lodestar for Eric Jr., being $76, 666.67.

         That the plaintiffs used two counsel for this short trial is not itself problematic, so long as the time claimed can be understood and determined to be non-duplicative. "A reduction is warranted only if the attorneys are unreasonably doing the same work." Johnson v. Univ. of Ala. Birmingham, 706 F.2d 1205, 1208 (11th Cir. 1993). The duty to explain and present non-duplicative, clearly described tasks is the burden of the claimant. But this task is impeded here due to block billing. For example, when prime trial counsel seeks 7.8 hours of payment for "Trial preparation" on April 27, 2019, or 8.2 hours of payment for "Trial preparation" the next day, it is entirely unclear what was done or why. Dkt. 79-1 at 4. A full descriptor might have taken the biller 30 more seconds to write out contemporaneously, but now we know nothing and have no idea what was done-other than defendants should pay for it.

         Secondary trial counsel block billed in the identical generic, indecipherable manner on dates such as March 20, 21, 27, 28, 29, April 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29. Dkt. 79-2. Simply generically stating "trial preparation" and seeking thousands of dollars daily in reimbursement with a block claim of 8.0 hours, or 14.0 hours does not allow anyone to see what has been done, and does not permit a reviewer to determine if Lawyer One is duplicating Lawyer Two. Even the paralegal seeks reimbursement for $960 daily on April 29, 30 and May 1 and May 2, simply with a generic entry: "trial." Did the paralegal sit and watch the trial, go to the break room and just drink coffee, or manage exhibits and prepare witnesses for the lawyers? No one knows.

         "[B]lock billing makes [review of bills] unnecessarily difficult." Kearney v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 713 F.Supp.2d 1369, 1377 (M.D. Fla. 2010). "It also 'warrants reduction of the number of hours claimed in the attorneys' fee motion.'" Id. In Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983) the Supreme Court counseled that attorneys should "maintain billing time records in a manner that will enable a reviewing court to identify distinct claims."

         A single time entry, and a generic descriptor obscures the amount of time spent on a particular task. This is especially problematic here, where the Court must determine if two trial lawyers in a short trial duplicated each other's work unnecessarily. Accordingly, the Court reduces the presumptive lodestar of $76, 666.67 by 25% to account for extensive block billing: to $57, 500. Galdames v. N.D. Inv. Corp.,432 Fed.Appx. 801, 807 (11th Cir. 2011) (block billing 20% reduction); Kearny, supra, (denying and reducing fees due to block billing); see also Gundlach v. NAACP, Inc., 2005 WL 2012738 at *4 (M.D. Fla. 2OO5)("Given the block billing "Preparation for trial" catch-all ...


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