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Greenbrier Hotel Corp. v. Unite Here Health

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

May 12, 2017

GREENBRIER HOTEL CORPORATION, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITE HERE HEALTH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Court has reviewed the Plaintiffs' Statement of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses Pursuant to ERISA § 502(g) (Document 242), the Defendants' Response to Plaintiffs' Motion for Fees and Costs (Document 245), the Plaintiffs' Reply in Support of Statement of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses Pursuant to ERISA § 502(g) (Document 247), as well as all attached exhibits.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case involved a dispute between the Greenbrier hotel and a group of its employees who participate in its health benefits plan, and UNITE HERE Health Fund, H.E.R.E.I.U. Welfare Fund-Plan Unite 155, and the Plan Trustees (collectively, the Fund). The Greenbrier and its employees participated in an ERISA health benefits plan provided by UNITE HERE Health from 2004 until January 2013. Although the Fund is a multi-employer plan, the Greenbrier was in its own plan unit, with distinct contributions, benefits, and rate calculations. When the Greenbrier changed unions and switched to a self-funded health benefits plan in 2013, it sought the surplus assets attributable to its employee contributions. The Fund declined to make any transfer of assets, and the Greenbrier brought this suit. Following a bench trial in June and July 2016, the Court found in favor of the Plaintiffs. The Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order (Document 239) on August 26, 2016, finding that the Plaintiffs were entitled to $5, 503, 181.00. The Court also granted the Plaintiffs' request for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, and ordered the parties to complete briefing with respect to the appropriate calculation of costs and fees.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When considering motions for attorneys' fees available by statute, the Supreme Court has instructed that “[t]he 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.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). A district court's assessment of the requested award should include consideration of hours which were spent excessively, redundantly, or unnecessarily. Id. at 434. This starting calculation is referred to as the lodestar amount. Grissom v. The Mills Corp., 549 F.3d 313 (4th Cir. 2008). To determine the reasonable hourly rate, “the fee applicant must produce satisfactory specific evidence of the prevailing market rates in the relevant community for the type of work for which he seeks an award.” Plyler v. Evatt, 902 F.2d 273, 277 (4th Cir. 1990).

         The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has provided further guidance on the calculation of reasonable attorneys' fees and has established twelve factors that a district court should consider when calculating reasonable attorneys' fees. These factors are known as the Johnson factors and are as follows:

(1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney's opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attorney's expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation and ability of the attorney; (10) the undesirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys' fees awards in similar cases.

Grissom, 549 F.3d at 321. Upon completion of this lodestar calculation, a “court then should subtract fees for hours spent on unsuccessful claims unrelated to successful ones.” Grissom, 549 F.3d at 321 (quoting Johnson v. City of Aiken, 278 F.3d 333, 337 (4th Cir.2002)). “Once the court has subtracted the fees incurred for unsuccessful, unrelated claims, it then awards some percentage of the remaining amount, depending on the degree of success enjoyed by the plaintiff.” Johnson, 278 F.3d at 337.

         DISCUSSION

         The Plaintiffs initiated this suit in May 2013. They were represented by the law firm of Spilman, Thomas & Battle (Spilman) until the fall of 2014, when they switched counsel and The Masters Law Firm took the case on a contingency basis. In total, they seek $2, 112, 480.02 in fees and costs. Of that, $780, 749.41 is attributable to attorneys' fees for Spilman, $5, 321.05 is attributable to costs for Spilman, $489, 047.00 is attributable to fees for Marvin W. Masters of The Masters Law Firm, $576, 742.50 is attributable to fees for Kimberly K. Parmer of The Masters Law Firm, and $260, 628.89 is attributable to costs for The Masters Law Firm.

         The Defendants challenge the requested fees on several grounds and also urge the Court to conclude that no award of fees should be made.[1] They argue that the Plaintiffs have not provided sufficient evidence to support the fees and that the requested hourly rates for attorneys Marvin Masters and Kimberly Parmer are unreasonably high. The Defendants also challenge the hours billed as excessive and inadequately supported by vague billing records. They assert that some records reflect block billing, very long work days, including billing for twenty or more hours per day on certain occasions, and billing for non-legal tasks. In addition, the Defendants request a reduction for work related to unsuccessful claims, as well as duplicative work related to overstaffing and to the transfer of the case from Spilman to The Masters Law Firm. In total, the Defendants argue that, if fees are awarded at all, they be reduced to $952, 665.03.

         A. Hourly Rate

         Kevin Carr, Co-Chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Spilman, submitted an affidavit detailing the time he and other attorneys and staff members spent on this matter. Hourly rates for members who worked on this case ranged from $275 to $335; associates billed $150 to $250 per hour; senior attorneys and counsel ranged from $175 to $330 per hour. The firm billed $110 per hour for paralegals and law clerks. Mr. Carr attached supporting affidavits from other experienced attorneys in the area stating that the hourly rates were competitive, and perhaps on the low end, for the market. The Defendants do not contest the hourly rates requested by the Spilman attorneys, and, as a firm that regularly charges and receives the requested hourly rate from paying clients in the area, the Court finds that the rates requested by Spilman are reasonable. The Defendants also ...


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