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Lighthouse Rescue Mission, Inc. v. City of Hattiesburg

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Hattiesburg Division

April 23, 2014

LIGHTHOUSE RESCUE MISSION, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

KEITH STARRETT, District Judge.

This case involves claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), [1] the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), [2] and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On November 7, 2013 - after the parties had completed discovery, fully briefed their dispositive motions, and were awaiting the Court's rulings before a pretrial conference and trial - the parties entered into a settlement agreement [76], pursuant to which they agreed that "the Court will award Plaintiff attorney fees and costs" under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 after a round of briefing. After considering the parties submissions, the Court grants in part Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees [77] and awards Plaintiff $148, 682.41 in attorney's fees and $20, 106.59 in costs and expenses.

The Court may, in its discretion, allow the prevailing party in an RLUIPA case "a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs...." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The Court uses the "lodestar" method to calculate an award of fees under Section 1988. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983). The Court must first "determine the compensable hours from the attorneys' time records, including only the hours reasonably spent." Shipes v. Trinity Indus., 987 F.2d 311, 319 (5th Cir. 1993). Then, the Court "must select an appropriate hourly billing rate based on prevailing community standards for attorneys of similar experience in similar cases." Id. The Court then multiplies the number of compensable hours by the hourly rate to produce the "lodestar" amount. Id.

After the determining the lodestar, the Court may adjust it to account for a variety of factors. Id. at 320. The pertinent factors are:

(1) the time and labor involved; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal services properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to this case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations; (8) the amount involved and results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of counsel; (10) the undesirability of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.

Id. at 320 n. 6 (citing Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express, 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974)). When applying the Johnson factors, the Court should "be careful, however, not to double count a ... factor already considered in calculating the lodestar...." Id. at 320. The Court must also "explain with reasonable degree of specificity the findings and reasons upon which the award is based, including an indication of how each of the Johnson factors was applied." Id. Upward adjustments to the lodestar based on these factors "are proper only in certain rare and exceptional cases supported by both specific evidence on the record and detailed findings...." Id.

Plaintiff requests $258, 234.50 in fees and expenses - $230, 144.70[3] in fees to Dalton & Tomich, PLC; $1, 842.50 in fees to Sheldon & Parker, PLLC; $6, 140.71 in fees and expenses to The Holmes Law Firm; and $20, 106.59 of costs and expenses to Dalton & Tomich, PLC. Defendant presented several objections, which the Court will address before it conducts the lodestar calculation and Johnson analysis.

A. Prevailing Party/Degree of Success

Under Section 1988, the Court may award fees to the "prevailing party." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Defendant admits that Plaintiff is the prevailing party. Indeed, the parties agreed [76] that "the Court will award Plaintiff attorney fees and cost, " and that "Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this case on its federal constitutional claims and claims arising under [RLUIPA], entitling it to attorney fees and cost pursuant to § 1988...." Therefore, the Court concludes that Plaintiff is the prevailing party and entitled to an award of reasonable attorney's fees.

Despite stipulating [76] that Plaintiff is the prevailing party on all of its claims, Defendant now suggests that the requested fee award is unreasonable because it is not proportional to Plaintiff's degree of success in this matter. Plaintiff originally sought a zoning change from R-1A, Single-Family Residential, to B-2, Neighborhood Business. The parties eventually agreed that the property would remain zoned R-1A, but that Plaintiff would be granted a use permit which would allow it to use the property for its various ministry operations, including overnight sheltering in residential units. At several points in its brief, Defendant suggests that Plaintiff did not substantially prevail in this matter because it did not obtain the specific relief it sought.

This argument has no merit. First, Defendant waived it by voluntarily entering into a settlement agreement that explicitly provides that Plaintiff prevailed on all of its claims. Therefore, while Defendant may raise objections to specific billing entries on grounds of redundancy, excessiveness, or unreasonableness, see Abner v. Kan. City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 383 (5th Cir. 2008), it may not now argue that Plaintiff was generally unsuccessful in this litigation.

More importantly, Defendant defines "success" far too narrowly. A fee award may be "unreasonable if a court has failed to adequately consider the relationship between the amount of the fee awarded and the results obtained." Id. at 379 (punctuation omitted). In fact, the relationship between the amount of fees and the results obtained in the case is one of the Johnson factors. See Shipes, 987 F.2d at 320 n. 6. In a civil rights case like this one, "the district court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. The Court should focus on the "ultimate result of the case." Abner, 541 F.3d at 383; see also Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435.

Here, Plaintiff is getting what it ultimately wanted: a permit to operate a residential ministry on the subject property. According to the complaint, Plaintiff only sought a zoning change because City officials represented that it was necessary for issuance of the use permit. Therefore, Plaintiff obtained the substantial ...


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