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McWilliams v. Advanced Recovery Systems, Inc.

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

June 16, 2017

WENDY MCWILLIAMS, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated PLAINTIFF



         Before the Court is the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs. The matter is fully briefed and ready for adjudication.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Wendy McWilliams commenced this suit in 2015. She alleged that Advanced Recovery Systems and the Young Wells Williams law firm violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) when they attempted to collect a medical debt from her. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 et seq.

         The parties' dispute ripened into substantial motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment. See McWilliams v. Advanced Recovery Sys., Inc., 108 F.Supp.3d 456 (S.D.Miss. 2015); McWilliams v. Advanced Recovery Sys., Inc., 174 F.Supp.3d 936 (S.D.Miss. 2016). Two classes were eventually certified. See McWilliams v. Advanced Recovery Sys., Inc., 310 F.R.D. 337 (S.D.Miss. 2015). And, in an unforeseeable twist, it became necessary for the parties to stop other plaintiff's attorneys from raiding the certified classes. See McWilliams v. Advanced Recovery Sys., Inc., 176 F.Supp.3d 635 (S.D.Miss. 2016).

         The plaintiff had one count dismissed in 2015, but largely prevailed in 2016 on the counts remaining at the summary judgment stage. The parties thereafter agreed to settle their differences. In 2017, the Court conducted a fairness hearing and concluded that the proposed class settlement was fair and reasonable. This motion is all that remains before the case is closed.

         There is no dispute that the plaintiff is the prevailing party under the FDCPA. Her attorneys are entitled to reimbursement of their reasonable fees and costs. (They were not, for example, paid from the class members' settlement funds.) The question is whether all of their time and costs are appropriately reimbursable.

         The plaintiff seeks $115, 000 in attorney's fees and $2, 053.45 in recoverable costs. She presents evidence that her attorneys-four worked on the case, to varying degrees-typically receive reasonable fee awards of $350 and $400 an hour in other districts throughout the country, including other districts within this circuit.[1] She also has thoroughly documented the hour-by-hour effort spent litigating her case: the time ranged from 7.6 hours for a senior associate to 260.7 hours for the lead attorney.[2] That time, at those rates, would lead to a $131, 940 award. The attorneys, however, say they utilized billing judgment to voluntarily reduce the fees they seek to $115, 000 and the reimbursable costs to $2, 053.45.

         The defendants object. They say this was a routine FDCPA case worthy of only $300 an hour for lead counsel, and take issue with much of the time expended on the case. Their most significant objection is to paying for time spent fending off the poaching attorneys, since those fees were supposed to be recouped from the poachers themselves, and not from the defendants. The defendants also object to what they claim is paralegal work, duplicative work, and work on the plaintiff's unsuccessful cause of action.

         II. Applicable Law

         “As always, the Court uses the lodestar method to calculate an award of fees.” Lighthouse Rescue Mission, Inc. v. City of Hattiesburg, Miss., No. 2:12-CV-184-KS-MTP, 2014 WL 4402229, at *3 (S.D.Miss. Sept. 5, 2014) (citation omitted). The lodestar is calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by the reasonable hourly billing rate. Id.; see Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). “[T]he lodestar method yields a fee that is presumptively sufficient.” Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 130 S.Ct. 1662, 1673 (2010) (citations omitted).

         The Court may then adjust the lodestar to account for factors that bear on the propriety of a fee award-the so-called Johnson factors. Shipes v. Trinity Indus., 987 F.2d 311, 320 & n.6 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express, 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974)). The “most critical” factor is “the degree of success obtained.” Abner v. Kan. City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 377 (5th Cir. 2008).

         “The party seeking reimbursement of attorneys' fees has the burden of establishing the number of attorney hours expended, and can meet that burden only by presenting evidence that is adequate for the court to determine what hours should be included in the reimbursement.” La. Power & Light Co. v. Kellstrom, 50 F.3d 319, 324 (5th Cir. 1995) (quotation marks, citation, brackets, and ellipses omitted). The amount sought and the hours expended must be reasonable. Id. at 325. “[T]he burden is on the applicant to produce satisfactory evidence . . . that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation.” McClain v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 649 F.3d 374, 381 (5th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “The court should exclude all time that is excessive, duplicative, or inadequately documented.” Jimenez v. Wood Cnty., Tex., 621 F.3d 372, 379-80 (5th Cir. 2010).

         An attorney's fee award ruling should “explain how each of the Johnson factors affects its award” but “need not be meticulously detailed to survive appellate review.” In re High Sulfur Content Gasoline Prod. Liab. Litig., 517 F.3d 220, 228 (5th Cir. 2008); see Blanchard v. Bergeron, 893 F.2d 87, 89 (5th Cir. 1990) (“we will not require the trial court's findings to be so excruciatingly explicit in this area of minutiae that decisions on fee awards consume more judicial paper than did the cases from which they arose”). As the Supreme Court has explained, “trial courts need not, and indeed should not, become green-eyeshade accountants. The essential goal in shifting fees (to either party) is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection.” Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2216 (2011).

         III. Discussion

         Despite the Supreme Court's admonition, the parties' detailed briefing makes a meticulous, green-eyeshade review ...

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