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Brassfield v. Evergreen Hauling, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

April 22, 2019




         The parties have filed a joint motion to approve a settlement in the above-entitled action, and, as part of that motion, they have requested that this court determine the appropriate award of attorneys' fees for counsel for plaintiff. This court notes at the outset that few calls are more worrisome to judges than having to assess attorneys' fees, given that doing so requires them to evaluate, and at times second-guess, decisions made by counsel with regard to their handling of a case. This court has the highest personal and professional regard for counsel for both plaintiff and defendant, and it would ideally prefer not to have to address these issues. Nevertheless, the parties have agreed that it is necessary for this court to resolve these matters, and, that being the case, it has no option but to do so.

         The issue of attorneys' fees has been the primary hindrance to settling this case, since defendant Evergreen Hauling, LLC (“Evergreen”) expressed a willingness in April 2018 to pay plaintiff Jimmy Brassfield the full amount in backpay which he claimed in this FLSA overtime action. In an April 6, 2018 letter to plaintiff's counsel, defense counsel wrote that:

If we assume that your calculation is correct and he is owed $770 in back wages for every eight- week period of his 18 months of employment, the most in back wages he could recover for his 18 months of employment is $6930. To resolve this case quickly and avoid the inefficiency of exchanging multiple offers, Evergreen will pay him this amount in exchange for his dismissal with prejudice of this case and his execution of a release of all claims against the company.

[Defendant's exhibit 4]. This $6930 in backpay which defendant offered in April 2018 was the exact amount which it ultimately paid plaintiff in the settlement in this case, and defendant argues, persuasively in this court's view, that the amount of fees sought by plaintiff's counsel is excessive. This is particularly true considering that many of these fees relate to work which, plaintiff's counsel concedes, was performed after the April 6 offer.

         In his April 6 letter, counsel for defendant stated his opinion that the $15, 000 in attorneys' fees which counsel for plaintiff was seeking at the time was excessive and that Evergreen was not prepared to pay him that amount. [Id.]. Largely because of the dispute over attorneys' fees, this request has only grown in the intervening months, and counsel for plaintiff now seeks for this court to award him $25, 200 in fees.

         It should be noted, however, that counsel's time after the April 6 offer was not exclusively spent on pursuing his own recovery of fees. A complication in the settlement arose when plaintiff indicated to defendant that he had never wanted to file a lawsuit in the first place. In a May 14, 2018 e-mail to counsel for plaintiff, defense counsel wrote that:

Howard - We need to talk. I tried to call you back Friday. When our guy handed the letter to Brassfield, Brassfield told him he did not want to bring this lawsuit in the first place and said he had made it clear to you that he had no interests in pursuing it. Needless to say, Evergreen is upset because they believe this was solely attorney driven. I told them I would talk to you. Based on what Brassfield said, I don't believe they will pay anything at this point, and I certainly don't think we have a deal.

[Defendant's exhibit 6]. It seems clear to this court that this complication did require some time and attention on the part of plaintiff's counsel, but it appears from his timesheets that most of his time was devoted to other matters.

         In taking exception to the amount of attorneys' fees requested by plaintiff, defendant also emphasizes that his counsel has already been awarded $6, 000.75 in attorneys fees and $500 in costs in a companion case filed before Judge Davidson. Jesse Hendrix v. Evergreen Hauling, LLC, et al., No. 1:18cv114-GHD-DAS. In Hendrix, which arises from a complaint almost identical to the one in this case, counsel for plaintiff had requested that he be awarded $8, 700 in fees and $575 in costs, based on twenty-nine hours of work billed at a rate of $300 per hour. [Docket entry 19 at 1]. In substantially reducing this amount, Judge Davidson wrote that:

Here, Hendrix's counsel provides no proof that he wrote off unproductive, excessive, or redundant hours. In fact, the bill submitted shows he did not. For example, the June 5, 2018 entry bills two hours for drafting the complaint, summons, proof of summons, and certificate of service. While two hours on its face may be reasonable for such tasks, as Evergreen points out, the complaint in this case is almost virtually identical to the complaint filed by Hendrix's counsel in another matter against Evergreen. See Compl. [1], Brassfield v. Evergreen Hauling, LLC, Civil No. 1:17-cv-00175-MPM-DAS.
This is turn highlights another issue with the billing requests. Hendrix's counsel was representing another FLSA plaintiff in a case against Evergreen. The emails and correspondence between Hendrix's and Evergreen's counsel provided to the Court indicate that Hendrix's counsel worked on these matters simultaneously. If counsel spent time working on both matters at once, he cannot bill that full amount of time to both clients; to do so would constitute double-billing. But the billing request is silent as to whether and how counsel allocated the hours between the two clients.

Hendrix v. Evergreen Hauling, 2019 WL 138160, at *2-3 (N.D. Miss. Jan. 8, 2019)

         Judge Davidson thus noted the existence of the instant action before this court, and he concluded that it would be inappropriate to allow counsel to be paid twice for the same work. This court finds Judge Davidson's analysis to be persuasive, and it agrees that some downward reduction in the amount of attorneys' fees is appropriate based upon the fact that a number of matters, including the drafting of virtually identical complaints, were made far easier by the Hendrix litigation, for which plaintiff has already been compensated. That aside, this court emphasizes that plaintiff is seeking a far larger sum of attorneys' fees in this case than in Hendrix, even though the number (and nature) of the docket filings in the two cases are very similar. Once again, counsel for plaintiff is seeking $25, 200 in attorneys' fees in this case, and this court finds this to be a ...

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