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Federal Bar Update: Opinion provides insight on attorney fees in FDCPA cases

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Federal Bar UpdateFederal courts routinely determine fee petitions for prevailing parties in various fee-shifting cases. A recent opinion from Magistrate Judge Denise LaRue illustrates guiding principles here. In M.T. v. Accounts Recovery Bureau, Inc., No. 1:11-CV-969 (S.D. Ind. Aug. 8, 2012), LaRue issued a report and recommendation on fees in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case. Plaintiff was a prevailing party based on accepting defendant’s offer of judgment, and sought fees and costs pursuant to the act totaling $3,230. Over objections challenging the claimed hourly rate of $250 and the reasonableness of some of the work, LaRue determined and recommended that the total award be $2,710. That much is unremarkable, but the 13-page opinion provides a good and current summary of this area of federal practice and some useful insights for plaintiff and defense alike.

First, the court explained the general standards, writing, “The Supreme Court has recognized that the lodestar method – the product of a reasonable hourly rate and the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation – yields a fee amount that is presumptively reasonable. The Court may exercise flexibility to ‘adjust that figure to reflect various factors including the complexity of the legal issues involved, the degree of success obtained, and the public interest advanced by the litigation.’ The party seeking the fee award bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of the hours worked and the hourly rates claimed.” LaRue also noted that the “Seventh Circuit recognizes that fee awards should include time that attorneys reasonably spend on fee disputes.”

Second, as to reasonableness of hourly rates, LaRue observed, “Generally, a reasonable hourly rate for an attorney is based on what the attorney charges and receives in the market from paying clients for the same type of work. Plaintiff bears the burden of producing satisfactory evidence that the hourly rate is reasonable and in line with those prevailing in the community. If Plaintiff satisfies this burden, the opposing party must offer evidence setting forth ‘a good reason why a lower rate is essential.’”

LaRue found the $250 hourly rate reasonable, noting counsel’s 15 years of experience, an affidavit detailing fees and costs, a fee agreement for counsel in FDCPA cases reciting the $250 hour rate, and a January 2012 decision from the court in which the same counsel received $250 hour for his rate.

Defendant objected that the rate should be $150, asserting counsel lacked experience with FDCPA cases. LaRue dismissed this argument, writing, “Defendant relies on Gastineau, 592 F.3d 747, where the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s reduction of an attorney hourly rate from $250.00 to $150.00. In that case, the Seventh Circuit approved this rate reduction because the attorney seeking fees in Gastineau was handling his very first FDCPA case, he was substituted in as counsel late in the proceedings, and provided poor lawyering. Id. at 749. The Seventh Circuit noted that ‘it was inappropriate that a substantial portion of the hours billed were to compensate [the attorney in Gastineau] for learning this area of the law.’ Id. None of those factors is present in this case.”

Third, as to the reasonableness of the hours spent on the matter, LaRue went through each aspect of defense objections and recommended:

• the time charged for preparation of the form complaint and for undefined “research” should be reduced;

• the time charged for secretarial or clerical tasks should not be charged as attorney or paralegal time; and

• the time spent in creating billing records after the fact to support a fee petition is not compensable.

Finally, and notably for those on the defense side who confront this issue with insurers or corporate clients, LaRue determined that while filing matters in court is administrative time that was not compensable, e-filing is another matter.

She explained, “However, the Court views the filing of electronic documents differently. Plaintiff points out that electronic filing requires court training and is not available to everyone. Indeed, the Court’s Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system (“CM/ECF”) requires attorneys to file documents electronically and to do so requires ECF registration by an attorney. Registered attorneys are then assigned a login and password that is used when filing documents. S.D. Ind. Electronic Case Filing Policies and Procedures Manual, pp. 1, 5-6. Based on ECF requirements, the filing of the October 13, 2011 Acceptance could only be accomplished by an attorney (or a staff member utilizing the attorney’s registration.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff that the time spent electronically filing court documents should not be characterized merely as clerical or administrative in nature. ‘In light of the problems that can result from a botched electronic filing, the court will not second-guess the firm’s decision that such filing must be overseen by a paralegal.’ Williams v. Z.D. Masonry, Corp. Cause No. 07 C 6207, 2009 WL 383614 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 17, 2009), slip op at 10.”•

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John Maley – jmaley@btlaw.com – is a partner with Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, practicing federal and state litigation, employment matters and appeals. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. OK, take notice. Those wondering just how corrupt the Indiana system is can see the picture in this post. Attorney Donald James did not criticize any judges, he merely, it would seem, caused some clients to file against him and then ignored his own defense. James thus disrespected the system via ignoring all and was also ordered to reimburse the commission $525.88 for the costs of prosecuting the first case against him. Yes, nearly $526 for all the costs, the state having proved it all. Ouch, right? Now consider whistleblower and constitutionalist and citizen journalist Paul Ogden who criticized a judge, defended himself in such a professional fashion as to have half the case against him thrown out by the ISC and was then handed a career ending $10,000 bill as "half the costs" of the state crucifying him. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/ogden-quitting-law-citing-high-disciplinary-fine/PARAMS/article/35323 THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE for any who have ears to hear ... resist Star Chamber and pay with your career ... welcome to the Indiana system of (cough) justice.

  2. GMA Ranger, I, too, was warned against posting on how the Ind govt was attempting to destroy me professionally, and visit great costs and even destitution upon my family through their processing. No doubt the discussion in Indy today is likely how to ban me from this site (I expect I soon will be), just as they have banned me from emailing them at the BLE and Office of Bar Admission and ADA coordinator -- or, if that fails, whether they can file a complaint against my Kansas or SCOTUS law license for telling just how they operate and offering all of my files over the past decade to any of good will. The elitist insiders running the Hoosier social control mechanisms realize that knowledge and a unified response will be the end of their unjust reign. They fear exposure and accountability. I was banned for life from the Indiana bar for questioning government processing, that is, for being a whistleblower. Hoosier whistleblowers suffer much. I have no doubt, Gma Ranger, of what you report. They fear us, but realize as long as they keep us in fear of them, they can control us. Kinda like the kids' show Ants. Tyrannical governments the world over are being shaken by empowered citizens. Hoosiers dealing with The Capitol are often dealing with tyranny. Time to rise up: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/17/governments-struggling-to-retain-trust-of-citizens-global-survey-finds Back to the Founders! MAGA!

  3. Science is showing us the root of addiction is the lack of connection (with people). Criminalizing people who are lonely is a gross misinterpretation of what data is revealing and the approach we must take to combat mental health. Harsher crimes from drug dealers? where there is a demand there is a market, so make it legal and encourage these citizens to be functioning members of a society with competitive market opportunities. Legalize are "drugs" and quit wasting tax payer dollars on frivolous incarceration. The system is destroying lives and doing it in the name of privatized profits. To demonize loneliness and destroy lives in the land of opportunity is not freedom.

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  5. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

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