Jarvis v. TaylorChandler LLC

Decision Date07 January 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 2:17-cv-00396-ALB
PartiesCHRISTOPHER JARVIS, Plaintiff, v. TAYLORCHANDLER, LLC, T. BRITT TAYLOR, NORMAN CHANDLER, and JAMES R. JOHNSON Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This order resolves the issue of attorneys' fees in this case. The Court entered an opinion and order resolving the competing claims in this case on August 19, 2020. See Doc. 228. As part of that opinion and order, the parties were directed to file statements of attorneys' fees and costs. On September 16, 2020, Plaintiff and Defendants filed their statements of costs. See Docs. 231 and 232. On September 28, 2020, Plaintiff and Defendants filed their objections to each other's statements of costs. See Docs. 236 and 237. On October 30, 2020, Plaintiff and Defendants filed responses to each other's objections to statements of costs. See Docs. 244 and 245.

PLAINTIFF'S FEES

Plaintiff has requested $618,947.08 in fees and has supported that request with substantial documentation. As explained in the previous opinion and order, Plaintiff has the right to attorneys' fees as the prevailing party under his contract with Defendants. Alabama law governs that contract. See Doc 1-4 ("This [a]greement shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of Alabama.") Because Alabama law governs the contract, Alabama law governs Plaintiff's right to attorneys' fees under that contract.1 See Trans Coastal Roofing Co. v. David Boland, Inc., 309 F.3d 758, 759 (11th Cir. 2002) (holding that where a claim for attorneys' fees sounds in a case that is present in federal court under diversity jurisdiction, the appropriate law is state law). In Alabama, the fee must be reasonable and whether a requested fee is reasonable is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Beal Bank, SSB v. Schilleci, 896 So. 2d 395, 400 (Ala. 2004). The evaluative, but not exhaustive, list of criteria for a court to consider in making this determination is as follows: (1) the nature and value of the subject matter of the employment; (2) the learning, skill, and labor requisite to its proper discharge; (3) the time consumed; (4) the professional experience and reputation of the attorney; (5) the weight of his responsibilities; (6) the measure of success achieved; (7) thereasonable expenses incurred; (8) whether a fee is fixed or contingent; (9) the nature and length of a professional relationship; (10) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services; (11) the likelihood that a particular employment may preclude other employment; and (12) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances. Id.

Defendants make numerous arguments for the reduction of Plaintiff's requested fees. Each is addressed below. In addition to multiple briefs, Defendants submitted edited versions of Plaintiff's invoices that bear seventeen different shades of highlighting; only two of which are dealt with in their briefs. As little has been done to clearly define the arguments that are tied to the colored highlights, the Court will attempt to interpret the implicit arguments from the clues in the color legend.

1. Conclusory Statements

First, Defendants argue that Plaintiff makes conclusory statements about the fees he is due without presenting evidence. Specifically, Defendants argue that "there were no invoices for Cleveland Terrazas PLLC prior to...July 31, 2019," and "object to the amount claimed because Plaintiff's submitted invoices come nowhere close to this amount." See Doc. 237 at 4. This objection was resolved by Plaintiff's supplemental filing with additional invoices. See Doc. 242-1.

2. Reasonableness of Lawyer Rates

Plaintiff asks for rates of compensation ranging from $230 per hour for an attorney with 2 years of experience, to $365 per hour for an attorney with 14 years of experience. See Doc. 244 at 6. Defendants argue that these hourly rates are unreasonable. They are not. The Court takes the 12 non-exhaustive factors from Beal Bank in turn.

The first factor, complexity of the case, weighs in favor of Plaintiff. Although at first blush a simple contract dispute, the controversy expanded to litigation about Jarvis's activities as an employee, his marketing of a novel financial product, the valuation of new clients, discovery-related misconduct, and Defendants' multi-million-dollar counterclaim for fraud.

The second factor, the learning and labor required to properly litigate the case, also weighs in favor of Plaintiff. This was not the typical employment action. The trial was brief, and the discovery was not particularly complicated. But the case involved complex financial arrangements, a very complicated employment agreement, and multiple expert witnesses on both sides. Only lawyers who specialized in financial and business litigation would be able to handle this case.

The third factor, the time spent, weighs heavily in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff spent 2,417.65 hours litigating this case. See Doc. 244 at 10. Tim Cleveland and Marcus Maples, the lead attorneys for Plaintiff, claim 703 and 321 hoursrespectively. That is a substantial investment of time. But it is small enough to establish that Plaintiff's lawyers handled the case economically and efficiently. Especially considering Defendants' multi-million-dollar counterclaim, this case could have justified a much greater investment of lawyer time.

The fourth factor is the professional experience and quality of the attorneys involved. This factor also favors Plaintiff. Plaintiff did not hire attorneys with many decades of experience, but he did hire accomplished ones. After graduating from the University of Texas School of Law with honors, Tim Cleveland practiced civil litigation for eleven years before beginning this case. He is one of the founding partners of the law firm Cleveland Terrazas LLP. Marcus Maples is a shareholder at Baker Donelson, one of the biggest law firms in Alabama. Further, their co-counsel Murrell, Krist, and Arbuckle are all highly qualified attorneys. The Court was impressed with the trial performance and briefs of all counsel, including Defendants' counsel.

The fifth factor is the weight of the responsibilities. This factor weighs in favor of Plaintiff. The entire case was handled by one small team of attorneys from beginning to end over a period of three years. This small team handled every facet of the litigation including discovery, motions practice, and trial. This case saw voluminous filings, including substantial spoliation motions and a flurry ofevidentiary filings prior to trial. The weight of the responsibilities on Plaintiff's attorneys was significant.

The sixth factor is the measure of success achieved and it weighs in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff's counsel successfully argued that Defendants' counterclaims were without merit and prosecuted the case against Defendants for breaching their contract with Jarvis. Although Plaintiff's counsel did not successfully recover any severance damages, they did obtain deferred salary payments and the balance of the promissory note for their client.

The seventh factor is the degree to which Plaintiff's counsel incurred expenses in their representation. This factor also weighs in Plaintiff's favor. This matter was litigated for three years and, although the trial was over in a matter of days, Plaintiff's counsel incurred great expense in preparation. Plaintiff's counsel retained the services of expert Gary Bowers at the cost of $300 per hour. See Doc. 145-2 at 2. At this rate, Gary Bowers prepared an expert report, attended his deposition, and traveled some distance to be present for a trial at which he testified. Plaintiff's counsel also compensated court reporters for multiple depositions in portions ranging up to nearly $7,000. See Doc. 231-4 at 21. This trial was not a cheap affair for Plaintiff's counsel.

The eighth factor, whether the fee is contingent or set, also weighs in favor of Plaintiff. In instances where a plaintiff has been given a substantial trial award andthe plaintiff's attorney has a contingent fee agreement, it sometimes makes sense to reduce the rate at which the attorney is compensated by an independent award of attorney's fees. See, e.g., Rothenbecker v. Astrue, 764 F. Supp. 2d 697, 698 (M.D. Pa. 2011)(holding that an attorney's fee award in a successful litigation would be reduced because the attorney was already due to receive an amount under the contingent fee agreement that worked out to twice his normal hourly rate). In this case, there is no contingent fee agreement.

The ninth factor is the length of the attorney-client relationship and, once again, this factor favors Plaintiff. This litigation was not short. The original action was filed in June of 2017 and the attorneys were still filing objections and responses as recently as one month ago. The case found its way to multiple judges and motions were filed at every stage of the litigation. The average length of civil cases in federal district courts across the United States is 10 months. See IN RE: COVID-19 Business Interruption Protection Insurance Litigation, MDL-No.-2942, Doc. 457 at 16. This case lasted 56 months and Plaintiff's attorneys were at their client's side the entire time. See Docs. 1 and 277.

The tenth factor is the amount of money customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services. The hourly rates requested here are well within the range of rates that have been approved in this district before. See United States ex rel. Foley v. Mitchell, 2019 WL 6134159, at 2-3 (M.D. Ala. 2019) (approving rates upto $650 per hour); Shultz v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 398 F. Supp. 3d 1188, 1195-1196 (M.D. Ala. 2019) (approving rates of $350 per hour); Hayden v. Vance, 2016 WL 4157362, at *3 (M.D. Ala. June 28, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 4180971 (M.D. Ala. Aug. 4, 2016), aff'd, 708 F. App'x 976 (...

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