Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date04 August 1983
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 2111-70.
Citation572 F. Supp. 354
PartiesMary Pat LAFFEY, et al., Plaintiffs, v. NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia





Philip A. Lacovara, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, Washington, D.C., for defendant.

Michael H. Gottesman, Bredhoff & Kaiser, Washington, D.C., for plaintiffs.



I. Introduction

This case is before the Court on Plaintiffs' application for an award of over $5 million in reasonable attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). The application is the most recent — although certainly not the final — stage of this protracted Title VII and Equal Pay Act litigation. The action has been an extraordinary undertaking in many respects, consuming thirteen years and thousands of personnel hours and raising numerous issues under both statutes. It was virtually inevitable that the action would culminate in an equally extraordinary fee petition.

The torturous history of this litigation need not be recounted in detail. It is sufficient to note that the saga began on July 15, 1970 with the filing of a complaint on behalf of a class of Defendant's female flight attendants; ten counts were brought under Title VII and four counts under the Equal Pay Act. In the ensuing thirteen years, the parties and their counsel committed their time, energies, and considerable legal skill to an extended period of pretrial discovery, a full trial on the merits, two rounds of appeals, and one certiorari petition. And the end is not yet in sight. The parties have appealed this Court's judgment of November 30, 19821 and this Court fully expects the disposition of Plaintiffs' fee application to follow the same course. This opinion clearly is not the final word in this litigation.

The fee application process began in earnest in June 1982. At that time, all other remand issues having been resolved or submitted to the Court for resolution, the Court entered an Order directing counsel to commence negotiations on the attorneys' fees and to report to the Court on the status of those discussions.2 Bredhoff & Kaiser, the law firm that represented Plaintiffs throughout the entire litigation, had retained Daniel Rezneck of Arnold & Porter to negotiate and, if necessary, litigate the attorneys' fee award. Michael Gottesman, Plaintiffs' principal counsel and one of the senior partners at Bredhoff & Kaiser, explained that the firm believed the fee award could most effectively be pursued by a "dispassionate ... highly experienced litigator who was not so intimately involved in the Laffey case."

In November 1982, the parties advised the Court that their negotiation efforts had produced no accord and presented the Court with a proposed schedule for the orderly litigation of the attorneys' fee. The parties' timetable — approved by the Court on December 1, 1982 — called for several months of discovery prior to submission of the formal fee petition. The discovery was undertaken and, following the Court's resolution of the disputes that arose during that process, Plaintiffs filed their Application for an Award of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses (hereinafter "Plaintiffs' Application") on March 22, 1983. This document was followed by (1) the Submission of Northwest Airlines, Inc., with Respect to Plaintiffs' Application for an Award of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses ("NWA Submission"); (2) Plaintiffs' Reply Brief in Support of the Application; (3) Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs' Reply Brief; (4) Plaintiffs' Supplemental Application for an Award of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses ("Supplemental Application"); (5) Defendant's Response to the Supplemental Application; and (6) Plaintiffs' Reply Brief in Support of the Supplemental Application; (7) Plaintiffs' Update to the Supplemental Application; and (8) Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs' Update. These submissions were accompanied by multiple volumes of appendices, exhibits, affidavits, charts, summaries, and the like. The result is a fee application covering all hours worked and expenses incurred from July 15, 1970 to July 15, 1983 and encompassing well over a thousand pages of material. It is the most extensive fee petition this Court has ever received.3

The following chart summarizes the amounts claimed by Plaintiffs for their counsels' fees and expenses and the amounts Defendant suggests are properly sought.4 It is evident from this tabulation that the parties' view of the fee request is markedly dissimilar.

                                                    AMOUNTS         NWA's
                BREDHOFF & KAISER                  REQUESTED       PROPOSAL
                Merits Issues
                       Fees: Lodestar           $ 1,494,450.80    $ 903,875.15
                             200% Adjustment      2,988,901.60          *
                   Expenses: Paralegals/Clerks       76,290.15       76,065.00
                             Disbursements      $   101,183.84       29,390.04
                                                ______________   _____________
                                   Sub-Total:   $ 4,660,826.39   $1,009,330.19
                Attorney Fee Issues
                      Fees: Lodestar            $  193,481.27    $  39,240.63
                  Expenses: Paralegals/Clerks       27,529.50        9,244.50
                            Disbursements       $    4,960.32          608.81
                                                _____________    ____________
                                Sub-Total:      $  225,971.09    $  49,093.94
                ARNOLD & PORTER
                Attorney Fee Issues
                      Fees: Lodestar            $   164,893.75   $  25,070.76
                  Expenses: Paralegals/Clerks        25,770.00      10,061.25
                            Disbursements       $    20,916.33       2,589.63
                                                ______________   ____________
                                Sub-Total:      $   211,580.08   $  37,721.64
                                  TOTAL:        $ 5,098,377.56   $1,096,145.77

The Court's assessment of these competing claims follows, as it must, the market value methodology adopted by the Court of Appeals in this Circuit: the number of hours reasonably devoted to the litigation is multiplied by the attorneys' reasonable hourly rates to arrive at the "lodestar" calculation. This sum then may be adjusted upward or downward to reflect the characteristics of the particular case (and counsel) for which the award is sought. See Copeland v. Marshall ("Copeland") 641 F.2d 880 (D.C.Cir.1980) (en banc); National Association of Concerned Veterans v. Secretary of Defense ("Concerned Veterans"), 675 F.2d 1319 (D.C.Cir.1982). Because many of the calculations mandated by this methodology are inherently imprecise and require certain estimates or approximations, the Court must exercise its discretion — soundly informed by its knowledge of the litigation before it and the experience it has acquired in numerous other cases — to arrive at the final fee award.

This Court has reviewed the Laffey fee application in all its exhaustive detail and concludes that the following award of attorneys' fees and costs constitutes a fair, reasonable and fully compensatory award.

II. Number of Hours Reasonably Expended

The first component of any court-awarded attorneys' fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation. Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1323; Copeland, 641 F.2d at 891. Although a fee applicant is entitled to full compensation for his counsels' efforts, "it does not follow that the amount of time actually expended is the amount of time reasonably expended." Copeland, 641 F.2d at 891. "Billing judgment" is an important element of fee setting, whether the fee is set in the private sector by an attorney, or is awarded by a court pursuant to a fee-shifting statute; in each instance, excessive or unproductive hours are excluded from the fee calculations. Id. See also Hensley v. Eckerhart, ___ U.S. ___, ___-___, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 1937-1940, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983).

The fee applicant bears a "heavy obligation" to document the number of hours devoted to the litigation. Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1323-1324. Although it is not necessary to know "the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted," the fee application must contain sufficient detail to permit both the court and opposing counsel to conduct an informed appraisal of the merits of the application. Id. at 1327. Where the fee applicant has omitted nonproductive time from the fee request, the application should identify "the nature of the work and the number of hours involved." Id. at 1327-1328.

Plaintiffs have requested compensation for 13,932.25 hours of attorney time.5 In support of that request, Plaintiffs have proffered extensive supporting documentation, including a day-by-day breakdown of the time spent during the past 13 years by each attorney on the case and a description of the hours that were excluded from the application in the exercise of "billing judgment."

Defendant does not contest the reasonableness of most of the hours Plaintiffs' counsel invested in this litigation — and with good reason. This Court's independent examination of the hours devoted to this action indicates that they are documented in accordance with the criteria set forth in Concerned Veterans6 and, in most instances, were reasonably expended. There are, however, four categories of hours that Defendant challenges as unreasonable; the Court deals with each category of contested hours separately below.7

A. The "Lost Issues"

Because Title VII authorizes an award of fees only to a "prevailing" party, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), Defendant objects to an award of fees for the hours Plaintiffs' counsel spent preparing and litigating motions that were decided in Defendant's favor. Defendant originally identified six "lost issues" for which it contends compensation should be denied, but withdrew its challenge as to two issues following the Supreme Court's intervening decision in Hensley v. Eckerhart, ___ U.S. ___, 103 S.Ct. 1933...

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