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Norton v. Wilshire Credit Corp.

February 19, 1999

RODNEY NORTON,
PLAINTIFF,
V.
WILSHIRE CREDIT CORP.
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William H. Walls, U.S.D.J.

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Walls, District Judge

This matter comes before the Court on the application of the plaintiff, Rodney Norton, for attorney's fees pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1692k. The Court decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Rodney Norton, filed a claim against Wilshire Credit Corporation alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (hereinafter "FDCPA"). Despite attempts by both sides to settle the matter, no mutually acceptable resolution was reached. As a result, a lengthy litigation ensued which included an arbitration, a summary judgment motion, a trial on damages, and an appeal to the Third Circuit. The plaintiff succeeded on summary judgment and was awarded $5,800 by the jury. The defendant succeeded on its counterclaim and won a jury award of $1,651.63. On appeal, the decision of this Court was affirmed. Plaintiff's counsel now renews his earlier application for fees under the fee shifting provisions of the FDCPA, and petitions this Court for fees and costs totaling $67,697.56.

DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

The FDCPA requires the payment of attorneys fees to a successful consumer in a debt collection action. *fn1 15 U.S.C. § 1692k. The FDCPA mandates an award of attorney's fees, absent unusual circumstances, as a means of fulfilling Congress' intent that the FDCPA be enforced by private debtors. See Graziano v. Harrison, 950 F.2d 107, 113 (3d Cir. 1991).

A plaintiff must be a "prevailing party" to recover attorney's fees under 15 U.S.C. § 1692k. This term has been defined in various ways, however, "a typical formulation is that plaintiffs may be considered prevailing parties for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." *fn2 Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983) (internal quotations omitted) citing, Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275 (1st Cir. 1978). "This is a generous formulation that brings the plaintiff only across the statutory threshold. It remains for the district court to determine what fee is `reasonable.'" Id. at 433.

The District Court has broad discretion in fashioning a reasonable award of attorney's fees under the FDCPA. See Bell v. United Princeton Properties, Inc., 884 F.2d 713, 721 (3d Cir. 1989). The court may reduce the award of attorney's fees by an amount to be determined solely by the court, but only if the opposing party objects to the petitioners application for fees. See id.

The "initial estimate of a reasonable attorney's fee is properly calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation times a reasonable hourly rate." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984); citing, Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983); see also Student Pub. Int. Res. Group v. AT&T Bell Labs., 842 F.2d 1436 (3d Cir. 1988). This method of calculating attorney's fees is known as the lodestar method. See Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546 (1986) (explaining the genesis of the lodestar approach and its nomenclature). Excluded from the lodestar calculation are hours not reasonably expended, such as hours attributable to over-staffing, hours that appear excessive in light of the experience and skill of the lawyers, and hours that are redundant or otherwise unnecessary. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. The court may also deduct from the award hours that are not adequately documented. See id. at 433.

The lodestar amount is presumed to be reasonable. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). However, a court may downwardly adjust a lodestar amount to account for time expended litigating unsuccessful claims if the plaintiff was only partially successful in the underlying litigation. See id. This adjustment is not meant to maintain any ratio or proportionality between the amount of damages and attorney's fees, but, rather, to assure that fees are awarded only to the extent that the litigant was successful. See Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1042 (3d Cir. 1996). The amount of the downward adjustment can be determined in two ways: "the district court may attempt to identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or it may simply reduce the award to account for the limited success. The court necessarily has discretion in making this equitable judgment." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37.

Prevailing parties may also collect reasonable attorney's fees for the time spent preparing the fee petition. See Institutionalized Juveniles v. Secretary of Pub. Welfare, 758 F.2d 897, 924-25 (3d. Cir. 1985). Such time, however, should be considered separately by the court, and may also be reduced to ...


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