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Stair v. Thomas & Cook

June 10, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

[relates to Docket Item 42]


This matter is before the Court upon Plaintiffs' motion for an award of counsel fees and costs pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3) and final judgment [Docket Item 42]. THIS COURT FINDS AS FOLLOWS:

1. Plaintiff William F. Stair, through his power of attorney Dean Smith, filed this action on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, alleging that a debt collection letter that he received from Defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the "FDCPA" or the "Act"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq. Section 1692g of that Act requires that debt collectors like Defendants provide certain information in writing to a consumer within five days of the "initial communication" with the consumer, and "mandates the debt collector to cease all collection efforts if the consumer provides written notice that he or she disputes the debt or requests the name of the original creditor until the debt collector mails either the debt verification or creditor's name to the consumer." Wilson v. Quadramed Corp., 225 F.3d 350, 354 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(b)).

2. Defendants moved for summary judgment as to Mr. Stair's claim, arguing that the notice they included in Plaintiff's debt collection letter complied with the notice requirements set forth in section 1692g. In its February 7, 2008 Opinion and Order [Docket Items 20 and 21], the Court denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Recognizing that under the FDCPA, the effectiveness of a debt collection letter's provision of notice is to be "interpreted from the perspective of the 'least sophisticated debtor,'" Graziano v. Harrison, 950 F.2d 107, 111 (3d Cir. 1991), the Court explained that Defendants' provision of notice was inconsistent with the statutory requirements and likely to mislead an unsophisticated debtor.*fn1 (Docket Item 20 at 11-12.)

3. The Court found, moreover, in light of the letter's apparent noncompliance with the FDCPA, that Plaintiff, rather than Defendants, appeared to be entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the question of liability, and the Court afforded Defendants the opportunity to submit evidence in opposition to the entry of summary judgment in Plaintiff's favor. (Id. at 15.) Plaintiff thereafter moved for summary judgment and class certification [Docket Item 24]. Defendants opposed Plaintiff's motion, arguing with respect to the question of liability that although their debt collection letter was Defendants' "initial communication with [Mr. Stair] in connection with the collection of [his alleged] debt," § 1692g, the fact that they were not the first debt collectors to communicate with Mr. Stair about this debt relieved them of any obligation to comply with the FDCPA's notice and validation requirements.

4. In its September 23, 2008 Opinion and Order [Docket Items 31 and 32], the Court rejected this argument, finding that it was inconsistent with both the text and object of the FDCPA, the Federal Trade Commission's commentary on the Act, and the decisions of courts that had previously considered the question. (Docket Item 31 at 7-14.) The Court entered summary judgment in Plaintiff's favor on the issues of liability and damages. (Id. at 27-30.) As the Court explained in the September 23, 2008 Opinion, damages in this matter were statutorily limited to $1,000 for the named Plaintiff and $2,750 for the class (i.e., "1 per centum of the net worth of the debt collector," 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(2)(B), a fact to which the parties stipulated). The Court likewise granted Plaintiff's motion for class certification, certifying a class that consisted of:

All those 227 natural persons who received collection correspondence from the Defendants Rodman Cook and the Thomas & Cook law firm dated between September 20, 2005 through to September 20, 2006 seeking to collect upon a consumer debt and which included a thirty-day time frame to validate the debt yet sought a response within a time less than the thirty days. (Docket Item 32 at 1-2.)*fn2 Plaintiff thereafter filed the motion for attorney's fees and final judgment [Docket Item 42] presently under consideration. Defendants have not opposed Plaintiff's motion for the entry of final judgment, nor do Defendants contest Plaintiff's entitlement to an award of attorney's fees; Defendants do, however, lodge a discrete objection to the amount of the award, which the Court addresses below.

5. The Court will grant Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees. Under the FDCPA, "in the case of any successful action to enforce the foregoing liability, the costs of the action, together with a reasonable attorney's fee as determined by the court," are to be awarded to the plaintiff.*fn3 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3). The Court's determination of a reasonable attorney fee under the FDCPA follows the familiar "lodestar" method that applies to fee awards under other fee-shifting statutes. See Graziano, 950 F.2d at 114. The lodestar formula "requires multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate." Maldonado v. Houstoun, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).

6. "Once the party seeking fees provides... [evidence of the hours worked and the rate claimed], the burden shifts to its adversary to contest, with sufficient specificity, the reasonableness of the hourly rate or the reasonableness of the hours expended." Microsoft Corp. v. United Computer Res. of N.J., Inc., 216 F. Supp. 2d 383, 387 (D.N.J. 2002); Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 708 (3d Cir. 2005). The Court of Appeals has consistently emphasized that in assessing the reasonableness of hours expended and the reasonableness of an attorney's hourly rate, the "district court cannot decrease a fee award based on factors not raised at all by the adverse party." Interfaith Community Organization, 426 F.3d at 713 (citation omitted); Loughner v. University of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 178 (3d Cir. 2001); Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). 7. In this case, Plaintiff seeks an award of $33,047.50 in fees and $3,444.97 in costs. (See Doherty Supp. Cert.) Plaintiff's counsel have submitted detailed time logs and affidavits in support of the hours expended in litigating this matter and the rates charged by Plaintiff's counsel. (Doherty Cert. Exs. 1-5; Doherty Supp. Cert. ¶¶ 12-13.) The Court has reviewed these materials and finds that they provide ample support for the lodestar in this case. See Interfaith Community Organization, 426 F.3d at 708.

8. The lodestar requests, documented by contemporaneous time and billing entries, are as follows:

Hours Worked Base Hourly Total Doherty*fn4 93.0 $325.00 $30,225.00

Friedman*fn5 6.1 $325.00 $1,982.50 Markey (paralegal) 11.2 $75.00 $840.00 Total: $33,047.50 The costs are likewise well-documented, necessary and reasonable, including the costs of administering notice to the class, which was performed quickly, efficiently and effectively; all costs of litigation and class administration total $3,444.97.

9. Significantly, Defendants make clear in their submissions that they "do not contest the amounts of hours worked or the hourly rates submitted in support of the application." (Defs.' Opp'n Br. at 1.) The Court thus concludes that the lodestar amount for the ...

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