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Heling v. Creditors Collection Service Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 12, 2017

LORI HELING, Plaintiff,
v.
CREDITORS COLLECTION SERVICE INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

         1. INTRODUCTION

         On January 23, 2017, the Court denied Defendant's post-trial motions and entered judgment on the jury's verdict in the amount of $500. (Docket #64 and #65). On February 6, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion seeking to collect her attorney's fees from Defendant pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act's (“FDCPA”) fee-shifting provision. (Docket #67); 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3). The motion is fully briefed, (Response, Docket #71; Reply, Docket #74), and for the reasons explained below, it must be granted.

         2. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Plaintiff is entitled to an award of attorney's fees pursuant to the FDCPA's fee-shifting provision. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3).[1] As with all requests for attorney's fees, the Court applies the lodestar analysis. Gastineau v. Wright, 592 F.3d 747, 748 (7th Cir. 2010). The lodestar “is calculated by multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably expended.” Id. Once reached, the Court may “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.” Schlacher v. Law Off. of Phillip J. Rotche & Assoc, P.C., 574 F.3d 852, 856-57 (7th Cir. 2009). The Court must “provide a clear and concise explanation for its award, and may not ‘eyeball' and decrease the fee by an arbitrary percentage because of a visceral reaction that the request is excessive.” Id. at 857. Plaintiff bears the burden “of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983).

         3. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff seeks over $77, 000 in fees for her attorneys' work in this case. (Docket #74 at 16). Defendant believes she is entitled to no more than $1, 500. (Docket #71 at 24). The Supreme Court holds that “[a] request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. Despite the vast gulf between the parties' positions and their lengthy briefs, the Court takes this instruction to heart and will keep this Order concise. The Court will first dispense with Defendant's irrelevant policy arguments, and then conduct the actual fee analysis using the lodestar method.

         3.1 Defendant's Policy Concerns

         Many of Defendant's arguments are policy complaints which are inappropriate for purposes of the motion before the Court and may be readily dispatched. First, Defendant contends that no one would actually pay a lawyer $77, 000 to obtain a recovery of $500, which Plaintiff received via the jury's verdict. See (Docket #65). This is true and at once relevant and irrelevant for present purposes. It is irrelevant to the instant case because the FDCPA mandates that a prevailing plaintiff be awarded their reasonable attorney's fees, regardless of the amount recovered or the fees sought. The observation is nonetheless relevant to all fee-shifting statutes, including the FDCPA, because it reflects Congress' intention to employ consumers and consumers' rights attorneys as private attorneys general. See Lynch v. City of Milwaukee, 747 F.2d 423, 429 (7th Cir. 1984). Congress uses those persons to enforce statutes for which it does not wish to devote governmental resources, which would of course be at the public's expense. Rather, the scheme ensures that a statute can be vigorously enforced despite potentially limited damages or inherent difficulties in proving any violations. See Anderson v. AB Painting and Sandblasting, Inc., 578 F.3d 542, 545 (7th Cir. 2009).[2]

         Defendant further argues that Plaintiff's damage award in this case was nominal or de minimis, and thus her fee award should be drastically reduced. The Court disagrees that the award was so negligible. As discussed more fully below, though Plaintiff received only $500, an objectively small sum for a jury-tried case, it was half of the maximum statutory damages award she could have obtained. See supra Part 3.3. The instant case is unlike Farrar, where the plaintiff sought $17 million in damages for violation of his constitutional rights, and received a nominal award of just $1. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 107 (1992). While the Farrar Court concluded that the plaintiff was indeed a prevailing party entitled to a fee award, it held that [i]n some circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally ‘prevails' under § 1988 should receive no attorney's fees at all. A plaintiff who seeks compensatory damages but receives no more than nominal damages is often such a prevailing party.” Id. at 115. In other words, “[w]hen a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.” Id. Plaintiff's $500 recovery shows that she proved at least a portion of her possible damages. It is far greater than a mere nominal award and so renders Farrar's holding inapposite.

         Finally, Defendant asserts that “it is the Defendant that has really suffered [sic] harmed.” (Docket #71 at 23). “[E]ven a denial outright of any fees, ” Defendant continues, “will not alleviate the harm and cost that the Defendant has had to bear, merely to prove that Defendant was right and that Plaintiff was wrong-her claimed violations were technical and not worth the large sums demanded from the beginning and that continued thereafter.” Id. Defendant further laments the public's cost in Court and jury time spent on this case, concluding that “it is time for the Plaintiff's attorneys, the ones who caused this injustice in the first place, to suffer some too. Their fees should not be paid. They should be left to suffer along with the Defendant, the Plaintiff, and the public.” Id. at 23-24.

         The Court rejects this flawed analysis in its entirety. Every aggrieved party, whether in the largest civil rights case or the smallest consumer rights action, deserves their day in court should it become necessary. Further, according to the jury, Defendant was not right on the only issue of moment-whether its conduct violated the FDCPA. By prevailing on her FDCPA claim, Plaintiff became entitled to a mandatory award of attorney's fees. The Court takes little heed of the parties' disputes about settlement, but to the extent they bear any weight, it appears to the Court that Defendant was at least as intractable as Plaintiff on the matter. Ultimately, it appears Defendant's primary complaint is with the fee-shifting nature of the FDCPA itself, not Plaintiff or her attorneys. It offers this concern in the wrong forum. Should Defendant wish to change that fundamental quality of the FDCPA, it must take its concerns to Congress, not the courts.[3]

         3.2 Lodestar

         As noted above, the lodestar analysis involves setting a reasonable hourly rate and the number of hours which should have reasonably been expended to litigate the claims at issue. Those figures are multiplied to achieve the lodestar, which may then be adjusted for various reasons.

         3.2.1 ...


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