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‘Neither large nor complex’: Attorneys’ fees, costs reduced in collection suit

Chess piece being knocked down

A couple was awarded attorneys’ fees and costs after a defendant violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, by attempting to collect a disputed debt from them despite notice from their attorney.

The federal district court, however, said the matter was “neither large nor complex” and reduced counsel’s hourly rate after analysis accounting for the geography of the “relevant community.”

The opinion was authored by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon of the Western District of Virginia earlier this month in Barre v. DCN Holdings Inc. (VLW 022-3-233).

Background

Nelson and Danielle Barre filed suit against DCN Holdings, Inc., claiming FDCPA violations. The Barres said DCN repeatedly communicated with them, trying to collect a disputed debt despite notice from the Barres’ attorney.

When DCN failed to appear in the case, the clerk entered a default in September 2020. Shortly thereafter, the Barres moved for entry of default judgment against DCN for $20,000.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia granted the motion a year later, awarding $2,000 in damages plus costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

The Barres sought $3,965 in attorneys’ fees and $500 in costs.

Analysis

The FDCPA allows for the award of reasonable attorney’s fees “as determined by the court, for any successful action,” Dillon said.

A three-step process is used to calculate the proper amount: multiplying the number of hours expended by a “reasonable billing rate,” subtracting fees for hours spent on unsuccessful, unrelated claims, and awarding a percentage depending on “the level of success enjoyed by the prevailing party.”

Based on a combined total of 13.5 hours completed by two attorneys and a paralegal, the Barres requested $3,965 in attorneys’ fees. The couple was represented by Ingmar Goldson of Maryland and D. Margeaux Thomas of Virginia, who primarily practice civil litigation in the Washington, D.C., area.

The Barres submitted hourly rates of $300 and $350 for Goldson and Thomas, respectively, and $150 for the paralegal who also worked on the matter.

In her analysis, Dillon reduced the hourly rate to $250 for Goldson and Thomas and $100 for the paralegal, citing the complexity of the litigation and the locale of the “relevant community.”

“This court has found that an hourly rate of $350 is reasonable for an experienced attorney in ‘large’ and ‘complex’ civil litigation; however, this matter is neither large nor complex,” Dillon noted, explaining that the matter was a “straightforward” case that resulted in a default judgment entry.

Fees being calculatedMatrices submitted by the Barres to support the reasonableness of the fees were deemed “irrelevant to this matter,” according to Dillon

“[H]ere, the relevant community is Roanoke, Virginia, not the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area,” she pointed out.

As for the amount of hours, the Barres submitted a total of 13.5 hours for this case. Goldson and Thomas worked 8.8 and 3.1 hours, respectively, and the paralegal worked 1.6 hours. Documentation said these hours were spent “developing the case, drafting and revising the FDCPA complaint, filing the motion for entry of default judgment, and communicating attorney-to-attorney and attorney-to-client.”

But Dillon lowered slightly the total hours submitted, deducting 0.7 hours from Thomas’ calculation, which brought the total number of hours down to 12.8.

“[A]fter default judgment was entered in the Barres’ favor, the use of more than one attorney was duplicative and/or excessive,” she wrote.

Since the case’s outcome was relatively successful for the couple, no further adjustments were made.

“The Barres and their counsel were saved time and expense because there was limited, if any, need for developing the case aside from drafting the complaint, given that DCN failed to answer, resulting in entry of default in favor of the Barres,” Dillon wrote.

As for costs, Dillon said the $500 request — a $400 filing fee and a $100 pro hac vice fee —for an award of costs was reasonable.

“It is well-settled that filing fees are recoverable, and the court will also award the pro hac vice fee as a finding fee,” the judge said.

Ultimately, with deductions, the court awarded the Barres $2,960 in attorneys’ fees and $500 in costs, which was about $1,000 less than the initial request.