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Freeman v. MH Equipment Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

January 9, 2017




         This action in diversity came before the Court on plaintiff James Matthew Freeman's claim that defendant MH Equipment Company breached its employment contract by failing to pay him commissions that it owed him under a commission agreement. The matter was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in Freeman's favor on September 23, 2016, and awarded $25, 368 in actual damages but declined to award any requested statutory damages. Freeman now moves for an award of attorney's fees and costs under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 407.913. Because Freeman is a prevailing party, I will award attorney's fees, but will reduce the amount requested given his limited success. I will also reduce the amount requested for costs.

         Statutory Authority

          Under “the bedrock principle known as the American Rule, ” each litigant pays his own attorney's fees unless a statute or contract provides otherwise. Baker Botts L.L.P. v. ASARCO LLC, 135 S.Ct. 2158, 2164 (2015) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The Missouri statute under which Freeman brought this action provides the authority for fee-shifting in the circumstances of this case:

Any principal who fails to timely pay the sales representative commissions earned by such sales representative shall be liable to the sales representative in a civil action for the actual damages sustained by the sales representative and an additional amount as if the sales representative were still earning commissions calculated on an annualized pro rata basis from the date of termination to the date of payment. In addition the court may award reasonable attorney's fees and costs to the prevailing party.

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 407.913 (emphasis added).

         As stated above, Freeman recovered actual damages for unpaid commissions. He is therefore a prevailing party under the statute and may be awarded reasonable attorney's fees and costs. His failure to recover “an additional amount” under the statute does not strip him of his status as a prevailing party. Cf. Trim Fit, LLC v. Dickey, 607 F.3d 528, 533 (8th Cir. 2010).

         Attorney's Fees

          To determine the amount of a reasonable attorney's fee, I employ the “lodestar” method where the starting point “is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Quigley v. Winter, 598 F.3d 938, 956-57 (8th Cir. 2010). Once I determine that amount, I consider a number of other factors to determine whether to adjust the fee upward or downward.[1] Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; see also City of Riverside v. Riveria, 477 U.S. 561, 568 n. 3 (1986).

         In this case, Freeman's attorney, Richard F. Huck III, seeks compensation for a total of 377.6 hours of work at a rate of either $300 or $350 per hour. He was the only attorney who worked on Freeman's case. With the lodestar calculations, Huck's requested fee award would total $113, 280 at the $300/hour rate or $132, 160 at the $350/hour rate. MH Equipment objects to the hourly rate and the time expended, and argues that, regardless, the amount of the award should be reduced given Freeman's limited recovery.

         A. Hourly Rate

          Huck is a partner at his law firm, and the hourly rate(s) he seeks in his application for fees are the rates he charges as a partner, depending on the complexity of the case. MH Equipment does not argue that Huck's charged fee of $300 or $350 is itself unreasonable. Instead, it argues that Huck should not be awarded a partner-level fee for work that an associate could have performed at a lesser rate. For the following reasons, I find Huck's proffered rate of $300 per hour to be reasonable for the work performed.

         Huck began his relationship with Freeman in November 2014 and agreed to bill him an hourly rate of $300 for work on the case. After the course of this action caused Huck to expend more time than originally anticipated, which made the original fee agreement unworkable, Huck and Freeman agreed that Huck would seek attorney's fees from MH Equipment under the Missouri statute rather than from Freeman through client billing. Given that $300/hour is the rate Huck originally charged to what was then a fee-paying client, I find it to be a reasonable rate in this fee-shifting circumstance. In addition, this lesser rate adequately accounts for the limited amount of what MH Equipment describes as associate-level work that Huck performed during the course of this action, although I agree with Huck's representation that it was likely more efficient - and thus more economically feasible - for an attorney of his experience to perform all of the work on this case given the unique nature of some of the legal issues addressed.

         B. T ...

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