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E.R. v. Minnesota Life Insurance Co.

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

April 9, 2019

E.R., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MINNESOTA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant/Counterclaim Plaintiff,
v.
LYNLEE RENICK, et al., Counterclaim Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Lynlee Renick is the mother of minors E.R. and M.G. On February 14, 2018, through attorney Albert S. Watkins, Renick filed a declaratory judgment action on behalf of E.R. and M.G., claiming that they were entitled to a $1 million death benefit under her deceased husband's insurance policy as secondary beneficiaries. Minnesota Life Insurance Company answered with a counterclaim for interpleader, naming Renick, E.R., and M.G. as potential claimants to the insurance proceeds. Because of a potential conflict between the named claimants' interests, I denied Renick's request to be appointed next friend of E.R. and M.G., and I appointed a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for each of the minor children. Specifically, I appointed William P. Grant as GAL and attorney of record for E.R. I appointed Jeffrey P. Medler as GAL and attorney of record for M.G.

         Renick has since disavowed her interest in the interpleaded insurance proceeds; and E.R. and M.G., through their respective GALs, have settled their claims to the proceeds. Attorney Watkins and each of the GALs now seek their respective attorney's fees and costs for their work in this case.[1]

         William P. Grant, GAL and Attorney of Record for minor child E.R.

         Attorney Grant requests $9050 in attorney's fees, representing 20 hours of work expended at a rate of $350/hour, and 8.2 hours of work expended at a rate of $250/hour. With his request, Grant submits a detailed account of the nature of the work performed, the time expended for each task, and the hourly rate for the attorney/associate performing the work.

         Upon review of the detailed billing records, I find the time expended to be reasonable and the hourly rates appropriate. I will therefore grant GAL Grant's motion for attorney's fees and order disbursement from the interpleaded funds in the Court's Registry.

         Jeffrey P. Medler, GAL and Attorney of Record for minor child M.G.

         Attorney Medler requests $781.05 in expenses and $9755 in attorney's fees, which represents 25.9 hours of charged work expended at a rate of $350/hour, and 4.6 hours of work expended at a rate of $150/hour. With his request, Medler submits a detailed account of the nature of the work performed, the time expended for each task, and the hourly rate for the attorney/associate performing the work.

         Upon review of the detailed billing records, I find the time expended to be reasonable and the hourly rates appropriate. I will therefore grant GAL Medler's motion for attorney's fees and expenses and order disbursement from the interpleaded funds in the Court's Registry.

         Albert S. Watkins, Attorney for E.R. and M.G.

         On February 12, 2019, attorney Watkins submitted his request for $388.95 in costs and $83, 146.50 in attorney's fees, which he averred represented “approximately 255 hours of representation.” (ECF 49.) With this request, Watkins submitted general descriptions of the work “involved” in the case, including work performed before the interpleader was filed and work he expected to perform in the future. He also identified eight additional attorneys, two legal assistants, and two law clerks who performed services, but did not detail the task(s) performed, the specific time spent on such tasks, or by whom they were performed.

         I held a hearing on April 5 to approve the settlement of E.R.'s and M.G.'s claims to the insurance proceeds. At that hearing, Watkins proffered his detailed billing records to support his requested fees and later filed them with the Court. According to these records, Watkins now seeks to recover $85, 581.50 in attorney's fees, representing 267.20 hours of work through April 5; and $1, 098.09 in costs and expenses.[2] For the following reasons, I will award Watkins some of his requested fees and costs, but not all.

         To calculate attorney's fees, courts typically begin by using the lodestar method - a formula by which the number of hours reasonably expended is multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Brewington v. Keener, 902 F.3d 796, 805 (8th Cir. 2018). In determining the reasonableness of time expended, I may look to whether the case was overstaffed and whether the billed hours were excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. “It remains for the district court to determine what fee is ‘reasonable.'” Id. I am not bound to use the lodestar method in awarding fees, however. I may also award fees based on the benefit provided by the attorney's work. Johnston v. Comerica Mortg. Corp., 83 F.3d 241, 244-45 (8th Cir. 1996). Regardless of the method applied, I have the responsibility to scrutinize attorney fee requests, keeping in mind that counsel bears the burden to establish a factual basis to support an attorney fee award. Id. at 246.

         I have carefully reviewed Watkins' detailed time records. His request that fees be awarded from the interpleaded funds for all of the time detailed in his records is unreasonable. For instance, Watkins and others on his legal team spent considerable time investigating the decedent's murder. According to Watkins' records and his explanation at the April 5 hearing, this investigation was for the purpose of Renick's understanding of why she was a suspect in the murder and would remain a suspect. Although Watkins argued that the investigation was necessary so Renick could understand and properly repudiate her interest in the insurance proceeds, his recitation of the details of the investigation shows that the work performed was for the purpose ...


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