COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff, Electronic Privacy Information Center ("EPIC"), filed a Motion for Attorney's Fees which the Court referred to Magistrate Judge Alan Kay. See Order (Feb. 4, 2014), ECF No. . Magistrate Judge Kay submitted a Report and Recommendation to the Court, recommending that Defendant, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), pay $20,799 in attorney's fees and $350 in costs to EPIC.
According to its Complaint, EPIC is a "public interest research organization incorporated as a not-for profit corporation in Washington, D.C. EPIC[ ] conducts oversight of Government activities and policies and analyzes their impact on civil liberties and privacy interests." Compl., ¶ 4. On February 10, 2012, EPIC submitted a FOIA request to the FBI requesting agency records regarding cell-site simulator or "StingRay" technology, which EPIC asserts is used by the FBI and other federal agencies to track and locate cellular telephones and other wireless devices. See id. ¶¶ 6, 19. The request specifically sought:
Id. ¶ 20. EPIC asked the FBI to expedite its response to the request, grant EPIC "News Media" fee status, and waive all duplication fees. Id. ¶¶ 21-23.
The FBI acknowledged receipt of EPIC's request on February 16, 2012. Id. ¶ 25. On March 20, 2012, having received no further correspondence from the FBI regarding its request, EPIC filed an administrative appeal with the Office of Information Policy, part of the Department of Justice. Id. ¶¶ 30-31. According to EPIC, the Department of Justice failed to respond to EPIC's appeal within the twenty-day deadline set by the FOIA. Id. ¶ 35. EPIC filed suit in this Court on April 26, 2012,
On June 4, 2012, the FBI granted EPIC a fee waiver, but denied expedited processing of EPIC's request for agency records. Def.'s Opp'n at 2. The parties disagreed on a production schedule. In a July 1, 2012, Scheduling Order, the Court found that "[t]he FBI exceeded the statutorily prescribed time frames for responding to EPIC's request over three months ago, and now requests an additional two years and five months to complete its production of responsive documents." Order (July 1, 2012), ECF No. , at 2. Accordingly, the Court ordered the FBI to file an Open America stay by July 30, 2012, or else the Court would adopt Plaintiff's proposed schedule. Id. The FBI filed a Motion for an Open America Stay and, during the pendency of that Motion, began making rolling productions. Def.'s Opp'n at 4. On March 28, 2013, the Court denied the FBI's Motion for an Open America Stay finding that the FBI had "not demonstrated exceptional circumstances exist so as to warrant the fourteen-month stay of proceedings requested by the FBI." Mem. Op. (Mar. 28, 2013), ECF No. , at 1. The Court ordered the FBI to produce all responsive, non-exempt documents by no later than August 1, 2013. Id. at 12.
The parties filed a Joint Status Report on August 29, 2013, and proposed a schedule for the production of a Vaughn index by the FBI to accompany a 500-page sample of released documents selected by EPIC. See Joint Status Report (Aug. 29, 2013), ECF No. , ¶ 10. EPIC requested the Vaughn index to assist it in evaluating the FBI's withholdings under Exemption 3 and Exemption 7(E) and in determining how to proceed in this matter. Id. Pursuant to its preparation of the Vaughn index, the FBI "voluntarily agreed to review the 500 pages to determine if there were additional terms that could be released." Joint Status Report (Nov. 1, 2013), ECF No. , ¶ 6. On October 1, 2013, the FBI produced the sample Vaughn index as well as the reprocessed sample pages which included terms that had originally been redacted. Id. ¶ 7.
On November 1, 2013, the parties filed a Joint Status Report indicating that the FBI had produced documents on a rolling basis through July 30, 2013, and had completed its production and that EPIC was willing to resolve the remaining legal issues in this case—attorney's fees and costs—through settlement. Id. ¶¶ 5, 8. The parties, however, were unable to come to an agreement about attorney's fees and costs. See Joint Status Report (Nov. 12, 2013), ECF No. , ¶¶ 2-3. Accordingly, EPIC filed a Motion for Attorney's Fees on December 19, 2013, requesting a total of $33,802.00 in attorney's fees and $350 in costs. Pl.'s Mot. at 12. The FBI subsequently filed an Opposition and EPIC filed a Reply.
The Court referred EPIC's Motion to Magistrate Judge Kay for a Report and Recommendation. Magistrate Judge Kay issued his Report and Recommendation on September 19, 2014, recommending that the Court award EPIC $20,799 in attorney's fees and $350 in costs. R & R at 14. Magistrate Judge Kay awarded attorney's fees and costs in an amount lower than that requested by EPIC on the basis that EPIC billed an excessive amount of time for drafting the Complaint and preparing the Joint Proposed Schedule. Id. at 9-10. Magistrate Judge Kay also reduced the amount of attorney's fees after finding that EPIC should not recover for time spent reviewing documents received following
Both parties filed objections to Magistrate Judge Kay's Report and Recommendation. The FBI claims that EPIC is not entitled to attorney's fees for the reasons previously argued in the FBI's opposition to EPIC's Motion for Attorney's Fees. The FBI also claims that Magistrate Judge Kay misattributed the amount of attorney's fees associated with EPIC's fees-on-fees request as opposed to EPIC's fees request for litigating the underlying FOIA action. The FBI also contends that EPIC's total fees-on-fees request is excessive and should be reduced.
EPIC objects to Magistrate Judge Kay's reduction of attorney's fees for the time EPIC spent preparing the Complaint and reviewing documents in this case. EPIC also objects to Magistrate Judge Kay's decision to abstain from resolving the fees-on-fees request.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Under Local Civil Rule 72.3(b), "[a]ny party may file for consideration by the district judge written objections to the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations issued under [Local Civil Rule 72.3(a)] within 14 days[.]" Local Civ. R. 72.3(b). Local Civil Rule 72.3(b) further provides that "[t]he objections shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings and recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for the objection." Id. Pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.3(c), "a district judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge's findings and recommendations to which objection is made. . . ." See also Means v. District of Columbia, 999 F.Supp.2d 128, 132 (D.D.C. 2013) ("District courts must apply a de novo standard of review when considering objections to, or adoption of, a magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation."). The district judge "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations of the magistrate judge, or may recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Local Civ. R. 72.3(c).
A. EPIC'S Eligibility and Entitlement to Attorney's Fees
Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(i), the court may award reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred by a plaintiff who substantially prevails in an action against the government for the fulfillment of a FOIA request. In this Circuit, the attorney-fee inquiry is divided into two prongs, the fee "eligibility" and the fee "entitlement" prongs. Brayton v. Office of the United States Trade Representative, 641 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Under the eligibility prong, the Court must determine whether a plaintiff has substantially prevailed and, as a result, may receive attorney fees. Id. A plaintiff has substantially prevailed if he or she has obtained relief either through a judicial order, enforceable written agreement, consent decree or, alternatively, through a voluntary or unilateral change in position by the agency, if the plaintiff's claim is not insubstantial. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I)-(II).
If the eligibility prong is satisfied, the Court next considers the entitlement
In its Opposition to EPIC's initial Motion for Attorney's Fees, the FBI did not dispute EPIC's argument that it is eligible for attorney's fees. The FBI also does not presently object to Magistrate Judge Kay's finding in his Report and Recommendation that EPIC is eligible for attorney's fees and costs under FOIA. The Court finds the reasoning in the Report and Recommendation on the issue of eligibility to be sound and, accordingly, adopts the recommendation.
As for EPIC's entitlement to attorney's fees and costs, the FBI simply incorporates into its present Objections the arguments it made in its Opposition to EPIC's Motion for Attorney's Fees. The FBI does not make any new arguments regarding EPIC's entitlement to attorney's fees. The FBI initially opposed the Court finding EPIC entitled to attorney's fees and costs on the basis that (1) the disclosed records did not benefit the public and, (2) the FBI had a reasonable basis for its actions. Def.'s Opp'n at 10-16. The Court has reviewed the FBI's arguments in its Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees, the case law and exhibits cited by the parties, and the Report and Recommendation as to the issue of entitlement, and agrees with the reasoning of the Report and Recommendation as to this issue. Accordingly, the Court adopts the reasoning of the Report and Recommendation that the first three entitlement factors weigh in favor of EPIC and the final factor is neutral and finds that EPIC is entitled to attorney's fees and costs.
B. Reasonableness of EPIC's Attorney's Fees
As the Court adopts the finding in the Report and Recommendation that EPIC is both eligible and entitled to attorney's fees, the Court next must determine the reasonableness of the fee award by exercising its "traditional equitable discretion." Fenster v. Brown, 617 F.2d 740, 742 (D.C. Cir. 1979). "D.C. courts recognize that the `usual method of calculating reasonable attorney's fees is to multiply the hours reasonably expended in the litigation by a reasonable hourly fee, producing the `lodestar' amount." Judicial Watch, Inc. v. BLM, 562 F.Supp.2d 159, 175 (D.D.C. 2008), rev'd on other grounds, 610 F.3d 747 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Bd. of Trs. of the Hotel & Rest. Emples. Local 25 v. JPR, Inc., 136 F.3d 794, 801 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). When, as here, the plaintiff is represented by an attorney who charges discounted rates for "public-spirited reasons," the plaintiff may nevertheless recover an award based on market rates. Id. Courts apply the Laffey matrix, "a schedule of charges based on years of experience," to determine reasonable hourly rates in order to compute the "lodestar" amount. Id. EPIC requested $33,802 in attorney's fees and $350 in costs.
EPIC, as the party seeking fees, bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of its request. Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 970 (D.C. Cir. 2004). In the FBI's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees, the FBI contested as unreasonable five aspects of EPIC's requested fees for litigating the merits of their Complaint: (1) time spent preparing the Complaint; (2) time spent preparing the Joint Proposed Schedule; (3) time spent reviewing released documents; (4) the fees requested for new lawyers; and (5) the fees requested despite "billing anomalies." Def.'s Opp'n at 18-25. Magistrate Judge Kay made recommendations with respect to each of the FBI's challenges. Specifically, Magistrate Judge Kay recommended:
See R & R at 14.
In its present Objections, the FBI does not object to Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendations as to any of its five challenges previously raised in its original motion. EPIC, on the other hand, objects to Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendation to reduce the fees award for (1) time spent preparing the Complaint, and (2) time spent reviewing documents. See Pl.'s Objs. at 3-11. As such, the Court shall only address herein the two recommendations objected to by EPIC. As to the aspects of Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendations to which neither party objects, the Court finds Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendations to be well-reasoned and thorough. Accordingly, the Court adopts these recommendations.
i. Time Spent Preparing the Complaint
EPIC requested $5,308.50 in attorney's fees for the time EPIC attorneys
See R & R at 14.
Having reviewed the hours EPIC spent preparing and filing the Complaint as set forth in EPIC's case billing record, see Pl.'s Ex. 8, ECF No. [28-9], the Court agrees it is appropriate to reduce the fee award attributable to the preparation and filing of the Complaint. The Complaint drafted by EPIC is a straightforward, nine-page FOIA complaint, similar to the complaints that EPIC frequently files in FOIA litigation in this Circuit. Although the Court recognizes the comprehensive nature of EPIC's Complaint, the Court nevertheless finds it unreasonable for EPIC to bill 18.4 hours—more than two full days of work—over three different attorneys for the preparation and filing of this Complaint. A review of the case billing record reveals inefficiencies and redundancies that makes EPIC's fee request for the Complaint unreasonable. For example, two senior EPIC attorneys spent nearly twice as much time editing the Complaint as was spent initially drafting the Complaint. See Pl.'s Ex. 8 at 1-2. Accordingly, the Court shall reduce the requested attorney's fee award attributable to the time spent preparing the Complaint. The Court finds it more reasonable to award EPIC fees for 6 hours preparing and filing the Complaint at Mr. Butler's rate, 2.5 hours at Ms. McCall's rate, and 1 hour at Mr. Rotenberg's rate, for a total of $2,535. This adjusted award for the preparing and filing of the Complaint represents a $2,773.50 reduction in EPIC's requested attorney's fees award.
ii. Time Spent Reviewing Documents
Magistrate Judge Kay also reduced EPIC's fee award by an additional $3,763, the value of the time EPIC attorneys spent reviewing documents EPIC received following the Court's Open America Order, reasoning that EPIC "would have had to review the documents regardless of the litigation." R & R at 10-12. EPIC objects to this recommendation and argues that Magistrate Judge Kay "failed to recognize that EPIC only billed for time spent reviewing documents as necessary to perform the `legal work pursuant to this litigation.'" Pl.'s Objs. at 8. EPIC also argues that Magistrate Judge Kay incorrectly calculated the amount EPIC billed for time spent reviewing documents as $3,763, when the actual amount was $3,699.50. After reviewing the case billing record provided by EPIC, see Pl.'s Ex. 8, the Court agrees that the proper amount to be attributed to the review of documents released by the FBI pursuant to this litigation is $3,699.50.
The Court also agrees that the time EPIC attorneys spent reviewing documents released by the FBI in response to this FOIA litigation should be included in EPIC's attorney's fees award. The Report and Recommendation is correct that, to the extent an attorney spends time reviewing
Here, the facts as laid out by the parties in their August 2013 and November 2013 Joint Status Reports reveal that the time EPIC billed for reviewing documents released by the FBI was integral to the ongoing litigation as it was spent evaluating the FBI's disclosure for "sufficiency and proper withholding" in order to challenge the FBI's withholdings. The FBI began drip releasing the requested documents in October 2012 and, following the Court's March 28, 2013, Order denying the Open America stay, finished releasing the documents on July 30, 2013. Throughout this period EPIC attorneys reviewed the released documents. See Pl.'s Ex. 8 at 8-13. EPIC states that the only document review time it included in its case billing report from this period involved reviewing documents for the purpose of determining the sufficiency of the FBI's document release and the propriety of their withholdings. Pl.'s Objs. at 7. In the parties' August 29, 2013, Joint Status Report, the parties averred that while EPIC accepted certain of the FBI's withholdings of documents in part or in their entirety pursuant to several FOIA exemptions, EPIC attorneys did "not have sufficient information to evaluate the Defendant's withholdings under Exemptions 3 and 7(E)" and to "determine whether Defendant [had] produced all non-exempt records." Joint Status Report (Aug. 29, 2013), ¶ 9. Accordingly, the parties agreed that the FBI would produce a Vaughn index for a 500-page sample of released documents that would be selected by EPIC attorneys. Id. ¶ 10. EPIC attorneys included in their case billing record
Accordingly, the Court finds that EPIC attorneys' review of released documents was directly related to the ongoing FOIA litigation, specifically, challenging the sufficiency of the FBI's document release and the propriety of the FBI's withholdings. This is not a case where a plaintiff filed a complaint for documents under FOIA, the agency released the documents, and the plaintiff then requested attorney's fees for its time reviewing the released documents. See CREW, 825 F.Supp.2d at 231. EPIC did not accept all of the FBI's withholdings and secured the release of additional responsive documents after requiring the FBI to justify their invocation of certain FOIA Exemptions in the documents EPIC had reviewed. The time EPIC attorneys spent reviewing the released documents was an integral part of this FOIA litigation and crucial to EPIC's success in the litigation. Accordingly, the Court finds that EPIC should be awarded attorney's fees for the time it has billed for the review of released documents.
In sum, EPIC shall be awarded its requested attorney's fees and costs for litigating the merits of this FOIA action with only a reduction in the fees request attributable to time spent preparing and filing the Complaint and the Joint Proposed Schedule.
C. EPIC's Request for Attorney's Fees for Litigating the Attorney's Fees Award
Turning to the final issue, EPIC additionally requests that the Court award it attorney's fees incurred in petitioning for attorney's fees, objecting to the Report and Recommendation, and in responding to the FBI's objections to the Report and Recommendation. Such an award is commonly referred to as a "fees-on-fees" award. Specifically, EPIC requests $3,587.50 in fees for preparing its initial attorney's fees motion; $3,469.50 for preparing its Reply in support of its fee motion; $5,254 for preparing its Objections to the Report and Recommendation; $3,420 for preparing its Opposition to Defendant's Objections; and approximately $1,376 for preparing its Reply in support of its Objections to the Report and Recommendation.
As an initial matter, both parties dispute the amount of requested fees Magistrate Judge Kay should have attributed to the fee litigation. EPIC argues that in the briefing of its Motion for Attorney's Fees, it requested a total of $7,057 in fees-on-fees
The FBI also argues that the Report and Recommendation misstated the amount of requested fees attributable to the fee litigation, but for a far different reason. Specifically, the FBI argues that Magistrate Judge Kay should have treated all of the hours EPIC attorneys billed after October 2, 2013—the last time, the FBI alleges, EPIC performed any legal work in connection with the underlying FOIA dispute—as part of the requested fees-on-fees award. Def.'s Objs. at 5. The FBI contends that after October 2, 2013, "every single billing entry relates to fees—whether an attempt to settle the fee dispute, preparation of a status report concerning the fee dispute, researching concerning fee law, or preparation and filing of the fee motion." Id. at 5-6. Accordingly, the FBI argues, EPIC's initial fees-on-fee request actually totaled $8,145 and Magistrate Judge Kay should have reduced EPIC's overall attorney's fees award by that amount when he declined to award fees-on-fees in the Report and Recommendation. Instead, Magistrate Judge Kay reduced EPIC's overall attorney's fee award by $3,587.50, which only represents the amount directly attributable to EPIC's drafting and editing of the initial motion for attorney's fees. Magistrate Judge Kay recommended allowing recovery of fees for EPIC's other work related to attorney's fees, but not related to the drafting of the actual motion for attorney's fees, explaining that such work is "closely tied to the litigation." R & R at 11 (explaining that fees should be allowed for EPIC attorneys' work "conduct[ing] research, h[olding] internal discussions about the productions, h[olding] discussions with opposing counsel about the productions, draft[ing] filings for the Court, and work[ing] internally and with opposing counsel on settlement." (emphasis added)).
The Court agrees with the FBI that all of the hours EPIC billed after October 2, 2013, directly related to EPIC's efforts to obtain attorney's fees for this FOIA litigation and are thus most appropriately treated as part of EPIC's requested fees-on-fees award.
The FBI argues that such a fees-on-fees award is exorbitant. The FBI urges the Court to not award fees for EPIC's preparation of its Opposition to the FBI's Objections to the Report and Recommendation. Def.'s Reply at 4. The FBI also urges the Court to order a fees-on-fees award no greater than 15% of the attorney's fees awarded for litigating the merits of this action. Id. at 2. While it "is settled in this circuit" that "[h]ours reasonably devoted to a request for fees are compensable," Noxell Corp. v. Firehouse No. 1 Bar-B-Que Rest., 771 F.2d 521, 528 (D.C. Cir. 1985), "`fees on fees must be reasonable, and not excessive,'" Boehner v. McDermott, 541 F.Supp.2d 310, 325 (D.D.C. 2008) (citation omitted). "Courts, therefore, `have an obligation to scrutinize the hours spent preparing the fee petitions to insure that the total is reasonable and that it does not represent a windfall for the attorneys.'" Id. (citation omitted). In Commissioner, INS v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 110 S.Ct. 2316, 110 L.Ed.2d 134 (1990), the Supreme Court has explained that
Id. at 163, 110 S.Ct. 2316 n.10. The Court agrees with the FBI that EPIC's fees-on-fees request, which is over $1,000 greater than the $20,459.50 in attorney's fees and costs the Court is awarding EPIC for litigating the underlying FOIA action, is excessive. First, the Court finds that awarding EPIC attorney's fees for preparing its Opposition to the FBI's Objections to the Report and Recommendation would effectively be a "fees-on-fees-on-fees" award because EPIC's Opposition only addresses its request for a fees-on-fees award. Such a "fees-on-fees-on-fees" award is too attenuated from original adjudication to be compensable. See Means, 999 F.Supp.2d at 136 n.7 ("fees on fees on fees, as may be pursued by the plaintiff for the successful adjudication of the current claim, may be too removed to be compensable"); Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 444 F.3d 637, 640 (D.C. Cir. 2006) ("our general rule is that the court may award additional fees for `time reasonably devoted to obtaining attorneys fees'" (emphasis added) (citation omitted)). Accordingly, the Court reduces EPIC's requested fees-on-fees award by $3,420—the amount EPIC billed for preparing its Opposition to the FBI's Objections.
The Court does find it generally appropriate to award EPIC for its work attempting to settle the attorney's fees matter, preparing the initial motion for attorney's fees and its reply in support of its motion, and in preparing the Objections presently before the Court. However, the Court is mindful that the amount billed by EPIC for these activities totals $18,244.50, nearly 90% of the amount the Court is awarding EPIC in attorney's fees for litigating the merits of their FOIA action. As previously explained, the Court has "an obligation to scrutinize the hours spent preparing the fee petitions to insure that the total is reasonable and that it does not represent a windfall
The Court shall award EPIC fees-on-fees for its fee-related legal work prior to the filing of its Motion for Attorney's Fees, and for its work preparing the initial Motion for Attorney's Fees and its supporting Reply. EPIC has requested a total of $11,614.50 for this work. However, as discussed above, the Supreme Court and courts in this Circuit have held that "fees for fee litigation should be excluded to the extent that the applicant ultimately fails to prevail in such litigation." Commissioner, INS v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 163 n.10, 110 S.Ct. 2316, 110 L.Ed.2d 134 (1990); see also Nat. Veterans Legal Services Program v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, No. 96-1740, 1999 WL 33740260, *4 (D.D.C. April 13, 1999) ("`the applicant should not receive fees for the time spent defending' aspects of the fees request that proved unsuccessful" (quoting Commissioner, INS, 496 U.S. at 163 n. 10, 110 S.Ct. 2316)). Some courts have reduced fees-on-fees recovery by a percentage representing the percentage by which the attorney's fees requested in the prevailing party's original fee motion were reduced. See id. (citing cases). Here, EPIC was not entirely successful in litigating for attorney's fees incurred in preparing its Complaint or the Joint Prepared Schedule and the Court has accordingly reduced EPIC's attorney's fee award by $5,548 as discussed above. This amount represents a 21% reduction in EPIC's requested attorney's fees and costs award for litigating the merits of this FOIA action. Accordingly, the Court finds it appropriate to reduce EPIC's requested fees-on-fees award by 21% to $9,175.50.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court adopts Magistrate Judge Kay's Report and Recommendation except for the modifications delineated above. Accordingly, the Court shall award EPIC $20,109.50 in attorney's fees and $350 in costs for litigating the underlying FOIA action and $9,175.50 as a fees-on-fees award. In sum, the Court shall award EPIC $29,635 in attorney's fees and costs.
An appropriate Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.