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Storm v. Aquatic Builders

March 31, 2009

JOLIE L. STORM, AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL K. STORM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AQUATIC BUILDERS, LTD.; LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY D/B/A LIBERTY BOND SERVICES; CANANDAIGUA RECREATION DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION; CANANDAIGUA NATIONAL BANK & TRUST COMPANY; CANANDAIGUA MESSENGER, INC.; MATTHEWS & FIELDS LUMBER OF HENRIETTA, INC.; ESCO OF CANANDAIGUA, INC.; COMMONWEALTH LUMBER COMPANY; EAST SIDE CARPENTRY, INC.; AND RUTNER-IRON CO., INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

In her complaint, Plaintiff*fn1 alleged claims against Defendant Aquatic Builders, Ltd. ("Aquatic") for breach of contract arising from construction of the Roseland Water Park Project for wrongfully terminating Storm Construction and for failing to correct weather-related site conditions. Defendant Aquatic filed a counterclaim asserting that Storm Construction abandoned the work site and its contractual obligations.

Following a jury trial that ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict, this Court granted Defendants Aquatic and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company's motion, pursuant to Rule 50, for judgment as a matter of law with respect to all of Plaintiff's claims and in favor of Defendants' counterclaim in the amount of $75,487.15.

Furthermore, the Court granted Defendant Aquatic's request for an award of attorney's fees, finding that the parties' contract provided for recovery of attorney's fees to the extent they were associated with the steps necessary to correct Plaintiff's contractual deficiencies. The Court, however, requested further briefing as to what "steps" the contract encompassed and expressed uncertainty whether the contract encompassed the attorney's fees expended to defend against Plaintiff's breach-of-contract claims. The Court requested a short memorandum of law on this issue as well as documentation and contemporaneous time records to support Defendant Aquatic's claim. The Court also provided Plaintiff with an opportunity to respond to Defendant Aquatic's submissions. Defendant Aquatic filed the required papers, and Plaintiff responded.*fn2

The following constitutes the Court's written calculation of the amount of attorney's fees that Defendant Aquatic is entitled to recover.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The parties' contract

Article 5 of Defendant Aquatic's contract with Storm Construction provides for the recovery of "'reasonable . . . attorney's fees'" for the "'steps [Aquatic] deems necessary to correct [contractual] deficiencies.'" See Memorandum-Decision and Order dated May 10, 2007 at 9 (quoting Plaintiff's Trial Exhibit "9" at Article 5). "Under New York law, when a contract provides for the payment of attorney's fees and expenses, the court must order the losing party to pay the amounts actually incurred by the prevailing party, 'so long as those amounts are not unreasonable.'" Sony Music Entm't Inc. v. Pedestal Prods., Inc., No. 01 CIV. 4033, 2002 WL 1226861, *4 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 9, 2002) (quotation omitted).

Despite the interconnected nature of the defense of Plaintiff's claim and the pursuit of Defendant's counterclaim, the Court finds, after reviewing the parties' submissions, that, under the contract, the steps necessary to correct Plaintiff's contractual deficiencies is limited to the litigation of Defendant's counterclaim. Furthermore, the Court notes that Plaintiff presented two theories of recovery on her breach of contract claim: (1) failure to remedy problems with site conditions and (2) wrongful termination of Storm Construction. See Memorandum-Decision and Order dated May 10, 2007 at 4. In addressing the counterclaim, the Court only referenced its discussion of Plaintiff's second theory of recovery. See id. at 11. The Court notes that Plaintiff's breach of contract claim was broader and involved additional issues not present in Defendant's counterclaim. Accordingly, the Court will grant attorney's fees only for the work associated with Defendant Aquatic's counterclaim.

B. Reasonable hourly rate

To determine an appropriate award of attorney's fees in the Second Circuit, a district court should determine the "reasonable hourly rate . . . [that] a paying client would be willing to pay." Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 522 F.3d 182, 190 (2d Cir. 2008). The court should consider the Johnson*fn3 factors as well as the following: the fact that a "paying client wishes to spend the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively" and the benefits to the attorney's reputation for being associated with the case. Id. Finally, "[t]he district court should use that reasonable hourly rate to calculate what can properly be termed the 'presumptively reasonable fee.'" Id.

The Court finds that, after considering all the factors above and the parties' submissions, the following rates are reasonable in this case: $210 for experienced attorneys; $150 for attorneys with more than four years, but less than ten years, experience; $120 for attorneys with four or fewer years of experience; $80 for paralegals; as well as one-half those rates for travel time (except where Defendant Aquatic's attorneys' billing rates are lower than these ...


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