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Parham-Johnson v. Pyramid Builders Assoc., Inc.

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 3, 2016

Darlene Parham-Johnson, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated
Pyramid Builders Assoc., Inc. et al No. 132971


          Elizabeth M. Fahey, J.

         Plaintiff brought a Wage Act claim that was tried before a jury in December 2015. After the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff, she filed a motion to recover attorneys fees and costs. Defendants filed an Opposition, and after a hearing on January 6, 2016, Plaintiff's request for Attorneys Fees and Costs is ALLOWED .


         Notwithstanding its name, Defendants' business, Pyramid Builders Associates, Inc. (" PBA"), is totally unrelated to construction; rather, it involves the provision of mental health, psychosocial, and clinical counseling to both children and adults. It has offices in Boston, Lawrence, Lynn, and Brockton. Presently, the only principal[1] of PBA is Dr. Omar Reid. Dr. Reid testified that he and Sekou Mims (" Mims") were Co-Directors of PBA, but since Mims's death, he is the company's sole Director and its Chief Marketing Officer. He also testified that PBA is a non-profit company, but did not explain the basis for such status. PBA's income, according to Dr. Reid, is generated by Mass. Health, Medicare, and Medicaid payments because PBA largely serves a low-income population and from referrals from courts.

         Dr. Reid claims that he is an independent contractor for PBA; he also testified that he hired all of the company's independent contractors in 2008 and 2009. The number of PBA's independent contractors has increased to well over 300. Dr. Reid testified that PBA has grown " so rapidly, " and that it " hires only independent contractors" and has no employees.[2] As a result, PBA does not pay social security, medicare, unemployment, or taxes for any of its workers.[3]

         Clarence Montgomery's (" Montgomery"), the Principal of Montgomery Financial, has handled payroll and accounting for PBA since 2002, including preparing its financial records for audits.[4] Montgomery's testimony confirms that the company receives funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and also that each independent contractor is sent IRS Form 1099-MISC to report yearly income received.

         Plaintiff worked for PBA from July 2008 until the fall of 2009.[5] Plaintiff initially worked part time at PBA, but later became full time. PBA required she sign a Consultant Agreement indicating she was an independent contractor, and not an employee. This relationship formed the basis for Plaintiff's Wage Act claim, which was tried before a jury in December 2015. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. Accordingly, Plaintiff filed the present Motion for Assessment of Attorneys Fees.


         This court accepts that the $300.00 hourly rate of Plaintiff's attorneys is reasonable, and that the descriptions of work are reasonable for the charged time as well. Also, this court accepts that the costs requested are reasonable.[6]

         Plaintiff's success on her Wage Act claim entitles her to attorneys fees reasonably related to the enforcement of that statutory right. See G.L.c. 149, § 148; see also G.L.c. 149, § 150 (providing that any employee aggrieved by a violation of the Wage Act shall be awarded the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys fees). The guidelines for determining the amount of a reasonable fee in this setting have been set forth in Heller v. Silver Branch Construction Corp., 376 Mass. 621, 629, 382 N.E.2d 1065 (1978), and in Linthicum v. Archambault, 379 Mass. 381, 388-89, 398 N.E.2d 482 (1979). Commonly referred to as the " lodestar" method, the reasonable fee is calculated by multiplying the hours reasonably spent by a reasonable hourly rate and then making any necessary adjustments. See Berman v. Linnane, 434 Mass. 301, 303, 748 N.E.2d 466 (2001); Haddad v. Wal-Mart Stores. Inc. (No. 2), 455 Mass. 1024, 1025, 920 N.E.2d 278 (2010) .

          " What constitutes a reasonable fee is a question that is committed to the sound discretion of the judge." Berman, 434 Mass. at 302-03. " When determining a reasonable attorneys fee, the focus is not the bill submitted . . . or the amount in controversy . . . but several factors, including 'the nature of the case and the issues presented, the time and labor required, the amount of damages involved, the result obtained, the experience, reputation and ability of the attorney, the usual price charged for similar services by other attorneys in the same area, and the amount of awards in similar cases.'" Id. at 303, quoting Linthicum, 379 Mass. at 388-89. However, no single factor is determinative, and a factor-by-factor analysis is not required. Berman, 434 Mass. at 303. The presiding trial judge, " making firsthand observation of the quality and necessary quantity of the parties' preparation and performance is uniquely situated to assess the reasonable value" of the attorney's services. City Rentals, LLC v. BBC Co., 79 Mass.App.Ct. 559, 566-67, 947 N.E.2d 1103 (2011). Therefore, the judge has wide discretion in determining the amount of attorneys fees to be awarded to a party. See Heller, 376 Mass. at 629 (" A judge presiding over the action for which the plaintiff seeks reasonable attorneys fees has ample opportunity to acquire firsthand knowledge" of relevant factors to be considered in determining reasonable award).

         1. Reasonableness of Hourly Rate

          " A determination of a reasonable hourly rate begins with the 'average rates in the attorney's community for similar work done by attorneys of the same years' experience.'" Haddad, 455 Mass. at 1025-26, quoting Stratos v. Dept. of Pub. Welfare, 387 Mass. 312, 323, 439 N.E.2d 778 (1982). This court finds the rate of $300.00 per hour for plaintiff's attorneys as reasonable.

         And, respectful of counsels' experience, this court discerns the objective worth of the services provided by Attorney Cohen to be a reduced rate of $300.00 per hour. This rate takes into account counsel's experience, and the basic facts of this case. See Haddad, 455 Mass. at 1025-26. The setting of such a rate is within the court's discretion. See Holland v. Jachmann (No. 1), 85 Mass.App.Ct. 292, 299, 9 N.E.3d 340 & n.11 (2014) (no abuse of discretion assigning $350.00 hourly rate to salaried in-house counsel). See also Byrnes v. Luke, 30 Mass. L. Rptr. ...

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