United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
BRADLEY JOHNSON, as a general guardian, for and on behalf of S.J., a minor, and individually on behalf of S.J., Plaintiff,
HYATT HOTELS CORPORATION, d/b/a Hyatt Place Airport/Convention Center, MONTAGUE REALCO, LLC, d/b/a Hyatt Place Airport/Convention Center, and NAMAN MANAGEMENT, LLC, Defendants.
C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the court on plaintiff Bradley Johnson's
(“Johnson”) motion for attorneys' fees. For
the reasons set forth below, the court denies the motion.
dispute arises from an alleged assault on a minor that
occurred at the Hyatt Place Airport/Convention Center located
at 3234 West Montague Avenue, North Charleston, South
Carolina (the “hotel”), on June 5, 2015. Am.
Compl. ¶¶ 8- 33. Johnson alleges that S.J., a 14
year old member of the Parkview High School freshmen baseball
team from Lilburn, Georgia, was staying with his teammates
and coaches, including members of the junior varsity and
varsity teams, at the hotel for a summer baseball tournament.
Id. ¶¶ 8, 10-13. S.J. was assigned to Room
314 with three other minor teammates. Id. ¶ 15.
The hotel issued each set of roommates two electronic
“key cards, ” which were used to access their
assigned room. Id. ¶ 16.
evening of the incident, Johnson alleges that members of the
varsity team began making unannounced visits to the rooms of
the freshmen teammates to engage in certain bizarre and
abusive hazing rituals. Id. ¶ 18. One of
S.J.'s roommates alerted S.J. and others about this
activity, and when a group of varsity players demanded entry
into Room 314, S.J. and his roommates remained silent and did
not answer the door. Id. ¶ 20. At this point,
the varsity team members allegedly “went to the front
desk of the hotel and asked for a ‘keycard' so they
could gain entry to [Room 314].” Id. ¶
21. A hotel employee provided the requested keycard,
without any authority or permission from anyone who could
give such authority or permission and, on information and
belief, such was done without checking the identification of
the person requesting the key; and it was done in violation
of all hotel safety policies, procedures, and custom and in
violation of law to allow the unauthorized and unpermitted
holder(s) of the keycard to gain entrance to the room
occupied by S.J. and his three roommates.
Id. ¶ 21. Johnson alleges that the varsity
teammates then entered Room 314 and subjected S.J. to the
aforementioned hazing. Id. ¶¶ 23-25.
Realco, LLC's (“Montague”) is the owner of
the hotel. Id. ¶ 3. Naman Management, LLC
(“Naman, ” together with Montage
“defendants”) is an affiliate of Montague that
manages the operation of the hotel. Id. ¶ 4.
Johnson brought claims against both defendants for
negligence, invasion of privacy, breach of warranty, false
imprisonment, violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade
Practices Act, and loss of solatium, seeking recovery of
damages suffered as a result of the incident. Id.
¶¶ 34-62. Johnson alleges that S.J. has
“sustained serious psychological damage and
injury.” Id. ¶ 64. The court entered
acceptance of offer of judgment on April 24, 2017. This
motion for attorney's fees was filed on May 3, 2017 and
Montague filed a response on May 17, 2017. Naman filed a
separate response on May 17, 2017. Johnson replied to
Naman's response on May 24, 2017, and to Montague's
response on May 24, 2017. This motion is now fully briefed
and is now ripe for the court's review.
the American Rule, each party bears the costs of its own
attorneys, and attorney's fees are generally not a
recoverable cost of litigation unless a statute or agreement
provides otherwise. See Key Tronic Corp. v. United
States, 511 U.S. 809, 814-15 (1994). The South Carolina
Unfair Trade Practices Act (“SCUTPA”) mandates
that a court award attorney's fees and costs to a
successful party. See S.C. Code Ann. §
39-5-140(a) (“[U]pon the finding by the court of a
violation of this article [the SCUTPA], the court shall award
to the person bringing such action under this section
reasonable attorney's fees and costs.”).
April 24, 2017, the underlying matter was resolved by way of
plaintiff's acceptance of an offer to allow judgment to
be taken against defendant, pursuant to Rule 68, Fed.R.Civ.P.
Johnson now contends that because defendant's offer of
judgment made no explicit provision for fees, and because he
is the prevailing party by way of the Rule 68 offer of
judgment, he is entitled to fees in the sum of $264, 047.52.
Defendants counter that the offer of judgment did provide for
fees in that it offered a “total sum of $150, 000,
” thereby implicitly resolving the matter of costs. The
first issue before the court is whether the offer of judgment
that was accepted by all parties and entered by the court on
April 24, 2017, which referenced all of Johnson's claims
and “costs” but did not include any language on
attorneys' fees, precludes Johnson's motion for
attorneys' fees. Since the court finds that the offer of
judgment does not encompass fees, the court then proceeds to
the customary analysis of computing attorneys' fees to
determine if Johnson is owed the full $264, 047 fee award.
While the court finds that Johnson may file a motion for fees
because the Rule 68 offer of judgment was ambiguous on
whether fees is encompassed in the judgment amount, the court
ultimately denies Johnson's motion for fees. The
court's entry of the offer of judgment was a ministerial
duty and not a verdict rendered by the court against
defendants on the SCUTPA claim.
Fee Award under SCUTPA where Rule 68 Offer of Judgment
is Silent on Fees
review of the offer of judgment reveals that it states only
that it is “inclusive of any costs.” Johnson
contends that the Rule 68 offer of judgment was ambiguous
with respect to attorneys' fees because it failed to
specify whether it included such fees, and that this
ambiguity must be construed against defendants. Pl.'s
Mot. 6. As explained below, the issue of if a prevailing
party may be awarded attorneys' fees under a Rule 68
offer of judgment that is ambiguous on whether fees are
included has not been conclusively decided by the Fourth
Circuit. The court draws on existing Fourth Circuit precedent
on fee ...