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Glass v. Snellbaker

September 23, 2008

WILLIAM R. GLASS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ARTHUR C. SNELLBAKER AND THE CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees [Docket Item 78] pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons explained below, the Court shall grant the motion in part and award Plaintiff fees in the amount of $138,506.75 and costs (including paralegal fees) in the amount of $10,898.42.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought this action alleging several separate categories of harm. The first, related to his retaliatory transfer and unlawful treatment in violation of First Amendment rights, was reflected in Counts One and Two of the Complaint. Count Three was a contract claim. Count Four was an ill-defined common law claim for denial of process rights. Counts Five and Six asserted claims for defamation and interference with employment relationship, respectively.

On June 14, 2007, this Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment. On Count One, the Court granted summary judgment insofar as Plaintiff was asserting speech claims, but denied summary judgment on Plaintiff's association claim. Count Two, an identical claim under the New Jersey Constitution, essentially fell out of the case. The Court granted summary judgment to Defendants on Count Five, the defamation claim, and Count Six, the interference with employment relationship claim.

Plaintiff then went to trial on two categories of claims: one alleging retaliatory transfer and discharge in violation of First Amendment rights of association, brought via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and one alleging violation of process rights in violation of state law, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:14-147. Although the legal rights asserted in the two claims were distinct, they arose from much the same nucleus of operative facts. The first related to the fact of the retaliatory transfer and poor treatment in the new position leading to Glass' involuntary retirement, and was brought pursuant to federal constitutional law. The second related to the process to which Plaintiff was allegedly entitled under New Jersey law as an officer suffering a constructive demotion. Therefore, the claims were not based on the same law, but there was factual overlap as Plaintiff sought to prove he was treated as if he was demoted into his new position. At the close of Plaintiff's case, on January 29, 2008, the Court granted judgment as a matter of law on the state law claim. Accordingly, Plaintiff was not a prevailing party for the work performed on that state law claim and the time expended between June 14, 2007 and January 29, 2008; to the extent that Plaintiff's counsel's services relating only to the state law claim can be segregated, an award of attorney's fees cannot include time devoted solely to the state law claim.

Plaintiff achieved a jury verdict on the First Amendment associational claim and judgment was entered on January 31, 2008 in favor of Plaintiff for $796,000 in compensatory damages against both Defendants and $75,000 against Defendant Snellbaker. Post-trial motions followed and on September 17, 2008 the Court remitted the compensatory damage award to $382,400 and entered an amended judgment.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's Fee Petition

Plaintiff's counsel, Michelle Douglass, Esquire, is a Certified Civil Trial Attorney in New Jersey with twenty years' experience in litigating civil rights cases. Her firm, The Douglass Law Firm, LLC, although essentially a solo practice, appears frequently in federal and state courts.

In this case, Ms. Douglass seeks reimbursement of fees and costs. Her petition lists 527.85 hours of her time, to be multiplied by an hourly rate of $300.00, for a total of $158,355.00. The petition seeks paralegal fees for 102.50 hours at a rate of $75.00 for a total of $7,687.50. The petition also seeks costs of $6,832.59. The total of fees and costs, exclusive of interest, amounts to $175,875.06.

Plaintiff also seeks an award of prejudgment and post-judgment interest and an enhancement for any negative tax consequences incurred by Plaintiff.

Defendants oppose this motion for reasons stated in the City of Atlantic City's brief in opposition. They contest Plaintiff's counsel's hourly rate of $300, claiming it should not be greater than $250, they dispute counsel's time records as reflecting excessive, duplicative and unnecessary work, and they dispute various costs claimed for reimbursement. Defendants assert that counsel should not be reimbursed for travel time at her full rate, and that time spent on unsuccessful claims must be excluded. Defendants further argue that the Court should award no interest and no enhancement for tax consequences in this case under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Plaintiff's reply brief addresses the alleged excessiveness and necessity in detail, and generally defends the time expended and the fees and costs sought.

B. Prevailing Parties Entitled to Reasonable Fee

The law provides that Plaintiff is entitled to reasonable fees in addition to the compensatory damages he obtained in this § 1983 action. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) ("In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [42 U.S.C. § 1983], the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . .a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . .").

Under the "American Rule," parties to litigation are to pay their own attorneys' fees, absent statutory authority and a court order providing otherwise. Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't. of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 602, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed. 2d 855 (2001). In civil rights cases, Congress has provided such authorization: courts "may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) ("§ 1988"). Pursuant to this authority, the "prevailing party" in such cases is normally awarded attorneys' fees, absent special circumstances. Truesdell v. Philadelphia Hous. Auth., 290 F.3d 159, 163 (3d Cir. 2002); City of Morris v. Nationalist Movement, 273 F.3d 527, 535 (3d Cir. 2001).

Parties are considered "prevailing parties" if "they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefits the parties sought in bringing suit." J.O. ex rel. C.O. v. Orange Twp. Bd. of Educ., 287 F.3d 267, 271 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted). To "succeed" under this standard, a party must achieve a "court-ordered 'change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant.'" Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604 (quoting Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 103 L.Ed. 2d 866 (1989)).

People Against Police Violence v. City of Pittsburgh, 520 F.3d 226, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2008). There is no doubt in this case that Plaintiff is a prevailing party, as defined in the statute, as he proved liability at trial and, according to this Court's recent opinion on the post-trial motions, will retain substantial awards for compensatory and punitive damages. Accordingly, Plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b).

The Court shall, therefore, award Plaintiff a reasonable fee for the work expended in this case, computed under the lodestar method:

A useful starting point for determining the reasonableness of the fee is the lodestar calculation. Under the lodestar approach, a court determines the reasonable number of hours expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. The product of this calculation "is a presumptively reasonable fee, but it may still require subsequent adjustment."

Hahnemann Univ. Hosp. v. All Shore, Inc., 514 F.3d 300, 310 (3d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). The burden is on plaintiff, as the prevailing party, to document counsel's efforts and expenditures and demonstrate the necessity and reasonableness of counsel's efforts in obtaining the result as prevailing party.

The party seeking an award of fees should submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed. Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.

The district court also should exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were not "reasonably expended." S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 6 (1976). Cases may be overstaffed, and the skill and experience of lawyers vary widely. Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission. "In the private sector, 'billing judgment' is an important component in fee setting. It is no less important here. Hours that are not properly billed to one's client also are not properly billed to one's adversary pursuant to statutory authority." Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 891 (1980) (en banc) (emphasis in original).

Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-34 (1983). In addition, while the prevailing party status is a threshold determination, it does not necessarily entitle a prevailing plaintiff to fees for all claims asserted in a case.

In some cases a plaintiff may present in one lawsuit distinctly different claims for relief that are based on different facts and legal theories. In such a suit, even where the claims are brought against the same defendants -- often an institution and its officers, as in this case -- counsel's work on one claim will be unrelated to his work on another claim. Accordingly, work on an unsuccessful claim cannot be deemed to have been "expended in pursuit of the ultimate result achieved." Davis v. County of Los Angeles, 8 E. P. D., at 5049 [para. 9444 (CD Cal. 1974)]. The congressional intent to limit awards to prevailing parties requires ...


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