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MURPHY v. PHILADELPHIA HOUS. AUTH.

January 8, 1985

EUGENE MURPHY, et al.
v.
PHILADELPHIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BRODERICK

 MEMORANDUM

 This is a civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by elderly and handicapped residents of the Emlen Arms apartment development against the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) and its Executive Director and Director of Operations. The Emlen Arms is a public housing development (limited to occupancy by elderly and handicapped persons) which is owned and operated by the PHA. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the defendants had denied the plaintiffs their rights to free speech, assembly, and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by preventing persons who were not residents of Emlen Arms from attending meetings organized by tenants at Emlen Arms for the purpose of discussing housing problems. The plaintiffs' verified complaint was filed on September 14, 1983, together with a motion for a preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief in addition to damages, and sought to enjoin the PHA from prohibiting the plaintiffs from utilizing the community room at Emlen Arms to meet with other tenants and invited non-resident guests to discuss the tenants' housing problems. The allegations in the plaintiffs' verified complaint set forth the following sequence of events. On August 10, 1983, the plaintiffs informed the manager of Emlen Arms that they would hold a tenants' meeting that evening to discuss housing problems at Emlen Arms. The manager informed the plaintiffs that the meeting could not take place and that if such meeting was attempted, the police would be summoned to prevent it. Nevertheless, on the evening of August 10 a group of tenants did meet in the community room of Emlen Arms. Shortly after the meeting commenced, four to six PHA police appeared at the meeting room (together with some officers of the Philadelphia Police Department). Lieutenant Anderson of the PHA police ordered the tenants to disperse immediately, which they did. On August 12, 1983, counsel for plaintiffs sent a letter to the General Counsel of PHA requesting assurance that the tenants could utilize the community room in the future. In a letter dated August 15, 1983 General Counsel of PHA wrote to plaintiff's counsel and stated in pertinent part:

 
Mr. Murphy is allowed to meet with any of the other tenants in the Community Room at Emlen Arms whenever he chooses. I am informed that the objection to the August 10th meeting was that there were several people present who were not tenants. The normal procedure is that Mr. Murphy set up the meeting through Ms. Barnes, President of the Tenant Council. If he cannot get the Tenant Council's approval, for some reason, then Mr. Murphy may call Mr. John Tatum at (215) 561-7946.
 
At no time will Mr. Murphy be denied a meeting with other tenants of Emlen Arms.

 (emphasis in original).

 Plaintiff Eugene Murphy contacted Ms. Barnes to set up another meeting at Emlen Arms but she refused to acknowledge his request. Mr. Murphy's calls to the office of John Tatum, advising him of plaintiffs' desire to meet in the Emlen Arms community room on August 30, 1983, were not returned. On August 30, 1983 the manager of Emlen Arms informed Mr. Murphy that the plaintiffs could not meet in the community room. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs did meet in the community room that evening. Lieutenant Anderson of the PHA initially stopped the plaintiffs from meeting, but after examining a copy of the August 15, 1983 letter from PHA's General Counsel he permitted the meeting to continue. However, Lieutenant Anderson refused to permit a non-resident of Emlen Arms, Mark Paulmire of the Friends Weekend Work Camp Program, from attending the meeting. Mr. Paulmire, who operates an educational program for persons working with elderly and handicapped persons, had been invited by the plaintiffs to provide assistance to the tenants at their meeting. Lieutenant Anderson stated that he was prohibited from permitting any persons other than Emlen Arms tenants to meet in the community room, and he prohibited Mr. Paulmire from attending the meeting.

 After the plaintiffs' complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction was filed, the parties entered into negotiations with respect to the plaintiffs' claim for injunctive relief. After considerable negotiation, and following several conferences with this Court, the parties executed a Stipulation which was approved by this Court on March 5, 1984. The Stipulation provides that the defendants shall permit the plaintiffs to hold meetings of tenants in the Emlen Arms upon twenty-four hours notice where non-residents are expected to attend, and that the plaintiffs must notify the manager of Emlen Arms of the designated time of the meeting together with the identity of all non-residents expected to attend. In entering the Stipulation the defendants did not concede liability, and the issues of plaintiffs' damages, the defendants' counterclaim (for back rent), and the plaintiffs' right to attorneys' fees were expressly reserved.

 Presently before the Court is the motion of Harold R. Berk, Esq. for an award of an attorney's fee, filed pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Mr. Berk seeks a total of $1740 for his representation of the plaintiffs in connection with their claim for injunctive relief. Although the plaintiffs' claim for damages is pending, the plaintiffs have advised Mr. Berk that they no longer desire his representation and it appears they now intend to proceed pro se in this matter. Since it is clear that a "prevailing party" can be awarded statutory attorney's fees in a civil rights action prior to the conclusion of the litigation, N.A.A.C.P. v. Wilmington Medical Center, Inc., et al., 689 F.2d 1161, 1165 (3d Cir. 1983), Mr. Berk's fee petition is properly before this Court. The defendants do not dispute the reasonableness or the amount of the fee requested by Mr. Berk. However, they do contend that any award of fees would be inappropriate in this case because the plaintiffs are not "prevailing parties" (with respect to their claims for injunctive relief) within the meaning of the statute. For the reasons that follow this Court has determined that the plaintiffs are "prevailing parties" with respect to their claims for injunctive relief, and that Mr. Berk is entitled to an attorney's fee in the amount requested.

 Section 1988, 42 U.S.C. provides that in civil rights actions "The Court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The Supreme Court has stated that the standard for determining whether a plaintiff is a prevailing party under § 1988 is a "generous formulation" which is met by plaintiffs who succeed in achieving "some of the benefits the parties sought in bringing suit" and who have "acquired the primary relief sought." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 n.8, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1939, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 (1983) (citations omitted). In order to be considered a prevailing party within the meaning of § 1988 a plaintiff need not obtain a formal judgment in his favor:

 
the fact that respondent prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken her claim to fees. Nothing in the language of § 1988 conditions the District Court's power to award fees on full litigation of the issues or on a judicial determination that the plaintiffs' rights have been violated. Moreover, the Senate Report expressly stated that "for purposes of the award of counsel fees, parties may be considered to have prevailed when they vindicate rights, through a consent judgment or without formally obtaining relief."

 Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 131, 100 S. Ct. 2570, 2575, 65 L. Ed. 2d 653 (1980) (citations omitted).

 In assessing whether a plaintiff is a prevailing party in a civil rights action, the Third Circuit has directed that courts should not "give conclusive weight to the form of the judgment" but rather should "look to the substance of the litigation's outcome." Sullivan v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor, et al., 663 F.2d 443, 448 (3d Cir. 1981), quoting Ross v. Horn, 598 F.2d 1312, 1322 (3d Cir. 1979), cert. denied 448 U.S. 906, 65 L. Ed. 2d 1136, 100 S. Ct. 3048 (1980). The Third Circuit has declared that "whether [a plaintiff] is entitled to a fees award should be determined by whether her case acted as a 'catalyst' for the vindication of her constitutional rights." Sullivan, 663 F.2d at 448-49, quoting Staten v. Housing Authority, 638 F.2d 599, 605 (3d Cir. 1980). In summarizing its decisions on this issue the Court of Appeals has stated that "it is settled law in this circuit that as long as the plaintiff achieves some of the benefits sought in initiating a lawsuit, even though the plaintiff does not ultimately succeed in securing a favorable judgment, the plaintiff can be considered the prevailing party for the purposes of a fee award. " N.A.A.C.P. v. Wilmington Medical Center, Inc., 689 F.2d at 1166. Furthermore, "it is established law that plaintiffs must satisfy only two requirements in order to be considered the prevailing party for purposes of a fee award: the plaintiffs must essentially succeed in obtaining some relief on the merits of their claim, and the circumstances under which the plaintiffs obtain that relief must be causally linked to the prosecution of the complaint." Id. at 1171, citing Sullivan, 663 F.2d at 452. Thus "the critical factor in determining causation is . . . whether the relief was implemented as a result of plaintiff's lawsuit." N.A.A.C.P. v. Wilmington Medical Center, Inc., 689 F.2d at 161 (emphasis in original). Furthermore, the plaintiffs' lawsuit need not be the sole cause of the relief obtained. The Third Circuit has advised that

 
where there is more than one cause, the plaintiff is a prevailing party if the action was a material factor in bringing about the defendant's [cessation of arguably illegal conduct]. To hold otherwise would be inconsistent with the broad remedial purpose of § 1988 because in many cases causation will hinge on the defendant's motivation. To require some stricter standard of causation would mean ...

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