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SCHOFIELD v. TRUSTEES OF THE UNIV. OF PENNSYLVANIA

March 11, 1996

JOYCE SCHOFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOYNER

 Joyner, J.

 March 11, 1996

 I

 This Memorandum and Order resolves the Motion for the Payment of Attorneys' Fees and Expenses filed by the plaintiff in this employment discrimination action. The plaintiff is Joyce Schofield, an African-American woman and a former employee of the defendant, the University of Pennsylvania ("the University"). On September 27, 1994, Ms. Schofield filed a complaint alleging that her supervisor subjected her to racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace. The plaintiff sought relief pursuant to nine claims arising under (1) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17; (2) the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (3) the Pennsylvanian Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 951-63; and (4) the tort theories of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent retention.

 The trial commenced on August 8, 1995, and continued for nine days. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's case-in-chief, we granted the University's motion to dismiss the tort claims. The remaining claims went to the jury, which returned a verdict in Ms. Schofield's favor with respect to her claims that the University permitted a sexually and racially hostile work environment, and in the University's favor as to the claims for quid pro quo harassment and retaliation. The jury awarded Ms. Schofield $ 40,000 to compensate her for her pain and suffering, but declined to award damages in the form of front and back pay, past and future medical expenses, or punitive damages. Thus, the amount of the jury's award represented approximately 2% of the total damages sought.

 Ms. Schofield, through her attorneys, William Ewing and Deborah Weinstein of the Philadelphia law firm of Connolly Epstein Chicco Foxman Engelmyer & Ewing, P.C. (the "Connolly Epstein firm"), now brings the instant motion, and asks this Court to award her over $ 272,000 in attorneys' fees and expenses. She argues that she is entitled to such an award under both state and federal law, in that she is the prevailing party, the fees were reasonably incurred as a result of this litigation, and the rate charged is the one normally charged by the attorneys who provided the services. For its part, the University argues that an award of fees is not justified in light of the verdict. Alternatively, the University contends that the amount requested is excessive, since both the amount of time expended and the hourly rate claimed are unreasonable.

 II

 The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, confers upon the court the discretion to award to the prevailing party "a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)(1994); see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) and 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 962(c)(4)(c.2) (providing for an attorney's fee award under similar circumstances in the employment discrimination context). The extent of the court's discretion in deciding whether to award fees to the prevailing party is narrow, however. Indeed, the Supreme Court has noted that "in absence of special circumstances a district court not merely 'may' but must award fees to the prevailing plaintiff." Independent Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 761, 105 L. Ed. 2d 639, 109 S. Ct. 2732 (1989) (citing Newman v. Piggie Park Enter., Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, 19 L. Ed. 2d 1263, 88 S. Ct. 964 (1968)); see Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40, 103 S. Ct. 1933 (1983) (holding that a prevailing plaintiff should recover attorney's fees unless special circumstances would make such an award unjust).

 Whether the fee request is reasonable is a far more complex inquiry, which compels the court to examine both the number of hours spent and the hourly rate requested. The party seeking attorney's fees bears the burden of demonstrating that her request is reasonable, and must therefore submit evidence to support its assertions as to the number of hours expended and the rate claimed. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). The burden then shifts to the opposing party to challenge, with specificity, *fn1" the reasonableness of the request. Id. While it is not permitted to reduce the requested amount based upon a factor not raised by the opposing party, the court possesses considerable discretion in fixing the fee amount in light of the objections. Bell v. United Princeton Properties, Inc., 884 F.2d 713, 721 (3d Cir. 1989).

 With respect to the hours spent, the court should deduct hours from the calculation if they are "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. Thus, the court may deduct hours spent litigating claims on which the party did not succeed, if those claims are factually and legally distinct from the ones on which she prevailed. Moreover, the court should deduct hours that are not sufficiently documented. Id. Finally, the hours spent should be viewed in light of the experience and qualifications of the attorney seeking the award. As our Court of Appeals has remarked, "[a] fee applicant cannot demand a high hourly rate--which is based on his or her experience, reputation, and presumed familiarity with the applicable law--and then run up an inordinate amount of time researching that same law." Ursic v. Bethlehem Mines, 719 F.2d 670, 677 (3d Cir. 1983).

 Once a court determines the amount of time reasonably spent, it turns to consider the reasonable hourly rate, which is to be calculated in accordance with the prevailing market rate in the relevant community. Rode, 892 F.2d at 1177 (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895, 79 L. Ed. 2d 891, 104 S. Ct. 1541 (1984)). Thus, courts must assess the skill and experience of the prevailing party's attorney, and compare the fee requested with the fees for similar legal services prevailing in the same community for lawyers of like experience, reputation and ability. Student Pub. Interest Research Group v. AT & T Bell Labs., 842 F.2d 1436, 1447 (3d Cir. 1988); Jackson v. Philadelphia Housing Auth., 858 F. Supp. 464, 475 (E.D. Pa. 1994).

 After determining the reasonable hourly rate and time reasonably expended, the court multiplies the two factors to reach the lodestar, which is the presumed reasonable fee. Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183; Rainey v. Philadelphia Housing Auth., 832 F. Supp. 127, 129 (E.D. Pa. 1993). This does not end the calculation, however. The district court is further empowered with the discretion to adjust the lodestar if it is not reasonable in light of the results obtained. Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. In a suit such as this one, therefore, where the plaintiff's claims for relief revolve around a core set of facts and related legal principles, "the district court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. This is not to say that the fee award cannot exceed the damages award, or that the court should tailor the fee award so that it is proportional to the damages awarded at trial; instead, the focus is on the nature of the result. Abrams v. Lightolier, Inc., 50 F.3d 1204, 1222 (3d Cir. 1995). Thus, where a party achieves an excellent result, that party's attorney will generally be entitled to the lodestar amount. But if the party obtains only a limited or partial success, the lodestar may be excessive, even if the claims raised were interrelated. Id. at 435-36. In sum, the fee awarded must be reasonable in light of the degree of success achieved.

 III

 Turning now to the fee request at hand, we first note, and the University does not otherwise contend, that Ms. Schofield is a prevailing party. By virtue of the verdict in her favor on her racially and sexually hostile work environment claims, Ms. Schofield has clearly obtained at least some of the relief she sought. Accordingly, she has met the fee statute's threshold requirement and is therefore entitled to an attorney's fee award unless special circumstances make such an award unjust.

 The University argues, however, that no award is justified given the relatively small damages award. *fn2" In support of this assertion, the University relies on Farrar, supra, a case in which the Supreme Court held that "when a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all." Farrar, 113 S. Ct. at 575 (internal citation omitted). The University thus contends that since Ms. Schofield prevailed on only two of her nine claims, her victory was so limited that she, like the plaintiff in Farrar, is not entitled to a fee award. Of course, the easy distinction between the instant case and Farrar is that Ms. Schofield was not awarded nominal damages, but instead persuaded the jury that she incurred compensable injuries as a result of the defendant's conduct. Thus, we find that Farrar does not require the result urged by the University.

 A. Time Reasonably Spent

 Having concluded that Ms. Schofield is entitled to a fee award, we turn now to calculate the lodestar. Our first step is to determine the number of hours reasonably spent by the members of the Connolly Epstein firm in their representation of Ms. Schofield. As we noted above, Ms. Schofield bears the burden of demonstrating that the hours expended are reasonable. To satisfy this burden, she has filed declarations of the attorneys involved and billing sheets detailing the work of Mr. Ewing; Ms. Weinstein; John Mark Myers, an attorney with another law firm who represented Ms. Schofield at a series of depositions; and a number of other lawyers and paraprofessionals. This work, including the services claimed by Mr. Myers, amounts to 1,603.6 hours, and results in a total charge of $ 247,341. A summary of the hours expended on each of the general areas involved in the litigation follows:

 1. Case Assessment and Attempts to Resolve

 Ms. Weinstein . . . . 27.2 hours

 Mr. Ewing . . . . . . 3.2 hours

 Total . . . . . . . . 30.4 hours

 2. Administrative Agency Proceedings

 Ms. Weinstein . . . . 20.4 hours

 Mr. Ewing . . . . . . 4.3 hours

 Total . . . . . . . . 24.7 hours

 3. Complaint

 Ms. Weinstein . . . . 56.6 hours

 Mr. Ewing . . . . . . 3.5 ...


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