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SANDERS v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING & URBAN DEV.

September 29, 2005.

CHERYL SANDERS, CECILE WHITE, CHERYL ULRICH, MARTHA SURRATT, SARAH WILLIAMS, KELLY VICK, and CHRISTIANS FOR A BETTER COMMUNITY, INC. on their own behalf and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT, and ITS SECRETARY, THE ALLEGHENY COUNTY HOUSING AUTHORITY AND ITS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY and ITS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, and the COUNTY OF ALLEGHENY, PENNSYLVANIA, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GUSTAVE DIAMOND, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the court is a petition for an award of attorneys' fees and expenses (Document No. 631) and a revised fee petition (Document No. 646) filed by the plaintiff class seeking attorneys' fees and costs incurred during the period from January 1, 1999, through February 17, 2005, for work undertaken to implement and enforce the Consent Decree entered between the parties on December 12, 1994. For the reasons set forth below, the petition will be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, after making adjustments to plaintiffs' requested hourly rates and reducing the specific number of hours claimed, the court will approve attorneys' fees of $501,505.05 and costs of $2,776.47 for a total award of $504,281.52 for the requested period. Pursuant to the court's ruling on proportionality, HUD would be responsible for 65% of the fees and costs, $327,782.98, and ACHA would be responsible for 35%, $176,498.54. However, in order to avoid a windfall to plaintiffs, who will receive $194,000 from ACHA in a settlement arrived at by those parties, the court will deduct $17,501.46, the excess of the settlement amount and the 35% liability amount, from HUD's portion, thus HUD will be responsible for only $310,281.52 of the total award.

The parties are intimately familiar with the factual and procedural background of this case and the court, in its opinion dated March 14, 2001 (Document No. 511), exhaustively set forth that background through that date. Accordingly, the facts and procedural history of this case will not be recounted in detail here other than briefly to place the pending request in context.

  Plaintiffs commenced this class action*fn1 in 1988 against the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"), the Allegheny County Housing Authority ("ACHA"), the County of Allegheny ("the County"), and the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County ("RAAC"), seeking redress for alleged de jure racial segregation in public and other federal assisted housing in Allegheny County and for the alleged perpetuation of and failure to remediate that segregation in violation of the United States Constitution and specific federal statutes cited in the complaint.

  After years of pretrial preparation, the parties drafted "a settlement agreement designed to desegregate the ACHA's housing programs and provide class members decent, affordable, and racially integrated public housing opportunities." Sanders, et al. v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment, et al., 872 F.Supp. 216, 218 (W.D.Pa. 1994). A desegregation plan for Allegheny County developed by a committee of experts served as a blueprint for a negotiated settlement agreement, which the parties presented to the court for its approval as a consent decree ("the Decree").

  On December 12, 1994, this court granted a motion to approve the Decree as a fair and adequate resolution of the litigation, and the Decree was entered as an order of this court. Id. at 217. The Decree enjoined each defendant "to implement [it] and take all actions necessary to fulfill its obligations." Id. at 220.

  On March 14, 2001, this court issued a comprehensive opinion granting in part and denying in part plaintiff's counsel's motion for attorneys' fees incurred during the period from January 1995 to December 1998. As modified by this court's order dated April 23, 2001, (Document No. 517), a total interim attorneys' fees and costs award of $551,334.42 was entered in plaintiffs' favor.

  During the intervening years, disputes among the parties regarding the Decree periodically arose, some of which required court intervention. Finally, on December 23, 2004, after numerous conferences and lengthy negotiations, the parties filed a joint stipulation indicating that they had reached a settlement agreement which would end the Decree. Class members were given notice of the proposed settlement agreement and an opportunity to be heard at a hearing which was held before the court on January 28, 2005. With no objections, this court entered an order dated January 28, 2005, terminating the Decree. (Document No. 627).

  On February 18, 2005, plaintiffs' filed the pending petition for attorneys' fees and costs for the period from January 1, 1999, to February 17, 2005. Responses in opposition to the petition were filed by both HUD (Document No. 637) and ACHA (Document No. 638),*fn2 and plaintiffs filed a response to HUD and ACHA's oppositions (Document No. 639) in which certain adjustments were made to the fee request.

  Subsequently, plaintiffs and ACHA entered into a settlement agreement and release whereby ACHA agreed to pay $194,000 in attorney's fees and costs. By order dated August 29, 2005, plaintiffs' petition was withdrawn as to ACHA only. (Document No. 645). On September 6, 2005, plaintiffs filed a revised fee petition in light of the settlement agreement with ACHA. Plaintiffs' petition now is ripe for resolution.

  At the outset, the court notes that the parties have been instructed that the court considers its findings and conclusions as set forth in its March 14, 2001, opinion and order, as modified by its April 23, 2001, order, granting in part and denying in part plaintiffs' petition for an interim award of attorneys' fees, to be the settled law of the case. The parties have been informed that, in the absence of any justification for doing so, the Court will not revisit its legal conclusions from that opinion and intends to apply those conclusions to plaintiffs' pending petition for a final award of fees. The court therefore will analyze the pending petition in light of the law as it found it to be in its March 2001 opinion.

  Class counsel's pending request seeks an award of fees and expenses for work undertaken to implement and enforce the Decree from January 1, 1999 to February 17, 2005. The initial petition requested a total fees award of $762,793.62, as well as expenses in the amount of $2,776.47. This requested amount later was modified in plaintiffs' response to HUD's partial opposition to plaintiffs' petition and again in plaintiffs' revised fee petition filed after plaintiffs reached a settlement agreement on fees with ACHA. After these revisions, class counsel now seeks a total fees award against HUD of $467,315.04 as well as expenses of $1,804.71.

  HUD has raised numerous objections to plaintiffs' requested fees award in regard to the reasonableness of both the hourly rate requested as well as the total number of requested hours. HUD's position is that it is only responsible for a total of $145,982.22 in fees and that it is not responsible for any expenses.

  Upon due consideration of plaintiffs' petitions and HUD's objections, as well as the court's March 2001 opinion, the court believes that certain adjustments are necessary both as to the requested hourly rate and the number of hours, however, not to the extent suggested by HUD. In the end, the court finds that class counsel is entitled to a total of $504,281.52 in fees and costs, a figure the court arrived at by applying the below analysis guided by the standards set forth in its March 2001 opinion.

  Class counsel's petition is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which permits a court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorney's fees in any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of the federal civil rights laws. By providing for the recovery of reasonable attorneys' fees, § 1988 is designed "to ensure effective access to the judicial process for persons with civil rights claims and to encourage litigation to enforce the provisions of the civil rights acts and constitutional civil rights provisions." Hernandez v. Kalinowski, 146 F.3d 196, 199 (3d Cir. 1998).

  In light of the Congressional purposes and policies underlying § 1988 and related fee-shifting statutes, prevailing parties seeking to enforce civil rights are entitled to recover attorneys' fees "unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Staten v. Housing Authority of City of Pittsburgh, 638 F.2d 599, 604 (3d Cir. 1980) (emphasis in original; citations omitted). Thus, where the request is made by a prevailing plaintiff, the district court's discretion in assessing the propriety of the award "is quite narrow" and "[a] strong showing of special circumstances is necessary to support a denial of attorneys' fees." J&J Anderson, Inc. v. Town of Erie, 767 F.2d 1469, 1474 (10th Cir. 1985).

  However, it likewise is important to remember that fee-shifting statutes "were not designed as a form of economic relief to improve the financial lot of attorneys nor were they intended to replicate exactly the fee an attorney could earn through a private fee arrangement with his client." Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 565 (1986).

  The starting point in determining a reasonable fee is to multiply the reasonable hourly rate for the services rendered times the number of hours reasonably expended on the services in question. Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1035 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). A court may then consider adjustments to the "lodestar" fee thus produced if the results obtained are not reasonable. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). There is, however, a strong presumption that the resulting lodestar yields a reasonable fee. Washington, 89 F.3d at 1035 (citing City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557 (1992)).

  Reasonable Hourly Rate

  The first step in awarding attorneys' fees is to assess a reasonable hourly rate. In the March 2001 opinion controlling the pending fee request, the court set forth the standards governing the determination of a reasonable hourly rate and, applying those standards, the court found a reasonable hourly rate for monitoring/enforcement services to be $160 and a reasonable hourly rate for administrative/implementation services to be $120. The court determined that those rates were "`adequate to attract competent counsel but [would] not produce windfalls to attorneys.'" Public Interest Group of N.J., Inc. v. Windall, 51 ...


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