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Grove v. City of York

March 22, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


Before the court is Plaintiffs' petition for attorney's fees and costs. (Doc. 59.) For the reasons that follow, the petition will be granted.

I. Background

This case began when Plaintiffs filed a civil suit against the City of York, Mayor John Brenner, Police Commissioner Mark Whitman, and Assistant City Solicitor Donald Hoyt. The individual defendants were sued in their individual and official capacities. Plaintiffs participate in numerous street preaching activities in the City of York, particularly anti-abortion protests. They alleged that Defendants violated their rights to free speech, free assembly, and free exercise of religion by placing their entry last in the Halloween Parades held in York in 2004 and 2005.

On September 25, 2006, the parties filed a joint motion and stipulation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a) to dismiss all remaining claims against the individual defendants. (Doc. 21.) The same document stipulated that all official capacity claims merged, as a matter of law, with the claims against the city itself. (Id.) On January 10, 2007, this court granted partial summary judgment for Plaintiffs. (Doc. 57.) The court concluded that the City of York violated Plaintiffs' rights of free speech and free assembly, but did not violate Plaintiffs' right to free exercise of religion. After the summary judgment memorandum and order was issued, the parties represented to the court that a jury trial on the remaining issues of fact would not be necessary. Defendant agreed to pay one dollar to Plaintiffs in nominal damages. Plaintiffs indicated that the instant motion for attorney's fees would be forthcoming.

II. Discussion

In its discretion, a trial court may award a "reasonable attorney's fee" to the "prevailing party" in an action to enforce 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The City of York does not dispute that Plaintiffs are the prevailing party in this matter. The City does dispute the reasonableness of Plaintiffs' counsel's requested fees. "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). Hours that are "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary" are not "reasonably expended." Id. at 434. The attorney for the prevailing party must exclude those hours from her fee petition or the court must reduce the hours accordingly. Id. An amount so calculated is presumed to be "reasonable" for purposes of § 1988. Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 564 (1986). That amount is the "lodestar" amount from which the trial court, in its exercise of discretion, may adjust upward or downward. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434.

The court has reviewed the submitted affidavits and records in support of Plaintiffs' petition for attorney's fees. The hours devoted to the matter are not out of line. Attorney Boyle avers that he has reviewed the records and eliminated all hours that were duplicative, excessive, or unnecessary. (Doc. 59 ¶ 5.) The City of York has not challenged that statement and the court has no reason to assume that Mr. Boyle has not done so. The fees requested for each individual who worked on this matter are reasonable because they correspond with the standard market rate for professionals of their caliber. Thus, the court finds that the 227.60 hours of work devoted to this matter is reasonable. The lodestar amount that follows from multiplying the hours of work per individual times their billing rate -- $48,487.50 -- is presumed reasonable.

The City disputes the reasonableness of the lodestar for two reasons. The primary argument in opposition to the attorney's fees requested is the limited success achieved by Plaintiffs, having won two out of three claims and having received nominal damages of one dollar. The City also argues that the fee petition is vague and lacking in detail. These arguments are unavailing, as discussed below.

A. Limited Success

The result obtained in a case is an important factor in determining an award for attorney's fees. When a plaintiff prevails on some but not all of its asserted grounds for relief, the court must look to the nature of all claims alleged to determine whether time spent on losing claims should be compensated. Spellan v. Bd. of Educ., 59 F.3d 642, 645 (7th Cir. 1995). If all claims are legally and factually related and it appears that counsel's time has been spent on the litigation as a whole, compensation for work on all of the claims, even unsuccessful ones, is appropriate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435; Lerman v. Joyce Int'l, Inc., 10 F.3d 106, 114 (3d Cir. 1993).

Plaintiffs' complaint contains three counts: (1) violation of their right to free speech; (2) violation of their right to peaceful assembly; and (3) violation of their right to free exercise of religion. No one cannot doubt that these claims are factually and legally related. All injuries alleged fall under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. They all relate to the Halloween Parades held in York in 2004 and 2005. The same people were involved in each incident. The research and preparation for this case could not be isolated into distinct and unrelated claims. Where successful and unsuccessful claims arise out of a common core of facts, it is difficult to divide hours expended on a claims-by-claim basis. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. This court declines to attempt to parse the hours spent on free speech and assembly versus free exercise of religion.

An award of nominal damages in a civil rights case may result in low or no compensation for attorney's fees. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 115 (1992). This is only true when a plaintiff does not prove actual, compensable injury or his victory is purely technical. Id. at 114-15. These technical victories must be distinguished from cases in which a plaintiff is awarded nominal damages but his victory is more substantial in terms of vindication of rights. "Nominal relief does not necessarily a nominal victory make." Id. at 121 (O'Connor, J., concurring).

The court finds some guidance in evaluating attorney fees in a case with nominal damages from the concurring opinion of Justice O'Conner in Farrar. She cited several relevant factors to consider: the extent of relief, the significance of the legal issues on which the plaintiff prevailed, and the public purpose served by the litigation. Id. at 122. Thus, the relief sought by the plaintiff is a consideration, but this factor is not decisive because "an award of nominal damages can represent a victory in the sense of vindicating rights even though no actual damages are proved." Id. at 121. A court should look to the ...

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