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Petrunich v. Sun Building Systems

April 7, 2008

RONALD PETRUNICH PLAINTIFF
v.
SUN BUILDING SYSTEMS, INC., D/B/A CONTEMPRI HOMES, THOMAS SCHOTT, JIM JONES DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Vanaskie

MEMORANDUM

At issue in this matter is the amount of attorney fees and costs to be awarded to Plaintiff Ronald Petrunich as the prevailing party in his lawsuit brought under federal and state anti-discrimination statutes. Mr. Petrunich sued Defendants Sun Building Systems, Inc., d/b/a Contempri Homes ("Sun"), Thomas Schott, and Jim Jones (collectively "Defendants"), alleging, inter alia, that Defendants terminated his employment because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621-634, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 951-963. Mr. Petrunich moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of Defendants' liability, which this Court granted in relevant part, concluding Defendants violated the ADEA and PHRA. A trial was subsequently held on the issue of damages. Mr. Petrunich failed to prove that he was actually injured by Defendants' unlawful discrimination, and the jury awarded him nothing. Thereafter, the Court entered an Order awarding Mr. Petrunich nominal damages of $1.00.

Before the Court is Mr. Petrunich's Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs. (Dkt. Entry 70.) This motion presents the question of what is a reasonable fee when a plaintiff recovers nominal damages in an age discrimination case. Defendants contend that Mr. Petrunich's victory is de minimis, compelling a determination that an award of any attorney fees would be unreasonable. Finding merit in this contention, the Court will deny Mr. Petrunich's request for attorney fees. The Court will, however, award Mr. Petrunich $584.80 in costs.

I. BACKGROUND

Mr. Petrunich was employed by Sun in its quality control department. As part of its business restructuring, Sun advised Mr. Petrunich in July of 2003 that it was eliminating his position in quality control. Sun offered Mr. Petrunich a position in its customer service department, which he refused. Mr. Petrunich alleged that he was forced out because of his age. After his departure, Sun replaced him in quality control with a younger employee.

On October 11, 2004, Mr. Petrunich filed a six-count complaint against Defendants. (Dkt. Entry 1.) In Count One, Mr. Petrunich alleged that Sun violated the ADEA by terminating his employment because of his age. In Count Two, Mr. Petrunich alleged that Sun violated the ADEA when it retaliated against him for filing a complaint of age discrimination with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Counts Three and Four were parallel claims under the PHRA for age discrimination and retaliation. In Counts Five and Six, Mr. Petrunich alleged that Messrs. Schott and Jones, respectively, violated the PHRA by aiding and abetting Sun's commission of unlawful employment practices. Mr. Petrunich sought primarily monetary relief, including back pay, front pay, lost benefits, liquidated damages, and compensatory damages for emotional distress.

The parties commenced discovery following the Case Management Conference. Among other things, Mr. Petrunich served on Defendants six requests for admission under Fed. R. Civ. P. 36. The requests were terse and crafted to mirror the elements of a prima facie case of age discrimination. (See Ex. A. to Br. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., Dkt. Entry 15-2.) Defendants failed to answer the requests. Parties served with requests for admission have thirty days to answer or object thereto; otherwise, the requests are deemed admitted and the matters therein conclusively established. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3).*fn1 Plaintiffs' requests were deemed admitted due to Defendants' failure to answer them.

On June 20, 2005, Mr. Petrunich moved for partial summary judgment with respect to Defendants' liability under the ADEA and PHRA. (Dkt. Entry 14.) Accompanying the motion was a statement of material facts, required by Local Rule of Court 56.1, predicated on the requests for admission and an affidavit of Mr. Petrunich. (See Dkt. Entry 15-4.) Besides the requests for admission and the affidavit, Mr. Petrunich offered no other evidence in support of his motion. Defendants filed a brief opposing Mr. Petrunich's motion, (Dkt. Entry 17), but never responded to the statement of material facts. Under the Court's local rule, such facts were deemed undisputed.

On September 26, 2006, the Court issued a Memorandum and Order granting in part Mr. Petrunich's summary judgment motion. (Dkt. Entry 19.) Disposition of this motion rested on procedural, rather than substantive, considerations. As a threshold issue, the Court determined the consequence of Defendants' failure to timely answer the requests for admission. Pursuant to Rule 36(a)(3), the matters were deemed admitted and, therefore, conclusively established. (Id. at 6.) Conceding their failure to timely respond, Defendants urged the Court to allow them to withdraw or amend the deemed admissions and to permit their belated responses. (Id.) The Court denied Defendants' entreaty, reasoning withdrawal or amendment would disserve the presentation of the merits and prejudice Mr. Petrunich. (Id. at 9-10.)*fn2

The Court then addressed the merits of Mr. Petrunich's motion, which was unopposed by Defendants. In this regard, the request for admissions and Mr. Petrunich's affidavit provided the evidentiary foundation for a prima facie case of age discrimination. (Id. at 14.) Because Sun failed to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, the Court entered summary judgment in favor of Mr. Petrunich and against Sun on Counts One and Three. (Id. at 15.) The Court also granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Petrunich and against Messrs. Schott and Jones on Counts Five and Six, as the uncontested facts demonstrated they aided and abetted Sun's unlawful discriminatory conduct. (Id. at 16.)*fn3

Following the summary judgment ruling, a pretrial conference was conducted on December 21, 2006. Mr. Petrunich's attorney advised the Court that her client demanded in excess of $200,000, an amount that included nearly $50,000 in attorney fees. Thus, the amount of damages sought by Mr. Petrunich was approximately $150,000.

A jury trial limited to damages was held January 8 and 9, 2007. Mr. Petrunich had the burden to prove that the Defendants' violations of the ADEA and PHRA harmed him economically and emotionally. Mr. Petrunich testified that after his discharge he searched for and obtained another job that paid less than he earned at Sun. He and two family members also testified to his emotional distress in the wake of the discharge.

For their part, Defendants introduced evidence that business conditions required Sun to adjust its quality control department, among other departments, as part of its restructuring. Although Sun downsized the quality control department, Defendants testified that Sun desired to retain Mr. Petrunich and offered him positions in different departments, but at the same rate of pay. For example, Mr. Petrunich was offered a position in the customer service department. Mr. Schott testified that Mr. Petrunich was well-suited for customer service because he had the right personality and necessary product and industry knowledge. Mr. Petrunich, however, refused this position. Defendants also presented a compelling case that business reasons, not Mr. Petrunich's age, explained Defendants' decision to reassign him to another department.

At the close of all the evidence, the Court instructed the jury that Defendants' violation of the ADEA and PHRA had already been established, and that their function was to consider whether damages should be awarded to Mr. Petrunich. The jury deliberated for a brief period, then returned a verdict in favor of Defendants. The jury found that Mr. Petrunich failed to prove actual injury and, therefore, awarded no damages. (See Special Verdict Questions, Dkt. Entry 63, ¶ 1.) Nevertheless, because it had granted Mr. Petrunich's summary judgment motion as to liability on Counts One, Three, Five, and Six, the Court awarded Mr. Petrunich nominal damages of $1.00. (Order of Court, Jan. 9, 2007, Dkt. Entry 68.)

On January 18, 2007, Mr. Petrunich filed the instant Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs. (Dkt. Entry 70.) Mr. Petrunich was represented in this action by Cynthia L. Pollick, Esquire. She requests attorney fees of $63,922.50, which includes $4,980.00 in connection with the preparation of the fee motion, and costs of $626.80. (Id. ¶ 9; Second Pollick Aff, Dkt. Entry 75, ¶ 2.) Ms. Pollick submitted documentation in support of the motion. The motion is fully briefed, (see Br. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. Att'y Fees & Costs ("Pl.'s Br. Supp."), Dkt. Entry 71; Br. Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Att'y's Fees & Costs ("Defs.' Br. Opp'n"), Dkt. Entry 72; Reply Br. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. Att'y Fees & Costs ("Pl.'s Reply Br."), Dkt. Entry 74), and therefore ripe for disposition.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Attorney ...


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