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Styers v. Commonwealth

May 19, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

We are considering the amended motion for award of attorney's fees and costs filed by counsel for Plaintiff Gregory Styers. Counsel successfully litigated Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim and seeks a total of $117,914.18 in attorney's fees and costs from Defendant David Guido. Upon consideration of the motion, we will award fees and costs, but we will reduce the amount sought by Plaintiff's counsel.

II. Background

Styers, a Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP") trooper, filed this § 1983 action against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the PSP, Bret Waggoner, James Garofalo, Richard Zenk, and David Guido, alleging that the Defendants retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights.*fn1 (doc. 7). While serving as a helicopter pilot for the PSP, Styers used the PSP grievance process to contest a job transfer. (doc. 37, p. 1). After successfully doing so, Styers returned to his helicopter unit at the PSP but was not able to requalify as a "Pilot in Command" of a particular PSP helicopter. Id. Styers claimed that Defendants retaliated against him in the following ways: (1) imposing unnecessary retraining requirements, (2) impeding Styers' ability to complete the retraining, (3) disciplining him for wearing a PSP dress uniform to a preliminary court hearing, (4) forcing him to wait for a proper helmet, and (5) making it more difficult to get a replacement clip for his weapon. Id. at 2.

After Styers' presentation of his case at trial, we granted a motion for judgment as a matter of law in favor of Defendants Richard Zenk and James Garofalo. See doc. 56. Of the remaining Defendants, the jury found David Guido liable for retaliation. See doc. 53. The jury did not award compensatory damages, but it did impose punitive damages in the amount of $20,000.00. Id. We entered judgment in favor of Styers and against Guido, converting the award to $1.00 in nominal damages and $20,000.00 in punitive damages. (doc. 58). After trial, we denied Guido's motion for judgment as a matter of law. (doc. 75).

III. Discussion

Counsel for Styers has filed an amended motion for attorney's fees and costs seeking a total of $117,914.18 for representing Styers. (doc. 76). This amount includes 463.50 hours of legal services at an hourly rate of $250.00 along with $2,039.00 in costs. Id. ¶¶ 9, 10, 11. Guido opposes this figure, arguing that the total fee award should be no greater than $41,949.00. (doc. 80, p. 5). According to Guido, we should reduce the fee to an amount that more reasonably reflects the extent of Styers' success at trial. Id. As an alternate basis for reducing the fee, Guido argues that counsel for Styers spent an excessive number of hours preparing a brief opposing summary judgment and preparing for trial. Id. at 5-9.

Counsel for successful plaintiffs in federal civil rights actions may be awarded attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides, in relevant part: "In any action . . . to enforce a provision of section[] . . . 1983 . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ." In considering a motion for attorney's fees, a district court must determine whether the plaintiff is a "prevailing party," and, if so, award a "reasonable" fee. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983).

A. "Prevailing Party"

A "prevailing party" is a party who has secured the resolution of a dispute that changes the legal relationship of the parties. Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792-93, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 103 L.Ed.2d 866 (1989). Guido does not dispute that Styers is a prevailing party. (doc. 80, p. 3, n.2). See also Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 112, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (holding that a plaintiff who wins nominal damages in a § 1983 claim is a "prevailing party").

B. "Reasonable Attorney's Fee"

1. Counsel for Styers Should Receive Attorney's Fees

We must first consider the nature and amount of damages to determine whether, despite his status as a "prevailing party," Styers is even entitled to a fee. Id. at 115. As Justice O'Connor explained in Farrar: "When the plaintiff's success is purely technical or de minimis, no fees can be awarded. Such a plaintiff either has failed to achieve victory at all, or has obtained only a Pyrrhic victory for which the reasonable fee is zero." Id. at 117 (O'Connor, J., concurring).*fn2 ...

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