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Hall v. Galie

March 17, 2009

DEVERE HALL, PLAINTIFF
v.
SGT. JOSEPH GALIE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gene E.K. Pratter United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Pratter, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

The resolution of this pending disputed attorneys' fee petition may have an impact upon certain categories of pro se prisoner litigation in this District and the lawyers who answer the pro bono call to take on such litigation on a plaintiff's behalf.

Plaintiff Devere Hall filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, Lt. Joseph McHugh, Sgt. Joseph Galie, Officer Jacob Abrokwa, and Officer Calvin Harrison. Mr. Hall alleged excessive force, malicious prosecution, false arrest and false imprisonment, as well as a number of state law claims arising from his arrest and prosecution following a domestic disturbance. Initially, Mr. Hall filed his complaint pro se. Eventually, after the case had been pending 15 months, private counsel agreed to accept an appointment to serve as Mr. Hall's counsel through this District's program to facilitate the representation of pro se litigants in such cases.*fn1

After Mr. Hall agreed to the dismissal of a number of the original defendants, the case proceeded to trial against Sgt. Galie, Officer Abrokwa and Officer Harrison in July 2008. After three days of trial, the jury found in favor of Mr. Hall and against only Sgt. Galie on a single count of unlawful seizure and false imprisonment and awarded $5,100.00 in damages. The Court entered judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict, including judgment in favor of the Defendants on the three causes of action and in favor of Officers Abrokwa and Harrison in all respects.

Following the trial, Mr. Hall's lawyers filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (Doc. No. 100) seeking payment of $179, 709.00 in fees and $3,191.80 in costs. The defense opposes that computation and claims, alternatively, that there is a statutory cap on fees recoverable in this litigation as described infra, or, if there is no such cap, then opposing counsel's fees should be awarded for no greater than $6,757.20 plus $320.00 in costs because of unnecessary or unsuccessful services.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part, awarding Plaintiff's counsel fees in the amount of $66,696.74 and costs in the amount of $3,191.80.

II. BACKGROUND

At the trial of this case, the jury received evidence of the following: After Mr. Hall and his then girlfriend, Rochelle Harrison, had an argument in the early hours of April 5, 2003, Ms. Harrison called 911 at approximately 3:28 a.m. Philadelphia police officers responded to their home, but left without making an arrest. Roughly four hours later, at approximately 7:23 a.m., Ms. Harrison called 911 again. Officers Abrokwa and Harrison responded to the house at 7:53 a.m. They found Mr. Hall sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of the house. The officers were uncertain what to do next, so they radioed a request for a police supervisor to come to the site. However, after speaking separately with Mr. Hall and Ms. Harrison, the officers cancelled their request for a supervisor and left the premises.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Galie reported for work on April 5 between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. He spoke with the prior shift supervisor and learned about the on-going problems at Mr. Hall and Ms. Harrison's house. Apparently in response to the call from Officers Abrokwa and Harrison (and before the officers cancelled the request for a supervisor), Sgt. Galie headed to the house.

He arrived after the other officers had departed. He walked past Mr. Hall, who was still sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk, and spoke with Ms. Harrison, who was inside the house. Sgt. Galie testified that Ms. Harrison told him that Mr. Hall had threatened her. Sgt. Galie then spoke with Mr. Hall who, Sgt. Galie maintained, said to him that the police could not protect Ms. Harrison all the time and that after the police left he intended to kick in the door and injure Ms. Harrison and her family. Sgt. Galie contacted police dispatch and requested that Officers Abrokwa and Harrison return to the house. When the officers got back to the home, Sgt. Galie instructed them to arrest Mr. Hall for making terroristic threats. During the course of the arrest, Mr. Hall was struck with a baton. Sgt. Galie and Officer Harrison contend that he was resisting arrest, thus requiring the officers to use a certain amount of force to effect the arrest, but Mr. Hall denied that he resisted arrest and alleged that Sgt. Galie beat him severely without cause.

The jury exonerated all the Defendants save Sgt. Galie, whom the jury found liable for unlawful seizure and false imprisonment, and awarded Mr. Hall $5,100.00 in compensatory damages.

During the pendency of the case, the parties engaged in various pre-trial discovery, motion practice and, of course, trial preparation, as well as the trial itself. Some of the specific activities will be addressed below in the context of discussing the fees to be authorized.

III. DISCUSSION

Counsel for Plaintiff Devere Hall filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs seeking $179,709.00 in attorneys' fees and $3,191.80 in costs. Defendants responded arguing that the fees should be computed from the baseline of no more than $88,800.00 because the petition for fees must be considered pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA").*fn2 Defendants argue that the PLRA applies, along with its hourly rate fee cap, because Mr. Hall filed suit while he was an incarcerated prisoner. They further assert that Plaintiff's attorneys' fees should be reduced to 10% of the capped amount, i.e., to $8,880.00, based on Plaintiff's limited degree of success in the trial. Defendants describe Mr. Hall's limited degree of success by pointing out that Mr. Hall went to trial with four causes of action against three defendants, or, in other words, a nominally possible 12 claims, of which he succeeded on one. Defendants also note that the amount of damages actually awarded was modest.

Plaintiff argues in response that the PLRA does not apply because Mr. Hall's suit involved only civil rights violations that occurred prior to his incarceration, not claims related to prison conditions, which the PLRA was created to address. In a second reply brief, Defendants counter that even if the PLRA cap does not apply to this case, Plaintiff's counsel are entitled to no more than $7,077.20 in fees and costs because counsel's bills should be based on lower per-hour rates, because counsel inadequately documented billed hours, because of the unreasonableness of counsel's billed hours, and, finally, again because of what the Defendants describe as Plaintiff's very limited success in this litigation.

A. Legal Standard

The award of costs and reasonable attorneys' fees in lawsuits brought under the Civil Rights Act is authorized by 42 U.S.C. §1988. Where a plaintiff is a "prevailing party," "it is well settled that [the] plaintiff should recover an award of attorney's fees absent special circumstances." Truesdale v. Philadelphia Housing Auth., 290 F.3d 159, 163 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting County of Morris v. Nationalist Movement, 273 F.3d 527, 535 (3d Cir. 2001)). In this case, Defendants concede that Mr. Hall was a "prevailing party," although a very limited "prevailing party," when one compares his successful cause of action to the list of claims he made, compares the very modest damages awarded with the ...


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