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Knight v. Drye

September 9, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.



Plaintiff Jonathan Knight ("Knight"), a former police officer in Chalfont Borough, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, initiated this lawsuit after he was terminated for allegedly leaking confidential information about an undercover narcotics investigation to a local drug dealer. Knight sued Chalfont Borough and certain individual defendants,*fn1 ("Chalfont Borough Defendants"), the Chalfont Borough Council, the Chalfont Borough Police Department, the Police Benevolent Association ("PBA"), and the Fraternal Order of Police ("FOP"), asserting thirteen causes of action in his amended complaint, for various constitutional, statutory, and state common law violations.*fn2

During the course of this litigation, Knight's claims and the pool of Defendants were narrowed considerably. Most recently, on February 19, 2009, the Court granted the FOP's motion for summary judgment (2/19/09 order, doc. no. 70). On March 13, 2009, the Court granted the summary judgment motions of the Chalfont Borough Defendants and the PBA (3/13/09 Memorandum and Order, doc. no. 77). This case was then marked closed.

Knight appealed this Court's March 13, 2009 decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but only with respect to the Chalfont Borough Defendants. That appeal is pending. In the meantime, the PBA and FOP have both filed motions seeking attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) ("Section 1988"), which permits the prevailing party to petition the Court for attorneys' fees in actions alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985 ("Section 1985"). The Court heard oral argument on Defendants' motions on September 4, 2009. Now, for the reasons that follow, Defendants' motions will be granted.


Section 1985(b) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides that "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ."

"The 'prevailing party' can be either the plaintiff or the defendant but the standard for awarding attorney's fees to prevailing defendants is more stringent than that for awarding fees to prevailing plaintiffs." Barnes Found. v. Twp. of Lower Merion, 242 F.3d 151, 157-58 (3d Cir. 2001). In fact, "a prevailing defendant is entitled to attorney's fees only 'upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation . . . .'" Id. at 158 (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978)); see also EEOC v. L.B. Foster Co., 123 F.3d 746, 750 (3d Cir. 1997) ("'[F]rivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,' in this context, implies 'groundless . . . rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case.'" (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 421)).*fn3 Importantly, "it is not necessary that the prevailing defendant establish the plaintiff had subjective bad faith in bringing the action in order to recover attorney's fees. Rather the relevant standard is objective." Barnes Found., 242 F.3d at 158.

Determinations regarding the frivolity of plaintiff's claim should be made on a case-by-case basis. See id. (relying upon Sullivan v. School Bd., 773 F.2d 1182, 1189 (11th Cir. 1983)). In previous cases, the Third Circuit has relied on the following non-exclusive factors to determine whether a plaintiff's unsuccessful civil rights claim was frivolous: "whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case, the defendant offered to settle, the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or the case continued until a trial on the merits." Id. (relying upon L.B. Foster Co., 123 F.3d at 750). Similarly, other courts have considered whether "the issue was one of first impression requiring judicial resolution, [or whether] the controversy is based sufficiently upon a real threat of injury to the plaintiff." Id. (relying upon Unity Ventures v. County of Lake, 894 F.2d 250, 253-54 (7th Cir. 1995)).

If the Court determines that an award of attorneys' fees to the prevailing party is appropriate, it must then calculate the amount of the fee award. "In calculating a fee award under the usual 'lodestar method,' a district court uses as a starting point the product of the attorney's appropriate hourly rate and the number of hours the attorney reasonably expended on the action." McCutcheon v. America's Servicing Co., 560 F.3d 143, 150 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 703 n.5 (3d Cir. 2005)).*fn4

The Third Circuit has noted that "[t]he product is presumptively a reasonable fee, but it may still require subsequent adjustment." United Auto. Workers Local 259 Social Sec. Dep't v. Metro Auto Ctr., 501 F.3d 283, 290 (3d Cir. 2007).*fn5 Indeed, "[h]ours are not reasonably expended if they are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983) ("The district court also should exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were not 'reasonably expended.'" (citation omitted)). However, in making an adjustment, "[t]he district court cannot decrease a fee award based on factors not raised at all by the adverse party." McCutcheon, 506 F.3d at 150 (quoting Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183).

"Once a lodestar calculation has been reached, a court may then reduce that amount to account for 'limited success' by" the prevailing party. Id. at 151. Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that, when determining the reasonableness of fees under Section 1988, "the most critical factor is the degree of success obtained." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436. Recently, the Third Circuit held that "the language of § 1988(b) seems to be sufficiently broad to endorse the inclusion of state claims in the consideration of overall success." Jama v. Esmor Correctional Servs. Inc., - F.3d -, No. 08-2500, 2009 WL 2449604, at *6 (3d Cir. Aug. 12, 2009). Further, the Jama court noted that "[w]hile identity between the claims is not required, the state and federal claims must certainly bear some relation in order for the state claim to be considered under § 1988." Id. at *8. Specifically, the state and federal claims must involve a "'common core of facts'" or be based on "'related legal theories'" for the pendant state claims to "inform the degree of [the prevailing party's] overall success for the purposes of § 1988." Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435).

III. ...

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