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Haines v. Forbes Road School Dist.

January 4, 2010

LAURIE HAINES AND GARY HAINES, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS OF B.H., PLAINTIFFS
v.
FORBES ROAD SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND LISA DAVIES, AS THE ADMINISTRATRIX AND PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF DAVID DAVIES, DEFENDANTS
PATIENCE WHITMAN, PLAINTIFF
v.
FORBES ROAD SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND LISA DAVIES, AS THE ADMINISTRATRIX AND PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF DAVID DAVIES, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Plaintiff Patience Whitman's motion for attorney's fees. (Doc. No. 147.) In her motion, Plaintiff argues that, as a prevailing party in her § 1983 claim, she is entitled to attorney's fees. Defendant agrees that Plaintiff was a prevailing party, but argues that her nominal victory does not entitle her to attorney's fees. Alternatively, Defendant argues that if Plaintiff is entitled to some attorney's fees, the amount she requests should be reduced. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Plaintiff's victory was more than de minimis and will award her attorney's fees in the amount of $46,410.00 plus $5,143.43 in costs.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Patience Whitman was a student at Forbes Road Junior/Senior High School. In this lawsuit, she alleges that she was sexually assaulted by her former teacher, David Davies, in March of 2006. Specifically, she alleged that when she entered his classroom to get a piece of candy, Davies brushed his hand across her chest and felt her leg, up her skirt to her buttocks, to "see if she shaved." Immediately after the incident, Plaintiff reported Davies' misconduct to the school secretary, and Davies was suspended from teaching. When additional allegations against Davies were made by another student at the school,*fn1 a criminal investigation began. The criminal investigation was halted, however, when Davies committed suicide in April of 2007.

On May 9, 2007, Plaintiff, represented by attorney Spero Lappas, initiated this litigation against the Forbes Road School District ("school district"), alleging violations of her civil right to bodily integrity pursuant to § 1983 and the state law torts of assault and battery. The Davies Estate was joined in the action on June 29, 2007. The case was tried to a jury on February 10, 2009, with the jury returning a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on her § 1983 claim and the battery claim, but in favor of Defendant on the assault claim. (Doc. No. 144 at 3, 7.) The jury also found that Davies' actions were outrageous and that he acted wantonly and maliciously in violating Plaintiff's rights, yet the jury declined to award Plaintiff punitive damages for either claim. As a result, Plaintiff was awarded only nominal damages of $1.00. (Doc. No. 144 at 4, 8.)

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff moves this Court to award attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 because she was the prevailing party at trial in her § 1983 claim against Defendant the Estate of David Davies ("Defendant" or "Davies Estate"). Plaintiff's counsel asserts that $108,758.00 is the reasonable amount of attorney's fees for the work done on this case by an attorney of his skill and experience. Defendant disputes this amount, first challenging whether Plaintiff is entitled to any award at all under the Supreme Court's holding in Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992) and, alternatively, challenging the contingency multiplier and the inclusion of hours spent on aspects of the litigation that did not result in victory against Defendant or which advanced the litigation on behalf of both Plaintiff Whitman and Co-Plaintiff B.H.

Title 42 U.S.C. § 1988 allows a district court discretion to award reasonable attorney's fees to the prevailing party in litigation brought pursuant to § 1983. 42 U.S.C. § 1988. In considering a motion for attorney's fees, a district court must first determine whether a party is a "prevailing party." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992) ("[A] plaintiff who wins nominal damages is a prevailing party under § 1988."). Discerning whether a party is a prevailing party does not end the matter, however, because if the prevailing party's victory is de minimis, an award of attorney's fees may not be reasonable. Id. at 114-15. Here, there is no dispute that Plaintiff Whitman is a prevailing party on her § 1983 claim. Because she won only nominal damages, however, the Court must first determine whether her victory was more than de minimis. If so, the Court is then charged with determining what amount of attorney's fees is reasonable to grant a plaintiff who was awarded only nominal damages on a § 1983 claim alleging a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to bodily integrity by a public school teacher.

A. Whether Any Fee Award Is Reasonable Given Plaintiff's Award of Nominal Damages

In Farrar, the Supreme Court stated that attorney's fees should not be awarded "when the plaintiff's success is purely technical or de minimis," but also clarified that an award of nominal damages does not preclude recovery of attorney's fees, per se. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 117 (O'Connor, J., concurring); see also, Farrar, 506 U.S. at 115 ("In some circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally 'prevails' under § 1988 should receive no attorney's fees at all."). Though the majority opinion provides little guidance on how a court should determine whether a victory is more than technical or de minimis, it does state that "the degree of the success obtained" is "the most critical factor" in determining whether a fee award is reasonable. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114.

Justice O'Connor, concurring in the opinion,*fn2 explained that courts should look to three factors to determine whether a plaintiff's victory is substantial enough to merit any attorney's fee award at all: 1) the extent of the relief won as compared to the amount sought, 2) the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed, and 3) the public purpose served by the lawsuit. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 120-22 (O'Connor, J., concurring). All factors considered, the amount awarded "should reflect the extent to which the litigant was successful." Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1043 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 440 (1983)). The Court turns now to an examination of these factors to determine whether Plaintiff Whitman's victory was more than de minimis, and therefore entitles her to a collection of reasonable attorney's fees.

1. Degree of Success Obtained and Extent of Relief Won Compared to the Amount Sought

Plaintiff Whitman won a jury verdict in her favor on her principle claim-the § 1983 claim. Throughout the case, she alleged that her former school teacher, David Davies, violated her right to bodily integrity. While some of her testimony supported the damages aspect of her claim by relating to the suffering and mental anguish caused by the violation of a trusted and popular teacher, the clear thrust of the evidence she presented was on the establishment of the violation-that her school teacher violated her constitutional rights when he touched her leg and reached his hand up her skirt "to see if she shaved." The modest amount of damages sought by Plaintiff in this case, $50,000, and the efficiency of the two-day trial buttress Plaintiff's assertion that her primary goal in this litigation was the affirmation that she was wronged, not the collection of monetary damages. In this way, her case is distinguishable from Farrar, where the drawn-out litigation and $17 million demand suggested to the Supreme Court that Farrar's primary goal in bringing the litigation was recovery of a monetary award. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 106-07.

Not only did the jury agree that Davies violated Plaintiff's right to bodily integrity, the jury also found that Davies acted wantonly, maliciously, and outrageously in violating that right.

The finding of wantonness and maliciousness indicates that the jury found the violation to be a serious one. It also suggests that the decision not to award punitive damages is more likely a result of the jury's reluctance to punish the Davies Estate than a determination that Plaintiff's victory was de minimis.

Moreover, Plaintiff's reputation in the community was redeemed by her victory in the case, and she gained assurance for all female students that a male teacher may not touch a student's bare leg, buttocks, and chest, under any justification. While the amount of relief awarded to Plaintiff was less than the amount she sought, her nominal damages award does not imply a nominal victory in this case. The Court finds that Plaintiff here gained more than "the moral satisfaction of knowing that a federal court concluded that [her] rights had been violated in some unspecified way." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114. This factor weighs in favor of awarding attorney's fees.

2. Significance of the Legal Issue on Which Plaintiff Prevailed

The next factor for the Court's consideration is the significance of the legal issue on which Plaintiff prevailed. Courts have assessed this factor in one of two very different ways: either by examining whether the legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed was a central aspect of her entire claim, or by examining the importance of the legal right upon which the plaintiff prevailed as compared to other legal rights generally. See Hare v. Potter, 549 F. Supp. 2d 698, 706-07 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (analyzing the two divergent interpretations of this factor); Phelps v. Hamilton, 120 F.3d 1126, 1132 (10th Cir. 1997) (interpreting the second O'Connor factor as questioning whether the issue on which the plaintiff was the prevailing party was significant and central to the remainder of the claim). Under either interpretation, this factor also weighs in favor of Plaintiff.

It is clear that the civil rights claim was the focal point of the litigation. As stated in the preceding section, Plaintiff's § 1983 claim alleging a Fourteenth Amendment violation was the central aspect of this litigation; the only other claims brought to trial were the state law claims of assault and battery, which counsel barely discussed either at trial or in the motions leading up to trial. It is equally clear that the civil right asserted by Plaintiff is important as compared to other civil rights. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that a student's right to bodily integrity is "closely analogous" to the "right implicated by corporal punishment in schools [and]... among the historic liberties protected by the Due Process Clause." See, Stoneking v. Bradford Area Sch. Dist., 882 F.2d 720, 726-27 (3d Cir. 1989) (internal citations omitted). Thus, under either analysis, this factor weighs in favor of an award of attorney's fees.

3. Public Purpose Served by the Litigation

The third factor requires the Court to consider whether Plaintiff's case achieved a significant public purpose. The Court finds that this litigation served the significant public purpose of protecting other students' rights by deterring like conduct by David Davies against other students, and by other teachers against their students. Moreover, the facts of this case indicate that Plaintiff Whitman's willingness to come forward with her allegations against a popular teacher gave another student, B.H., the courage to come forward with her allegations of sexual abuse. Certainly, the knowledge of this lawsuit will inspire victims of similar abuse to come forward. This lawsuit also should have encouraged the school district to modernize its reporting policy for cases of teacher-student harassment, thereby further deterring misconduct and encouraging reporting by victims.

Additionally, Plaintiff was ostracized from the community for her allegations and forced to take a year off from school; the favorable verdict in this lawsuit undoubtedly achieved the public purpose of rebuilding her reputation which had been tarnished because of her ...


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