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Estate of Schultz v. Potter

March 5, 2010

THE ESTATE OF ALBERT P. SCHULTZ, BONNIE SCHULTZ, REPRESENTATIVE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. District Judge

AMBROSE, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

OPINION

I. BACKGROUND

On January 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Attorney's Fees, Expenses and Costs seeking reimbursement of $185,833.82. (Docket No. 115). Defendant filed an opposing brief to Plaintiff's Motion and Plaintiff filed a reply to Defendant's opposition. (Docket Nos. 117, 120). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, said Motion (Docket No. 115) is granted in part and denied in part.

After almost two decades of protracted and tortured judicial and administrative litigation, this case has come down to attorney's fees. To date, Defendant has already paid Plaintiff a total of $279,406.36 ($178,020.36 in back pay and interest and $101,386.00 in attorney's fees and costs). (Docket No. 117, pp. 5-6, ¶¶1-5). Plaintiff now seeks additional attorney's fees in the amount of $180,725.00*fn1 and costs and expenses in the amount of $5,108.82. (Docket No. 115, ¶¶ 46-49, 55, 62). According to Plaintiff, the fees, costs and expenses sought are "mainly for the enforcement proceedings commencing with the efforts of August 2, 2001, to recover ordered back pay, benefits, interest, and compensatory damages, plus for the enforcement efforts to secure attorney's fees, expenses and costs. In addition, Plaintiff seeks payment for 99.3 hours of work related to the merits of the removal issue. The parties had previously agreed that these hours related to the removal would be deferred, pending a determination of whether Plaintiff prevailed on the 'timeliness' issue." (Docket No. 116, pp. 7-8).

II. DISCUSSION

In employment discrimination cases, a district court has the discretion to award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party. 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(k). Typically, a "prevailing party" is a party who "succeed[ed] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Texas State Teachers Assn. V. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989). "The touchstone of the prevailing party inquiry must be the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties...." Texas State, 489 U.S. at 792. "Prevailing plaintiffs 'should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.'" E.E.O.C. v. L.B. Foster Company, 123 F.3d 746, 750 (3d Cir. 1997). "[A]n unjust award is limited to where a victory is 'so insignificant ... as to be insufficient' to support an award of attorney's fees." Hare v. Potter, 549 F.Supp.2d 698, 706 (E.D.Pa. 2008), quoting, Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 117 (1992) (O'Connor, J., concurring), quoting Garland, 489 U.S at 792.

Once a party is determined to be a prevailing party, courts use the lodestar formula which requires multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 24, 433 (1983); Loughran v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 176 (3d Cir. 2001). "A District Court has substantial discretion in determining what constitutes a reasonable rate and reasonable hours, but once the lodestar is determined, it is presumed to be the reasonable fee." Lanni v. New Jersey, 259 F.3d 146, 148 (3d Cir. 2001). Thereafter, a district court may adjust the fee for a variety of reasons, the most important factor being the "results obtained" by the plaintiff. Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey, Inc. v. Windall, 51 F.3d 1179, 1185 (3d Cir. 1995). "Where a plaintiff has achieved only partial or limited success, a district court may adjust the fee downward. It may do so 'even where the plaintiff's claims were interrelated, nonfrivoulous, and raised in good faith.'" Spencer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 469 F.3d 311, 319 (3d Cir. 2006)(upholding a reduction in attorney's fees by 75%), citing, Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-36.

A party seeking attorney fees bears the ultimate burden of showing that its requested hourly rates and the hours it claims are reasonable. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir.1990). To initially satisfy this burden, 'the fee petitioner must 'submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.' " Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933). If it wishes to challenge the fee award, the opposing party must then object "with sufficient specificity" to the request. Id. Once the opposing party has objected, the party requesting fees must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that its fee request is reasonable. In reviewing a fee application, a district court must conduct "a thorough and searching analysis. " Evans v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 273 F.3d 346, 362 (3d Cir.2001).

Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 703 (3d Cir. 2005).

A. Prevailing Party Status

In this case, Plaintiff requests attorney's fees, costs and expenses based on the assertion that he was the "prevailing party." (Docket No. 115, ¶1). Defendant suggests that Plaintiff is not the prevailing party because Plaintiff did not "succeed on any significant issue" presented in the district court litigation. (Docket No. 117, p. 8). Specifically, Defendant correctly points out that Plaintiff prevailed in the district court on only a subsection of one of the issues raised. While I agree with Defendant that the issue which Plaintiff prevailed on was an extremely minor issue (as evidenced by Plaintiff in his brief Docket No. 40, pp. 3-6), Plaintiff did prevail and was awarded $28,187.35. (Docket No. 117, p. 6). In addition to the initial award on the merits at the administrative level, this award alters the legal relationship between the parties. Thus, I find that Plaintiff is a prevailing party.

Defendant attempts to suggest that this is flawed because such a finding "fails to consider the dilatory tactics and unreasonable negotiating position of Plaintiff that he prevented the postal Service from paying him for many years," such as excessive administrative challenges, failing to settle the claim, adhering to invalid interpretations of the Back Pay Act that were eventually rejected by this court, prolonging and complicating litigation. (Docket No. 117, p. 11-12). I believe these matters pointed out by Defendant are more appropriately addressed in the application of lodestar and not the prevailing party status.

B. Reasonable Hourly Rates

First, I must determine what constitutes a "reasonable market rate for the essential character and complexity of the legal services rendered...." Lanni, 259 F.3d at 149, citing, Smith v. Philadelphia Hous. Auth., 107 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 1997). I do this by "assessing the experience and skill of the prevailing party's attorney and compare his rates to the rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation." Loughner v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 180 (3d Cir. 2001). The starting point is the hourly rate usually charged by the attorney, but this is not dispositive. Public Interest, 51 F.3d at 1185. Plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the reasonable current*fn2 market rate. Id.; Evans v. Port Auth. of New York and New Jersey, 273 F.3d 346, 361 (3d Cir. 2001). Where the prima facie burden has not been satisfied, the court has considerable discretion in determining a reasonable hourly rate. Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1036 (3d Cir. 1996). "Once the plaintiff has made the prima facie showing with respect to the appropriate hourly rate, [however], that rate may be contested, 'but only with appropriate record evidence. In the absence of such evidence, the plaintiff must be awarded attorneys' fees at her requested rate.'" Id, citing, Smith v. Philadelphia Housing Auth., 107 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 1997).

Plaintiff urges a reimbursement rate of $250 per hour, suggesting in an affidavit that this hourly rate is reasonable based on cases in Florida and Pennsylvania and his experience as an attorney of 32 years. (Docket No. 115, ¶55; Docket No. 115-4, ¶¶3-6). Defendant does not object to the reimbursement rate requested by Plaintiff (see, Docket No. 117) and I find the rate of $250 an hour to be reasonable.

C. Hours Reasonably Expended

The next step in the analysis is to determine the hours reasonably expended. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. As to those issues raised by the party opposing the fee request, a "court mustbe careful to exclude from counsel's fee request 'hours that are excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary....'" Holmes v. Millcreek Township School Dist., 205 F.3d 583, 595 (3d Cir. 2000), quoting, Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. To be appropriately awarded, attorneys' fees must be "'useful and of the type ordinarily necessary' to secure the final result obtained from the litigation." Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey v. The Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, 297 F.3d 253 (3d Cir. 2002), quoting, Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council, 478 U.S. 546, 561 (1986); Loughner, 260 F.3d at 178. Hours that generally would not be billed to one's own client are not properly billed to an adversary. Public Interest, 51 F.3d at 1188. "Where an opposing party lodges a sufficiently specific objection to an aspect of a fee award, the burden is on the party requesting the fees to justify the size of its award. In determining whether the moving party has met its burden, we have stressed that 'it is necessary that the [District] Court 'go line, by line, by line' through the billing records supporting the fee request.'" Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 713 (3d Cir. 2005), quoting, Evans, 273 F.3d at 362.

Plaintiff requests compensation for a total of 722.9 hours. (Docket No. 115, ¶¶ 46-49, 55, 62). Plaintiff cites to the following documents in support of this request: Docket No. 27, Attachment 4, Docket No. 61, Ex. 1 (as updated in Docket No. 101-2*fn3 ), and Docket No. 115, Ex. 3. (Docket No. 115, ΒΆ45). Defendant first objects to the unreasonableness of all requests ...


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