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Robbins v. Lower Merion School Dist.

August 30, 2010

BLAKE J. ROBBINS, A MINOR, BY HIS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS, MICHAEL E. ROBBINS AND HOLLY S. ROBBINS, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON BEHALF OF ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED PERSONS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
LOWER MERION SCHOOL DISTRICT, THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE LOWER MERION SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND CHRISTOPHER W. MCGINLEY, SUPERINTENDENT OF LOWER MERION SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DuBOIS, J.

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit by filing a class action complaint on February 16, 2010. In their complaint, plaintiffs allege that defendants violated their constitutional and statutory rights to privacy by remotely activating web cameras on computers provided to all high school students by Lower Merion School District, without the permission of the students or their parents, and without the issuance of any policies regarding such remote activation. From February 23, 2010, to May 14, 2010, the Court issued a series of preliminary injunctions by agreement of the parties that, among other things, prohibited the remote activation of web cameras and the distribution of images or any information obtained through the Lan Rev software on the student computers.

Presently before the Court is plaintiffs' Motion for Interim Attorneys' Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons stated below, plaintiffs' motion is granted in part, and denied in part. Plaintiffs' motion is granted with respect to those fees and costs related to the entry of preliminary injunctive relief. Plaintiffs motion is denied with respect to all other fees and costs.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiffs Are a Prevailing Party Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)

Under what is known as the American Rule, a prevailing litigant is not entitled to collect attorneys' fees from the loser. See Travelers Cas. and Sur. Co. of Am. v. Pac. Gas and Elec. Co., 549 U.S. 443, 448 (2007). However, 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) creates an exception to this rule for litigants who prevail in an action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Solomen v. Redwood Advisory Co., 223 F. Supp. 2d 681, 682 (E.D. Pa. 2002). The statute provides, in relevant part: "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981(a), 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.... " 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b).

A party need not win a suit in order to be a prevailing party. Wheeler v. Towanda Area Sch. Dist., 950 F.2d 128 (3d Cir. 1991). Rather, a prevailing party is one who "succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the part[y] sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). To achieve "prevailing party" status, plaintiffs must demonstrate a "judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001); see Singer Mgmt. Consultants, Inc. v. Milgram, --- F.3d ---, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16214, at *13 (3d Cir. Aug. 5, 2010). However, "a plaintiff does not become a 'prevailing party' solely because his lawsuit causes a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct." People Against Police Violence v. City of Pittsburgh, 520 F.3d 226, 232 (3d Cir. 2008). "Rather, the change in the parties' legal relationship must be the product of judicial action." Singer Mgmt., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16214, at *13-*14 (citing Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605-06).

In their Motion for Interim Attorneys' Fees, plaintiffs assert that they are a prevailing party, and thus are entitled to attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Specifically, plaintiffs claim that "[t]he injunctive relief currently in place materially alters the legal relationship between the parties which existed prior to this litigation." (Pls.' Mem. 12.) Defendants argue to the contrary that "[a] party does not prevail for purposes of Section 1988... when the defendant voluntarily ceases the complained-of conduct, even when the complaint serves as the 'catalyst' for the change in behavior." (Defs.' Mem. 23 (citing Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 632).)

All injunctive relief in this case was "the product of judicial action" and was "judicially sanctioned." See Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605; Singer Mgmt., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16214, at *13-*14. Although the injunctions issued by the Court were agreed upon by the parties, the Court facilitated that agreement through active case management, which included a number of telephone and in-chambers conferences. See Singer Mgmt., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16214, at *16-*17 (determining that relief was "judicially sanctioned" in part because "the Court's involvement went far beyond its issuance of the TRO," and included "inimical questioning" during the TRO hearing that ultimately led to the relief entered). Moreover, the injunctive relief granted by the order dated May 14, 2010, is judicially enforceable by any person adversely affected by a violation of the order. As a result, the Court concludes that plaintiffs are a "prevailing party" for the purposes of a fee award under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

B. Plaintiffs Are Entitled to Reasonable Fees

Plaintiffs must "prove that [their] request for attorney's fees is reasonable. To meet [this] burden, the fee petitioner must 'submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.'" Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). Under Third Circuit law, "a fee petition should include 'some fairly definite information as to the hours devoted to various general activities, e.g., pretrial discovery, settlement negotiations, and the hours spent by various classes of attorneys, e.g., senior partners, junior partners, associates,'" but "'it is not necessary to know the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted nor the specific attainments of each attorney.'" Id. at 1190 (quoting Lindy Bros. Builders, Inc. of Phila. v. Am. Radiator & Standard Sanatory Corp., 487 F.2d 161, 167 (3d Cir. 1973)). Courts should reduce the fee awarded for "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary" hours, and can also "deduct hours when the fee petition inadequately documents the hours claimed." Id. at 1183.

Plaintiffs request a total of $435,790.60*fn1 in interim attorneys' fees and costs, and attach to their motion an exhibit detailing each reimbursable item by attorney name, task, and time completed. (See Pls.' Mot. Ex. D.) Plaintiff also appends certifications submitted by the three main timekeepers -- Mark S. Haltzman, Stephen Levin, and Frank Schwartz -- to demonstrate that the hourly rates for the attorneys "accurately reflect[s] their respective background, skill and experience." (Pls.' Mem. 15.) Defendants do not dispute that the hourly rates submitted by plaintiffs are reasonable for attorneys of equivalent skill and experience.

In their response to plaintiffs' motion, defendants attack the adequacy of plaintiffs' fee request on three main grounds: (1) plaintiffs request fees for work unrelated to the attainment of preliminary injunctive relief; (2) plaintiffs request fees for unreasonable, unnecessary, and excessive work; and (3) plaintiffs seek to recover costs for non-reimbursable expenses. The Court addresses each of these arguments below.

1. Only Fees Related to Preliminary Injunctive Relief Are Reimbursable At This Time

Defendants claim that plaintiffs should not be able to recover fees for work recovered after May 14, 2010, the date of the last injunction order. Defendants argue "nothing their counsel has done since then was necessary to the equitable relief, and indeed all of the substantive work they have done since then has been done in support of individual damages claims." (Defs.' Mem. 29.) In support of their position, defendants rely on Institutionalized Juveniles v. Secretary of Public Welfare, 758 F.2d 897 (3d Cir. 1985), for the proposition that "fees accrued after [the] prevailing party achieves success are not recoverable" (Defs.' Mem. 30). Plaintiffs disagree with defendants, and assert that Institutionalized Juveniles does "not establish any bright line test of the date on which attorneys fees are no longer recoverable." (Pls.' Am. Reply Mem. 19.) That court noted that while the case before it had been litigated to a final judgment, in a case "involv[ing] the ongoing ...


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