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Choike v. Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania of the State System of Higher Education

November 5, 2010

ELIZABETH LAURA CHOIKE, ET AL., ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED INDIVIDUALS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SLIPPERY ROCK UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA OF THE STATE SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



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

AMBROSE, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Synopsis

Student athletes previously brought a Title IX action against their University. The parties reached a Settlement Agreement which contemplated ongoing monitoring by the Students until the University achieved compliance. The Students have filed a Motion for Attorneys‟ Fees and Costs [Docket No. 157] incurred as a result of such monitoring and the negotiation of Amendments to the Settlement Agreement. The University opposes the Motion, contending that the request for some fees is untimely, that some of the requested hourly rates are unreasonable and that the number of hours worked on particular tasks is excessive and redundant. The University also objects to the request for costs. I find some of the University‟s arguments to be persuasive. Accordingly, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

Opinion

The Students move pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and F.R.C.P. 54(d) for an award of all reasonable attorney‟s fees and costs incurred since they last filed a Motion for Fees on August 3, 2007. The Civil Rights Attorney‟s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, permits a district court to award reasonable attorney‟s fees to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation. Because the purpose of such an award is to "ensure "effective access to the judicial process‟ for persons with civil rights grievances . a prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney‟s fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Henley v. Eckhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 1937 (1983), quoting, H.R. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976).

The University challenges the Motion in several respects. It raises a threshold issue of the timeliness of the fee request. It also contends that the Students fail to qualify as a "prevailing party." It disputes the reasonableness of the hourly rates requested and it charges that the hours devoted to a number of the tasks were excessive and redundant and therefore not "reasonable." The University also urges that it should not have to pay for some of the costs being requested. I will address its challenges seriatim.

A. Timeliness

Turning to the threshold issue of timeliness, the Students seek the award of all fees and costs incurred "since they last filed a motion for attorneys‟ fees and costs on August 3, 2007." See Docket No. [157]. The Motion is made pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and F.R.C.P. 54(d). Rule 54(d) provides, in part, that:

Unless a statute or a court order provides otherwise, the motion must:

(i) Be filed no later than 14 days after the entry of judgment. .

F.R.C.P. 54(d). "Judgment" is defined in Rule 54(a) to include "a decree and any order from which an appeal lies." The University contends that several of the Students‟ requests for attorney‟s fees may be denied as untimely.*fn1

I agree with the University that the Students‟ requests relating to the Save Slippery Rock Wrestling ("SSRW") appeals are untimely. Indeed, on October 30, 2009, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals entered an order affirming this Court‟s denial of SSRW‟s Motion to Intervene. Judgment was entered that same day. See Choike v. Slippery Rock, No. 7-1537 (3d Cir. Oct. 30, 2008). With respect to a subsequent appeal relating to approval of the Settlement Agreement, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a case dispositive order which served as the Court‟s judgment on February 24, 2010. See Choike v. Slippery Rock, No. 7-4466 (3d Cir. Feb. 24, 2010). Both of these judgments are "final." The pending requests for attorney‟s fees associated with these appeals were filed well beyond the 14 day limit set forth in Rule 54. The Students have not identified any case law or federal rule indicating that they were somehow precluded from seeking the recovery of fees associated with these appeals during the past year. Such an argument would indeed be curious given that the Students sought and received compensation for opposing SSRW at the district court level. Accordingly, the request for attorney‟s fees and costs associated with the SSRW appeals is denied as untimely.

I also find to be untimely, the Students‟ request for fees and costs associated with the 2007 Settlement Agreement and the 2007 Fee Petition. This Court issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and a Consent Order pertaining to the Settlement Agreement on August 8, 2007. See Docket No. [115]. The case was thereafter closed and terminated on August 9, 2007. Because the parties settled the case, no "judgment" within the meaning of Rule 54 would have been entered on the docket, but the consent order entered on August 8, 2007 is tantamount to the same. All claims had finally been adjudicated and the time was ripe for filing requests for attorney‟s fees and costs.

Indeed, the Students had already done so. Their 2007 Fee Petition was adjudicated by Opinion and Order dated October 22, 2007. See Docket No. [121]. Consequently, the Students‟ current request, lodged almost two and one half years after the work relating to that Settlement Agreement was completed, is clearly beyond the 14 day time period contemplated by Rule 54.

I reach a different conclusion, however, with respect to the timeliness of fees requested for work done in connection with the 2009 Motion to Enforce, the 2009 Mediation and the 2009 Settlement Agreement. The original Settlement Agreement contemplated monitoring by the Students and their attorneys to ensure compliance. A 2009 Motion to enforce was filed because the University again failed compliance tests. With the capable aid of Magistrate Judge Lenihan, the parties mediated their differences and reached a proposed Amended Settlement. On February 16, 2010, this Court held a hearing during which time it ...


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