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Kathleen T. Murphy v. City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation

August 24, 2011

KATHLEEN T. MURPHY
PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF RECREATION DEFENDANT



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This employment discrimination case is once again before the Court for resolution of the Motion of Plaintiff Kathleen Murphy to Mold the Judgment Pursuant to Title VII's Fee Shifting Provision and Enter Judgment Against Defendant in the Amount of $293,134 (Doc. No. 54). For the reasons set forth below, the motion shall be partially granted.

History of the Case

As noted, this is an employment discrimination action that was initiated in October, 2007 pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, following Plaintiff's exhaustion of administrative remedies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The case was tried to a jury in November, 2010 and resulted in a verdict in Plaintiff's favor solely on her retaliation claim and an award of $100,000 in compensatory damages. By the motion which is now before us, Plaintiff moves to mold the verdict to include attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $193,134. Defendant contends that, inasmuch as Plaintiff was only successful on one out of three claims, she should only be awarded the sum of $69,755.60.

Discussion

Although our legal system generally adheres to the so-called "American Rule" under which each party typically bears its own litigation expenses regardless of whether it wins or loses, Congress has authorized courts to deviate from this background rule in certain types of cases by shifting fees from one party to another. Fox v. Vice, U.S. , 131 S. Ct. 2205, 2213, 180 L. Ed. 2d 45, 53 (2011)(citing Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562, 112 S. Ct. 2638, 120 L. Ed.2d 449 (1992) and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S. Ct. 1612, 44 L. Ed.2d 141 (1975)). Such a fee shifting provision exists in Title VII and is set forth in Section 706(k), codified at 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(k). That section reads as follows:

In any action or proceeding under this subchapter the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs, and the Commission and the United States shall be liable for costs the same as a private person.

Thus under Title VII, as under most other fee shifting statutes, a plaintiff must be a "prevailing party" to recover an attorney's fee. See, Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1939, 76 L. Ed.2d 40 (1983). "Plaintiffs may be considered 'prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Id., cited with approval in Texas State Teachers Ass'n. v. Garland Independent School District, 489 U.S. 782, 792, 109 S. Ct. 1486, 103 L. Ed.2d 866 (1989). See also, Sole v. Wyner, 551 U.S. 74, 76, 127 S. Ct. 2188, 2194, 167 L. Ed.2d 1069 (2007). It then remains for the district court to determine what fee is "reasonable." Id.

Since the Supreme Court decided Hensley, Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 104 S. Ct. 1541, 79 L. Ed.2d 891 (1984) and Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 106 S. Ct. 3088, 92 L. Ed.2d 439 (1986), "the 'lodestar' figure has, as its name suggests, become the guiding light of ... fee-shifting jurisprudence." Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 801, 122 S. Ct. 1817, 1825, 152 L. Ed.2d 996, (2002)(quoting Burlington v. Dague, supra.) Under this method, "the most useful starting point for court determination of the amount of a reasonable fee payable by the loser is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103 S. Ct. at 1939).

Although the lodestar*fn1 is presumed to be the reasonable fee, the district court has the discretion to make certain adjustments to it. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). In a statutory fee case, the party opposing the fee award has the burden to challenge, by affidavit or brief with sufficient specificity to give fee applicants notice, the reasonableness of the requested fee. Id., citing Bell v. United Princeton Properties, Inc., 884 F.2d 713 (3d Cir. 1989).

Hence, the court may not reduce an award sua sponte; rather, it can only do so in response to specific objections made by the opposing party. Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell, 426 F.3d 694, 711 (3d Cir. 2005)(citing Bell, at 719); Wade v. Colaner, Civ. A. No. 06-3715, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138518 at *12 (D. N.J. Dec. 28, 2010). However, once the opposing party has made a specific objection, the party seeking an award of fees bears the burden of showing that the claimed rates and number of hours are reasonable. Id.; Loughner v. University of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 178 (3d Cir. 2001); Rode, supra.

"Generally, a reasonable hourly rate is to be calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." McGuffey v. Brinks, Inc., 598 F. Supp. 2d 659, 669 (E.D. Pa. 2009)(quoting Rode,892 F.2d at 1183). In conducting its analysis, the district court should "assess the experience and skill of the prevailing party's attorneys and compare their rates to the rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation." Id, (quoting id).

What's more, because the District Court must articulate the basis for a fee award and the record must at least reflect that the trial court "fully comprehended the factual and legal issues and adequately performed the decision-reaching process," [a] "District Court is obligated to 'review the time charged, decide whether the hours set out were reasonably expended for each of the particular purposes described and then exclude those that are excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary.'" Evans v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 273 F.3d 346, 362 (3d Cir. 2001)(quoting Maldonado v. Houston, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001) and Pub. Int. Research Group of N.J., Inc. v. Windall, 51 F.3d 1179, 1188 (3d Cir. 1995)). Thus, "it is necessary that the Court go line by line by line through the billing records supporting the fee request." Id.; Bucceroni v. City of Philadelphia, Civ. A. No. 03-6371, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85559 at *9 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 27, 2006).

Finally, Courts may not make any findings of reasonableness based on a generalized sense of appropriateness, but "must rely on the record." Evans, 273 F.3d at 361 (quoting Smith v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, 107 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 1997)). In requesting, challenging and granting attorneys' fees, specificity is critical; a request for fees must be accompanied by "fairly definite information as to hours devoted to various general activities, e.g., partial discovery, settlement negotiations, and the hours spent by various classes of attorneys." U.A.W. Local 259 Social Security Department v. Metro Auto Center, 501 F.3d 283, 291 (3d Cir. 2007)(quoting Evans, at 361). "Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly." Id., (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). "In addition, an attorney's work on unsuccessful claims not related to the claims on which the attorney succeeded is not compensable, because such work 'cannot be deemed to have been expended in pursuit of the ultimate result achieved.'" McKenna v. City of Philadelphia, 582 F.3d ...


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