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Deborah Prise v. Alderwoods Group

September 26, 2011

DEBORAH PRISE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ALDERWOODS GROUP, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Pending before the court is a motion for attorneys‟ fees and expenses (the "Motion" (ECF No. 276)), filed by plaintiff Deborah Prise ("plaintiff" or "Prise"), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 2000e-5(k), and 43 PA. CONS. STAT. § 962(c)(2). Prise seeks an award of $819,790.00 for attorneys‟ fees and expenses in the amount of $13,344.58 to be paid by defendant Alderwoods Group, Inc. ("defendant" or "Alderwoods Group"). For the reasons set forth below, the Motion will be denied.

II. Procedural History

Background*fn1

In 2006, Prise brought claims of employment discrimination against Alderwoods Group alleging that Alderwoods Group subjected her to various forms of illegal discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 PA. CONS. STAT. §§ 951 et seq. (the "PHRA"), and the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). On September 21, 2009, this court issued a memorandum opinion (ECF No. 169) and an order (ECF No. 170) granting Alderwoods Group‟s motion for summary judgment with respect to all claims except plaintiff's retaliation claims under Title VII and the PHRA. As a result, the only claims that remained for trial were plaintiff's six retaliation claims.

On May 4, 2010, plaintiff's claims of retaliatory discrimination went to trial before a jury. On May 14, 2010, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Prise with respect to her claim that Alderwoods Group retaliated against Prise when it suspended her after she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.*fn2 The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Alderwoods Group on all other retaliation claims filed by Prise. (Verdict Slip (ECF No. 251).) No compensatory or punitive damages were awarded. (Id.)

On July 9, 2010, plaintiff filed a motion for equitable relief seeking a permanent injunction requiring defendant to cease and desist from retaliating against its employees in the future if the employees were to engage in activity protected by Title VII. (ECF No. 266.) On July 20, 2010, the court held a hearing. During oral argument, plaintiff requested -- for the first time -- that in the alternative the court order defendant to post a notice at its various places of employment locations reminding defendant‟s employees of its antiretaliation policy and stating that the notice is a result of a jury‟s finding that defendant retaliated against plaintiff for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Plaintiff argued that such notice was necessary to assure defendant‟s other employees of their right to file a charge of discrimination without fear of retaliation.

At the hearing, the court denied plaintiff‟s requests for equitable relief and informed the parties that judgment would be entered in favor of plaintiff on the claims on which she had prevailed with an award of nominal damages and in favor of defendant on all other claims. (Hr‟g Tr. 59, July 20, 2010 (ECF No. 269).) Defendant objected to any award of nominal damages in favor of plaintiff. (Id.) The court informed that parties that it would issue an opinion setting forth its reasons for denying plaintiff‟s requests for equitable relief and ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs on the issue of nominal damages.

On August 31, 2010, the court issued a memorandum opinion and order denying plaintiff‟s motion for equitable relief. (ECF No. 273.) With respect to plaintiff‟s request for a permanent injunction, the court found that plaintiff expressly waived her right to injunctive relief in a pretrial proceeding. The court also found that the permanent injunction and posting of a notice were not appropriate under the four-prong test set forth in eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006),*fn3 because, among other things, plaintiff failed to show that: 1) she was irreparably damaged by plaintiff‟s actions, and 2) that remedies available at law were inadequate to compensate her for any injury caused by defendant. On the same date, the court entered a separate order denying plaintiff‟s request for nominal damages on the basis that plaintiff had also expressly waived her right to nominal damages at a pretrial proceeding. (ECF No. 274.)

On August 31, 2010, a judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff and against defendant, with no award of damages, at count III (retaliation by suspending plaintiff in violation of Title

VII) and count VI (retaliation by suspending plaintiff in violation of the PHRA) of the Third Amended Complaint. A judgment in favor of defendant and against plaintiff was entered on all other claims. (ECF No. 275.)

On September 15, 2010, plaintiff filed the instant Motion with respect to the retaliation claim on which plaintiff prevailed concerning her suspension after she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. On October 5, 2010, defendant filed a response to the Motion. (Defendant Alderwoods Group, Inc.‟s Opp‟n to Pl.‟s Mot. for Attorney Fees and Expenses (ECF No. 282).)

III. Standard of Review

A district court has the discretion to award reasonable attorneys‟ fees to the prevailing party in an employment discrimination case. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 426 (1983);Spencer v.Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 469 F.3d 311, 318 (3d Cir. 2006), cert. denied. 551 U.S. 1141 (2007). The standard for awarding attorneys‟ fees is the same for a Title VII claim as a claim under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Pennsylvania v. Flaherty, 40 F.3d 57, 61 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 n.7). The threshold issue is to determine whether there is a prevailing party. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. To qualify as a prevailing party, the plaintiff "must obtain an enforceable judgment" or comparable relief against the defendant. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992). "[A] judgment - declaratory or otherwise -- will constitute relief, for purposes of [42 U.S.C.] § 1988, if, and only if, it affects the behavior of the defendant toward the plaintiff." Id. at 110 (internal citation omitted).

IV.The Motion

Plaintiff contends that there is a presumption that, absent special circumstances, a prevailing party is to be awarded attorneys‟ fees. Plaintiff relies upon, among other decisions, Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419 (3d Cir. 2000), where the court awarded fees and costs despite a judgment being entered with no damages in a housing discrimination claim, contending it would otherwise create a "paradigmatic "miscarriage of justice.‟" Alexander, 208 F.3d at 430 n.8. Plaintiff argues that she "need not achieve all of the relief requested nor even ultimately win the case to be eligible for a fee award", she only need to achieve some benefit. J.O. ex rel. C.O. v. Orange Twp. Bd. of Educ., 287 F.3d 267, 271 (3d Cir. 2002)). Plaintiff concedes that status as a prevailing party requires that she "succeed[] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some benefit she sought in bringing suit." (Pl‟s Mot. for Attorney Fees and Expenses 3 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433).) Plaintiff points out that because she prevailed in a Title VII civil rights action, she "is the chosen instrument of Congress to vindicate a policy that is considered of the highest priority." (Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Christianburg ...


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