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Harris v. Paige

United States District Court, Third Circuit

September 3, 2013

JAMES HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL PAIGE and CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

ROBERT F. KELLY, Sr. J.

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff, James Harris’ (“Harris”), Motion for Attorney’s Fees, Defendant, Michael Paige’s (“Paige”), Response, and Harris’ Reply. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND [1]

On May 7, 2008, Harris filed a Complaint against Paige and the City of Philadelphia (the “City”) alleging that Paige, who was employed as a Philadelphia police officer at the time of the alleged incident, sexually assaulted Harris by forcing him to engage in sexual acts under the show of authority, and under the color of state law in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Compl. ¶ 2.) This matter endured a long procedural history with the City being dismissed from the case. It was eventually tried before a jury from June 25, 2012, through June 27, 2012. At the trial’s conclusion, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Harris in the amount of $65, 000 for compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages for a total award of $165, 000. (Doc. No. 162.) Subsequently, Harris filed a Motion for Attorney’s Fees (“Fee Petition”) on July 12, 2012, which included an affidavit of his attorney, Brian F. Humble, Esq. (“Attorney Humble”). (Doc. Nos. 169, 171, 172.) Harris filed a Motion to Amend/Correct Motion for Attorney’s Fees on July 14, 2012. (Doc. No. 178.) Paige filed a Response on July 20, 2012 (Doc. No. 182), and Harris filed a Reply on July 29, 2012. (Doc. No. 184.) Paige filed a Notice of Appeal in the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (“Third Circuit”), which was dismissed on October 3, 2012. (Doc. No. 189.) On January 16, 2013, Paige informed the Court that he was called to active military service. (Doc. No. 197.) On January 24, 2013, we ordered this action placed in civil suspense until such time that Paige returns from active military duty. (Doc. No. 200.) Paige recently returned from military duty and we placed this case back on the active docket.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the Court in its discretion may award the prevailing party reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in litigating a claim under § 1983. 42 U.S.C. § 1988; Tresdell v. PHA, 290 F.3d 159, 163 (3d Cir. 2002). A reasonable fee is one “adequate to attract competent counsel, but which does not produce windfalls to attorneys.” PIRG v. Windall, 51 F.3d 1179, 1185 (3d Cir.1995); see also Planned Parenthood of Cent. N.J. v. Attorney General of State of N.J., 297 F.3d 253, 265 (3d Cir. 2002). The prevailing attorney seeking compensation bears the initial burden of showing the reasonableness of the requested fees by “producing satisfactory evidence-in addition to the attorney’s own affidavits-that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation.” Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 896 (1984). Once the prevailing attorney satisfies his burden, the opposing party may “challenge, by affidavit or brief with sufficient specificity to give the fee applicant notice, the reasonableness of the requested fee.” Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990).

After determining that a plaintiff is a prevailing party eligible to recover attorney’s fees, a court must determine what fee is reasonable. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). Reasonable attorney’s fees are comprised of the applicable hourly rate for the legal services and the product of the hours reasonably expended; this amount is known as the lodestar. Id. at 433. A reasonable hourly rate is the prevailing market rate for the essential character and complexity of the legal services rendered. Hurley v. Atl. City Police Dep’t, 174 F.3d 95, 131 (3d Cir. 1999); Planned Parenthood, 297 F.3d at 265 n.5. Once the reasonable hourly rate has been determined, the Court, in its discretion, calculates the fee award by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433; Planned Parenthood, 297 F.3d at 265.

III. DISCUSSION

1. Prevailing party

A prerequisite to an award of attorney’s fees under § 1988 is that the party seeking fees must have been “prevailing.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Paige asserts that Harris “can arguably be considered a ‘prevailing party’ but only for a few claims.” (Def.’s Resp. Mot. for Attorneys’ Fees at 3.) We disagree.

Courts have broadly defined “prevailing party” for purposes of triggering the application of a fee shifting statute. PIRG, 51 F.3d at 1185. Generally, a plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party for the purpose of receiving attorney’s fees if he succeeds on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437 (1983); see also Metro. Pitts. Crusade for Voters v. City of Pitts., 964 F.2d 244, 250 (3d Cir. 1992) (“The test . . . to determine prevailing party status is whether plaintiff achieved some of the benefit sought by the party bringing suit.”) Thus, a party need not achieve all of the relief requested, nor even ultimately win the case to be eligible for a fee award. J.O. ex rel. C.O. v. Orange Twp. Bd. of Ed., 287 F.3d 267, 271 (3d Cir. 2002).

Here, it is clear that Harris is a “prevailing party.” Harris won on virtually every claim presented to the jury. The jury found that Paige violated Harris’ Fourth amendment right not to be subjected to unlawful seizure, and his Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to invasion of bodily integrity. They also found that such violations caused injuries to Harris including severe emotional distress. As noted, the jury awarded Harris $65, 000 in compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages. Because Harris is clearly the prevailing party, this argument is without merit.

2. Hourly Rate

The first step in the lodestar calculation is determining a reasonable hourly rate. Although the Third Circuit has held that “the starting point in determining a reasonable hourly rate is an attorney’s usual billing rate, that amount is not dispositive.” PIRG, 51 F.3d at 1185. In Blum, the United States Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) explained that “reasonable fees” under § 1988 are to be calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community, regardless of whether plaintiff is represented by private or nonprofit counsel. 465 U.S. at 893. Thus, determination of the market rate first requires determination of the relevant market. Windall, 51 F.3d at 1186; see also Washington v. Phila. Cnty. Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1035 (3d Cir. 1996) (“[A] reasonable hourly rate is calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the community.”) Courts “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.” Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. The prevailing party bears the burden of establishing that the requested rate is reasonable in light of “the essential character and complexity of the legal services rendered in order to make out a prima facie case.” Washington, 89 F.3d at 1035.

Here, Attorney Humble submits that his reasonable hourly rate is $475.00, [2] which he states is “based on a fair market standard used by and established for attorneys of similar experience.” (Humble Aff. ¶ 11.) Attorney Humble asserts that this is the hourly rate that he charges in all civil rights cases he undertakes. (Id. ¶ 17.) He states that he was admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania in June 2002. and into the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in April 2008. (Id.) During this time, Attorney Humble asserts that he has acquired significant experience as a trial attorney in criminal defense, constitutional law, and civil rights. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 5.) Attorney Humble further asserts that he was a trial attorney for the Defender Association of Philadelphia from 2002 to approximately 2007, and has been a solo practitioner since that time with a focus on criminal defense, civil rights, and plaintiff’s litigation. (Id. ¶¶ 5-7.)

Paige argues that the appropriate hourly rate for Attorney Humble should be between $150.00 and $225.00 because he has “very limited experience in the civil rights field and no trials in this filed [sic].” (Def.’s Response at 4.) Paige also argues that the rate should be reduced because Attorney Humble seeks to charge attorney hourly rates for non-attorney work and non-trial work on this case. (Id. at 6.) A fee applicant bears the burden of producing “satisfactory evidence” that the requested rate is consistent with the prevailing market rate. Blum, 465 U.S. at 896 n.11. Satisfactory evidence includes “evidence other than the attorney’s own affidavits.” Holmes v. Millcreek Twp. Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 583, 594 (3d Cir. 2000). In Holmes, the Third Circuit noted Supreme Court precedent requiring that an “attorney’s showing of reasonableness [of the requested hourly rate] must rest on evidence other than the attorney’s own affidavits.” 205 F.3d at 594 (quoting Blum, 465 U.S. at 895-96 n.11; see also Maldonado v. Houstoun, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001) (stating that the prevailing party “bears the burden of establishing by way of satisfactory evidence, ‘in addition to [the] attorney’s own affidavits, ’ . . . that the requested hourly rates meet this standard”) (quoting Washington, 89 F.3d at 1035). Ultimately, the determination of a reasonable hourly rate is within the sound discretion of the court. Doe v. Terhune, 121 F.Supp.2d 773, 781 (D.N.J. 2000).

Here, Attorney Humble offers only his Affidavit and Supplemental Affidavit in support of his hourly fee request, which states that a reasonable community market hourly rate based on his “experience, background and expertise” is $475.00. (Humble Aff. ¶ 16.) Attorney Humble has submitted no other affidavits from any other attorneys in the Philadelphia legal community opining what a reasonable hourly rate is for a civil rights attorney with experience similar to his experience. Attorney Humble has, thus, not met his burden because he has failed to produce any other evidence for this Court to compare his requested hourly rate “to the rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation.” Rode, 892 F.2d at 1177.

In this situation, the Third Circuit and several courts in this District, have turned to the Philadelphia Community Legal Services’ fee schedule[3] (“CLS Fee Schedule”) for guidance. It “has been approvingly cited by the Third Circuit as being well developed and has been found by [the Eastern District of Pennsylvania] to be a fair reflection of the prevailing market rates in Philadelphia.” See Rainey v. Phila. Housing Auth., 832 F.Supp. 127, 129 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (citing Swaayze v. Phila. Housing Auth., No. 91-2982, 1992 WL 81598, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 16, 1992)); see also Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 187; Barrett v. West Chester Univ. of Penna. of State Sys. of Higher Educ., No. 03-4978, 2006 WL 859714, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2006); Sheffer v. Experian Info. Solutions Inc., 290 F.Supp.2d 538, 543-44 (E.D. Pa. 2003); Reynolds v. USX Corp., 170 F.Supp.2d 530, 532-33 (E.D. Pa. 2001); Skaggs v. Hartford Fin. Group, No. 99-3306, 2001 WL 1665334, at *20 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2001). Attorney Humble acknowledges that he reviewed the CLS Fee Schedule, but he argues that it should not be used by this Court in assessing his reasonable hourly rate. (Pl.’s Mot. for Atty.’s Fees at 8 n.2.) He asserts that the CLS Fee Schedule has been criticized by federal courts in this District. See Tucker v. Phila. Housing Auth., No. 93-5547, 1995 WL 154872, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 1995).[4] Nonetheless, as noted above, it has been utilized by several courts in this District, and we will follow the lead of these courts and use the CLS Fee Schedule as a guide in establishing Attorney Humble’s fair market hourly rate.

The CLS Fee Schedule, effective June 23, 2011, sets forth a schedule of reasonable hourly rates for attorneys based on their years of experience. (See www.clsphila.org.) It reflects reasonable hourly rates of between $225.00 to $255.00 for attorneys with 6-10 years of experience, and between $260.00 to $335.00 for attorneys with 11-15 years of experience. (Id.) It also recommends an hourly rate between $360.00 to $460.00 for attorneys with more than 25 years of experience. (Id.)

Attorney Humble asserts that he has been a “practicing attorney in the Pennsylvania state and federal courts for over 11 years.” (Pl.’s Mot. for Atty.’s Fees at 18.) He, however, states in his Affidavit that he was admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania in June 2002, and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in April 2008. (Humble Aff. ¶ 3.) We note that these dates indicate that Humble had just a month more than ten (10) years of experience in state court when this Motion was filed in August 2012, and four years’ experience in federal court. Thus, according to his own dates in his Affidavit, he has ten years of experience, placing him in the category of the CLS Fee Schedule for attorneys with 6-10 years experience which suggests an hourly fee range of $225.00 to $255.00. (See www.clsphila.org.) As noted, Attorney Humble asserts that if the CLS Fee Schedule is used, he has 11 years experience and falls in the category of attorneys with 11 to 15 years experience, and should be paid at the very top of this category at $335.00 an hour.[5]Although our calculation of Attorney Humble’s experience adds up to ten years and one month (June 2002 to July 2012 when his Fee Petition was filed) and not the eleven years he claims, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and place his experience level in the 11-15 year category which, as noted, has an hourly fee range of $260.00 to $335.00. Based on this schedule, we set Attorney Humble’s hourly fee at the lower end of the range at $260.00.[6]

3. Hours Reasonably Expended

Once a reasonable hourly rate has been determined, the next step in the lodestar calculation is a determination of the time reasonably expended in conducting the litigation. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Attorneys seeking fees must document the hours for which payment is sought “with sufficient specificity to allow the district court to determine whether the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed.” Evans v. Port Auth., 273 F.3d 346, 361 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, a district court is required 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.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-34; see also Holmes, 205 F.3d at 595. 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, 297 F.3d at 266 (quoting Penna. v. Del. Valley Citizens’ Council, 478 U.S. 546, 561 (1986)). In other words, courts have a “positive and affirmative function in the fee fixing process, not merely a passive role.” Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 184.

Attorney Humble asserts that he worked a total of 553:45 hours at a rate of $475.00 per hour and requests attorney’s fees in the amount of $263, 031.25. We need not recount the procedural history of this matter, which dates back to the filing of Harris’ Complaint in May 2008, to state the obvious- that procedurally this case necessitated a lot of litigation on Harris’ part because Paige certainly was not a cooperative Defendant by any means. That being said, Attorney Humble is certainly entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees for hours spent litigating this matter through the June 2012 trial. However, while acknowledging the procedural difficulty of litigating this case, we, nevertheless, find that many of Attorney Humble’s hours are excessive and unnecessary.

Courts should “consider the complexity of the litigation and the sophistication of the services rendered” when setting an attorney’s rates. Melissa G. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., No. 06-5527, 2008 WL 160613, a *2 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2008); see also Wisdom v. Phila. Housing Auth., No. 02-8369, 2003 WL 21545123, at *4 (E.D. Pa. July 7, 2003). We note that Attorney Humble acknowledges in both his Fee Petition and Reply that “[t]he subject matter and issues of this case were not complex.” (Fee Petition at 18; Reply at 14.) We agree, and with this in mind we are of the opinion that many of the hours Attorney Humble asserts that he spent litigating this matter were “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, ” and we will reduce the hours accordingly. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-34. The Third Circuit mandates that a district court conduct more than a cursory review of the billing records, and must “go line, by line” through the billing records supporting the fee request. Evans, 273 F.3d at 362-63; Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 184.

Attorney Humble has submitted numerous time sheets detailing his time to five minute increments. In accordance with Evans, we go line by line through each, and make the following findings and adjustments. We first note that for reasons which will be addressed, infra, all hours billed for consultation with Anthony McKnight will be excluded. A review of the time sheets indicates that Attorney Humble billed 15:20 hours for various consultations with McKnight, and this time will be excluded. The following list reflects hours billed by Attorney Humble that we find either excessive, and reduce accordingly to what we find is reasonable, or hours billed that we determine to be unnecessary and will not award attorney’s fees for such:[7]

- 6/29/2007- State criminal trial matters- 6:05 hrs. Hours approved- 0;
- 11/30/2007- Attend state criminal trial- 8:05 hrs. Hours approved- 0;
- 12/24/2007- Review state crim. discovery- 5:25 hrs. Hours approved- 3;
- 1/25/2008- Review state crim. file/consult client- 6:35 hrs. Hours approved- 4;
- 5/03/2008- Legal research- 12:15 hrs. Hours approved- 4;
- 5/5, 5/6, 5/7/2008- Prep Complaint- 24:2 hrs. Hours approved- 8;
- 5/28/2008- Review City Defendants answer- 4:45 hrs. ...

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