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J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 31, 2014

J.S., a minor, by and through her parents, TERRY SNYDER and STEVEN SNYDER, individually and on behalf of their daughter, Plaintiffs,
v.
BLUE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

JAMES M. MUNLEY, District Judge.

Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick's report and recommendation (hereinafter "R&R") regarding plaintiffs' petition for attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Both the defendant and the plaintiff have filed objections to the R&R. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

Background[1]

In March 2007, Plaintiff J.S., a middle school student, created a profile on the MySpace website purporting to be her principal.[2] The Defendant Blue Mountain School District suspended Plaintiff J.S. from school as punishment for creating the imposter profile although she was not on school grounds when she created the profile.

Plaintiffs then instituted the instant action. They averred the following: Count I - the First Amendment precluded the school district from disciplining a student for the profile which was non-threatening, non-obscene and a parody; Count II - the First Amendment prohibited the school district's overly broad and vague policies; Count III - the School District acted beyond its statutory authority in punishing the plaintiff for out-of-school speech; and Count IV - the school district violated the parents' Fourteenth Amendment rights to determine how best to raise, nurture, discipline and educate their children. The plaintiffs brought suit pursuant to the Civil Rights Statute of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

We granted summary judgment to the defendant and the plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Third Circuit affirmed this court's order. The plaintiffs's then sought a petition for rehearing en banc, which the Third Circuit granted. After the en banc rehearing, the Third Circuit reversed this court's ruling on Counts I and III and affirmed on Counts II and IV. The defendant filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, which was denied. The Third Circuit remanded the case to this court to determine appropriate relief.

The parties then stipulated to a judgment of $7500.00 in favor of Plaintiff J.S. (hereinafter "J.S.") and against the defendant school district for the violation of her rights. (Docs. 75 & 76). The parties, however, could not stipulate as to the matter of attorney's fees. Thus, Plaintiff J.S. filed the instant petition for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that the district court "may allow the prevailing party [in a § 1983 case]... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs[.]" Plaintiff J.S. seeks $436, 553.25 in fees and $32, 116.61 in costs related to the proceedings in this case.

We referred the attorney's fees petition to Magistrate Judge Mehalchick for the issuance of an R&R. In her R&R, Judge Mehalchick suggests granting the motion in part and denying it in part. The R&R recommends that the court award plaintiff $278, 092.75 in attorney's fees and $31, 926.61 in costs. Both parties have filed objections to this recommendation, bringing the case to its present posture.

Standard of review

In disposing of objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(C); see also Henderson v. Carlson , 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). This court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

In the instant case, the parties only object to certain parts of the R&R, and they do not object to other parts. In deciding whether to adopt the portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are lodged, we must determine if a review of the record evidences plain error or manifest injustice. FED. R. CIV. P. 72(b) 1983 Advisory Committee Notes ("When no timely objection is filed, the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record to accept the recommendation"); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Sullivan v. Cuyler , 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983).

Discussion

It is well established that costs, attorney's fees and expenses may be awarded to a prevailing party in federal litigation where authorized by statute, court rule, or contract. See Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y , 421 U.S. 240, 257 (1975); Hall v. Cole , 412 U.S. 1, 4 (1973). As noted above, 42 U.S.C. § 1988 authorizes the award of attorney's fees to the prevailing party in section 1983 cases.

When awarding attorney's fees and costs, courts within the Third Circuit use the "lodestar" method. See Maldonado v. Houstoun , 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001). The first step in using the lodestar method is to calculate "the product of the hours reasonably expended and the applicable hourly rate for the legal services." Pub. Interest Research Grp. of N.J., Inc. v. Windall , 51 F.3d 1179, 1185 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart , 461 U.S. 424, 433, (1983)). After this product, known as the "lodestar, " is determined, the court has discretion to adjust the fee for a variety of reasons, most notably "the results obtained' by the [prevailing party.]" Id . (citing Hensley , 461 U.S. at 434).

The "party seeking attorney fees bears the ultimate burden of showing that its requested hourly rates and the hours it claims are reasonable." Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc. , 426 F.3d 694, 703 n.5 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Rode v. Dellarciprete , 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990)). To satisfy this burden, the party seeking fees is initially required to submit evidence supporting the hours worked and the rates claimed. Id . To the extent the opposing party seeks to challenge the fees sought, "the opposing party must then object with sufficient specificity' to the request." Id . (quoting Rode , 892 F.2d at 1183)).

In the instant case, Magistrate Judge Mehalchick performed this analysis by first determining the hourly rate to be paid to the various attorneys. She assigned the following hourly rates:

1) Attorney Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (hereinafter "ACLU") of Pennsylvania - $300.00 per hour.

2) Attorney Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania - $300.00 per hour.

3) Attorney Sara J. Rose - $250.00 per hour;

4) Attorney Morgan-Kurtz, a legal fellow of at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, $125.00 per hour;

5) Attorney Mary Kohart a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLC - $300.00 per hour;

6) Attorney Cheryl Slipski, partner at Drinker Biddle &n Reath, LLC - $300.00 per hour;

7) Attorney Meredith Reinhardt - employed at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLC - $250.00 per hour;

8) Attorney A. Kristina Littman - employed at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLC - $250.00 per hour;

9) Attorney Christopher Leahy - employed at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLC - $250.00 per hour;

10) Attorney Sarosiek, an associate of Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLC - $125.00 per hour; and

11) Meredith Traunter, Chirstopher Kelly, Harley Miller, Stephen Dempsey, Thomas Cheng and Geraldine Powell, paralegals at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLC - $85.00 per hour.

(Doc. 92, R&R at 39).

To complete the lodestar calculation, Magistrate Judge Mehalchick then reviewed the hours requested as to each attorney. She calculated the number of hours at 1134.63. (Id.) She multiplied the hours for each attorney by the hourly rates of the respective attorneys to arrive at the lodestar calculation of $278, 92.75. (Id.) The defendant requested that the lodestar be reduced because the plaintiff did not prevail on all of her claims. The magistrate judge denied this request to reduce the lodestar figure. Thus, the final attorney fee figure reached by the R&R is $278, 092.75. (Id. at 42). Finally, the magistrate ...


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