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Nittany Outdoor Advertising, LLC v. College Township

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2015

NITTANY OUTDOOR ADVERTISING, LLC and STEPHANAS MINISTRIES, Plaintiffs
v.
COLLEGE TOWNSHIP, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

MATTHEW W. BRANN, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the Plaintiffs' (referred to collectively as "Nittany") Motion for Attorney Fees and Expenses (ECF No. 57) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), and United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Local Rule 54.4. The underlying action concerned Nittany's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Constitution. Nittany was partially successful in this matter and seeks compensation for its attorneys. In a Memorandum and Opinion, partial summary judgment was granted only in relation to claims that College Township's Ordinance variance provision was unconstitutionally vague, and clauses implementing the permit requirement were unconstitutional. (ECF No. 47). All other claims, including claims that the Ordinance was unconstitutional as-applied, were rejected. Id.

For the reasons discussed herein, Nittany's Motion for Attorney Fees is granted in part. While the proposed hourly billing rates and proposed total hours worked are reasonable, for reasons discussed below the total award will be reduced based upon the limited success obtained in the underlying matter.

I. BACKGROUND

As the Parties are familiar with the particulars of the case, the Court will only briefly address the facts necessary for consideration of this Motion. On July 3, 2012, Nittany filed an amended complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant College Township, claiming that College Township's public sign ordinance violated: (1) the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as the ordinance was "impermissibly content-based[, ]" impermissibly suppressed noncommercial speech, granted unfettered discretion to township officials to license speech, and was not narrowly tailored; and (2) was unconstitutionally exclusionary under the Pennsylvania Constitution. (ECF No. 11). On July 17, 2012, College Township filed an Answer and a Motion to quash. (ECF Nos. 14, 15). On January 15, 2013, that Motion was denied. (ECF No. 24).

On March 1, 2013, Nittany filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and a Motion for a Permanent Injunction. (ECF Nos. 25, 28). After reviewing the briefs submitted by the parties, on May 20, 2014 this Court granted in part and denied in part both of Nittany's motions. (ECF No. 47). Nittany subsequently filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which this Court granted only as to Nittany's request for attorney fees. (ECF No. 55). Thereafter, Nittany filed the Motion sub judice seeking attorney fees.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Statutory Authority to Award Attorneys Fees

In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the "American Rule" that each party in a lawsuit pays its own attorney's fees unless there is statutory authority altering this status quo. 421 U.S. 240 (1975). "In response Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, authorizing the district courts to award a reasonable attorney's fee to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation." Id . "The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983) (quoting H. R. Rep. No. 94-1558, at 1 (1976)).

Accordingly, the Court retains discretion to award reasonable attorneys fees and costs to the prevailing party in civil rights litigation. The statutory authority for this discretion is 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), which states:

In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, title IX of Public Law 92-318 [20 U.S.C.A. § 1681 et seq.], the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 [42 U.S.C.A. § 2000bb et seq.], the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 [42 U.S.C.A. § 2000cc et seq.], title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [42 U.S.C.A. § 2000d et seq.], or section 13981 of this title, the court, in its discretion may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs[.]

To merit an award of attorney's fees under this statute, a plaintiff must first establish that he was the "prevailing party." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Next, the fees and costs must be reasonable. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988; Brytus v. Spang & Co., 203 F.3d 238, 242-43 (3d Cir. 2000). Once it is established that the plaintiff prevailed, the court must determine reasonable fees under the lodestar formula, which is the "number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433; Maldonado v. Houstoun, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001). "The amount of the fee, of course, must be determined on the facts of each case." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 429-30.

"The party seeking attorney's fees has the burden to prove that its request for attorney's fees is reasonable." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). "To meet its burden, the fee petitioner must submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.'" Id . (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). Once the petitioner meets this burden, "the party opposing the fee award then has the burden to challenge, by affidavit or brief with sufficient specificity to give fee applicants notice, the reasonableness of the requested fee." Id.

"The district court cannot decrease a fee award based on factors not raised at all by the adverse party.'" Id . (quoting Bell v. United Princeton Props., Inc., 884 F.2d 713 (3d Cir. 1989)). "Once the adverse party raises objections to the fee request, the district court has a great deal of discretion to adjust the fee award in light of those objections." Id.

"The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation[.]" Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. "The district court should exclude hours that are not reasonably expended." Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. "Hours are not reasonably expended if they are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Id.

"After determining the number of hours reasonably expended, the district court must examine whether the requested hourly rate is reasonable." Id . "Generally, a reasonable hourly rate is to be calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Id . (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1984)). This "forum rate rule" dictates that, generally "an out-of-town lawyer would receive not the hourly rate prescribed by his district but rather the hourly rate prevailing in the forum in which the litigation is lodged.'" Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell ...


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