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Jones v. Pennsylvania State Police

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 11, 2018

RACHEL JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE AND MIKE TINNENY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.

         Before the Court is a petition for attorney's fees in a hostile work environment case brought against the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) and Sergeant Mike Tinneny. Attorney Brian Puricelli seeks $750 per hour for work performed in this case and $8, 875.45 in costs. For the reasons that follow, the fee request shall be granted in part.

         I.BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Rachel Jones filed suit in August 2016, asserting various claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”) against the PSP, her supervisor Sergeant Mike Tinneny, and State Trooper Craig Acord, based on the harassing conduct of Acord in the workplace. Specifically, after Plaintiff and Acord ended their relationship, Acord made several advances at Plaintiff despite her repeated refusal.

         Some of Plaintiff's Title VII and PHRA claims were dismissed at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage. See Jones v. Pa. State Police, 2016 WL 7404478 (E.D. Pa. 2016). Acord eventually settled with Plaintiff. Defendant PSP, on the other hand, moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's remaining Title VII and PHRA claims for hostile work environment and retaliation. Sergeant Tinneny moved for summary judgment as to the PHRA claims for aiding and abetting the hostile work environment and retaliation. Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim against the PSP and aiding-and-abetting a hostile work environment claim against Sergeant Tinneny survived summary judgment. See Jones v. Pa. State Police, 2017 WL 4386994 (E.D. Pa. 2017). The case proceeded to trial on these claims.

         After a four-day trial, the jury awarded Plaintiff $250, 000 on her hostile work environment claim against the PSP. Sergeant Tinneny was found not liable. Counsel for Plaintiff now seeks $750 per hour for his work and $8, 875.45 in costs for his success in litigating Plaintiff's Title VII and PHRA claim.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         At its discretion, a court may award reasonable attorney's fees to the prevailing party in a Title VII case. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k); CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, 136 S.Ct. 1642, 1646 (2016). The party seeking attorney's fees has the burden of proving that the request is reasonable. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). To satisfy this burden, the “fee petitioner must ‘submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.'” Id. (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). “[T]he 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. Once the opposing party lodges objections to the fee petition, “the district court has a great deal of discretion to adjust the fee award in light of those objections.” Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff here is a “prevailing party” within the meaning of Title VII's attorney's fees provision. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Plaintiff has secured an “enforceable judgment on the merits, ” obtaining a $250, 000 jury award for her hostile work environment claim under Title VII. Singer Mgmt. Consultants, Inc. v. Milgram, 650 F.3d 223, 231 (3d Cir. 2011). Therefore, the question is what amount of attorney's fees would be reasonable under the circumstances.

         To calculate a reasonable attorney's fee award, “we use the ‘lodestar' formula, which requires multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate.” Loughner v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). Plaintiff here has the burden of submitting evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. If the documentations of hours is lacking, “the district court may reduce the award accordingly.” Id. Further, “[t]he district court also should exclude from this initial fee calculations hours that were not ‘reasonably expended.'” Id. at 434. A fee award may not be decreased “based on factors not raised at all by the adverse party.” Loughner, 260 F.3d at 178.

         a. Hours Reasonably Expended by Puricelli

         In determining the hours reasonably expended, “the District Court should 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.” Id. at 177 (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, the District Court has a positive and affirmative function in the fee fixing process, not merely a passive role.” Id. Plaintiff has submitted time entries for work performed by Brian Puricelli and his former associate, Alexis Lehmann.[1]

         Defendant claims that Puricelli's hours should be reduced because: (1) he seeks fees for tasks related to litigating Plaintiff's claim against Acord; (2) he has provided unclear timesheets that render it difficult to calculate the lodestar figure; and (3) certain tasks he performed were redundant and the number of hours he worked is generally unreasonable. Each argument will be considered in turn.

         i. Hours Spent on Litigation Against Acord

         “The court can reduce the hours claimed by the number of hours spent litigating claims on which the party did not succeed and that were distinct in all respects from claims on which the party did succeed.” Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. Plaintiff prevailed only on her hostile work environment claim against the PSP. Thus, the following time entries devoted to litigating Plaintiff's tort claim against Acord shall be excluded:

Date

Description

Hours Billed

February 17, 2017

Accord settlement agreement received, reviewed, client contacted RE agreement. Confirmed

0.5

July 6, 2017

Set conf in court train 11.75 portal to portal[2]

3.0

July 7, 2017

Set phone conf re: Accord [sic] settlement

0.2

July 8, 2017

ECF in - minutes for set conf on 7th

0.1

         ii. Clarity of Timesheets

         “Any hours to be used in calculating attorneys' fees must be detailed with sufficient specificity.” Keenan v. City of Phila., 983 F.2d 459, 472 (3d Cir. 1992). A fee petition must be “specific enough to allow the district court to determine if the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The fee petition should include “some fairly definite information as to the hours devoted to various general activities, e.g. pretrial discovery, settlement negotiations, and the hours spent by various classes of attorneys, e.g. senior partners, junior partners, associates.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Despite his various misspellings and counterintuitive abbreviations, Puricelli has, for the most part, produced sufficiently clear time sheets. Although Defendants take issue with entries that include multiple tasks and that fail to describe the amount of time spent on each task, such specific billing practices are not required for a fee petition. Id. (“[I]t is not necessary to know the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted nor the specific attainments of each attorney.”) (internal quotations omitted). In other words, by providing “computer-generated time sheet[s]” that include “the date the activity took place, ” Puricelli has satisfied the specificity requirement.[3] Id.

         iii. Excessive Hours

         Defendants identify one instance of a billing redundancy in which Puricelli billed twice for reading an identical transcript. Puricelli's entry on February 3, 2017 for spending 0.9 hours in re-reading the transcript shall thus be excluded from the lodestar calculation.

         Defendants have not otherwise met their burden in challenging the total number of hours billed by Puricelli. Defendants, in particular, contend that “an estimation of a reasonable amount of time for each part of the litigation” should be used to calculate Puricelli's total hours. But their request to wholesale reduce hundreds of hours from Puricelli's billings is not warranted; Defendants have failed to provide “sufficient specificity to give fee applicants notice” of their objections to the hours billed besides a conclusory statement that the number of hours worked is unreasonable. Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. Indeed, this Court “may not reduce an award sua sponte” but must instead do so “in response to specific objections made by the opposing party.” Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell Int'l, 426 F.3d 694, 711 (3d Cir. 2005). Accordingly, Puricelli's hours will not be reduced based on Defendants' generalized assertion of unreasonableness.

         iv. Total Number ...


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