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Pierce v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 2, 2019

DEANNA PIERCE, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Deanna Pierce, a Native American woman, sued the City of Philadelphia for discrimination, harassment and retaliation. She claimed the City failed to promote her to three positions in 2015, 2016 and 2017 because of her race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance. She also claimed the City subjected her to a hostile work environment and retaliated against her.[1] After discovery, Pierce withdrew her discrimination claims related to the 2015 promotion. Both parties then moved for summary judgment. The Court granted judgment for the City on the discrimination claims related to the 2017 promotion, hostile work environment claims and retaliation claim under § 1981. The Court denied Pierce's motion for summary judgment.

         The case proceeded to trial on the discrimination claims related to the 2016 promotion under § 1981, the Equal Protection Clause, Title VII, the PHRA and the PFPO and the retaliation claims under Title VII, the PHRA and the PFPO. The jury found in the City's favor on the discrimination claims, though it concluded that the City retaliated against Pierce. The jurors awarded one dollar in nominal damages.

         Following trial, Pierce filed a motion for equitable and injunctive relief, a motion for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial and a second motion for a new trial. The Court denied the motions. Pierce now seeks $358, 383 in attorney's fees[2] and $29, 436.56 in costs as the prevailing party on her retaliation claim. The Motion is denied with prejudice as to attorneys' fees and denied without prejudice as to costs for the reasons that follow.

         I

         The Court, “in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party” in a Title VII case “a reasonable attorney's fee . . . as part of the costs” awarded.[3] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). The City does not dispute that Pierce is a “prevailing party” within the meaning of the Title VII because she received nominal damages on her retaliation claim. (Def.'s Mem. Opp'n Mot. 3-4); see Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 112 (1992). Thus, the Court need only determine what fee award, if any, is reasonable under the circumstances of this case.

         In Farrar, the United States Supreme Court held that “[a]lthough the ‘technical' nature of a nominal damages award . . . does not affect the prevailing party inquiry” for the purposes of awarding attorneys' fees, “it does bear on the propriety of fees awarded . . . .” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114. The most critical factor in determining a “reasonable” fee is “the degree of success obtained” by the prevailing party. Id. (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983)). The Court concluded that “[w]hen a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.” Id. (citing Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 256-57, 264 (1978)).

         Justice O'Connor concurred in Farrar, reiterating that the “de minimis or technical” nature of a nominal damages award “is part of the determination of what constitutes a reasonable fee.” Id. at 117 (O'Connor, J., concurring). She stated that “the practice of denying fees to Pyrrhic victors is one [Congress] clearly intended to preserve” in fee-shifting statutes, but cautioned that “[n]ominal relief does not necessarily a nominal victory make.” Id. at 119, 121. She proposed three factors to consider in determining whether to award fees in a nominal damages case: (1) the difference between the amount recovered and the damages sought, (2) the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff claims to have prevailed and (3) whether the plaintiff's success accomplished some public goal other than occupying the time and energy of counsel, court and client. Id. at 121-22.

         The Third Circuit Court of Appeals applied Farrar in Jama v. Esmor Correctional Services, 577 F.3d 169 (3d Cir. 2009). In that case, a jury awarded nominal damages to Jama on her Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim and $100, 000 in tort damages. Jama, 577 F.3d at 171. The district court granted Jama's attorneys' fee petition, attributing a portion of the tort award to her fee-eligible RFRA claim. Id. at 173. The Third Circuit remanded for reconsideration of the relationship between the tort and RFRA claims. Id. at 179-80. The court also directed the district court to “consider the extent to which Jama's RFRA claim might, even independently, justify a fee award under the factors articulated by Justice O'Connor in Farrar.” Id. at Three years later, a Third Circuit panel acknowledged in a non-precedential opinion that “Jama may have muddied the waters after Farrar.” Velius v. Twp. of Hamilton, 466 Fed.Appx. 133, 140 (3d Cir. 2012). In Velius, a jury found that police officers violated the plaintiff's right to be free from excessive force, but awarded only nominal damages. The district court, which “seemed to believe it was obligated to apply the factors cited in Justice O'Connor's concurrence in Farrar, ” awarded $2, 259 in attorneys' fees. Id. at 134-35, 139. The Third Circuit vacated the award and remanded with the following instructions to the district court:

Our “adoption” of Justice O'Connor's factors [in Jama] must be understood only as an endorsement of the use of those considerations by trial judges who believe the case before them may present the rare situation in which success on the claim justifies attorneys' fees despite the technical victory manifested by an award of nominal damages. . . .
On remand, the District Court should consider the fact that an “obtuse” verdict “cannot deter misconduct any more than a bolt of lightning can; . . . it teaches no valuable lesson because it carries no discernable meaning.” The verdict sheet in this case does not demonstrate whether the jury's verdict was based on the Officers pulling [plaintiff] from his truck, handcuffing him too tightly, or both. Thus, it cannot serve any substantial notice-giving function vis-à-vis the impropriety of tight handcuffing. We further caution that, given the Farrar rule that nominal damages awards in civil rights cases usually will warrant no fee and that every civil rights case in which the plaintiff prevails on the merits vindicates some right, it cannot be the case that the mere vindication of rights alone suffices to distinguish those cases in which the presumption of no fee is overcome.

Id. at 140, 141 n.4 (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 122 (O'Connor, J., concurring)).

         More recently, in another non-precedential opinion, the Third Circuit held that a district court “applied the correct standard” to an attorneys' fee request in a nominal damages case and affirmed the district court's order denying fees. Carroll v. Clifford Twp., 625 Fed.Appx. 43, 46 (3d Cir. 2015). The district court had first noted that one dollar was “a minute fraction of” the damages the plaintiff sought in the case and “g[ave] primacy” to that disparity.[4] Carroll v. Clifford Twp., 2014 WL 2860994 at *3 (M.D. Pa. June 23, 2014). The district court then acknowledged that “it need not consider the additional O'Connor factors, ” but nonetheless did so “briefly” and found that the remaining two factors weighed against awarding fees. Id. at *3-4.

         Since Jama, Velius and Carroll, district courts have heeded Farrar's instruction to determine what fee is reasonable under the circumstances of a case, giving “primary consideration to the amount of damages awarded as compared to the amount sought.” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114-15 (citations omitted). See, e.g., Watley v. Felsman, 2019 WL 2994235 (M.D. Pa. July 9, 2019); Yarnall v. Phila. Sch. Dist., 203 F.Supp.3d 558 (E.D. Pa. 2016). See also Jordan ex rel. Arenas-Jordan v. Russo, 2014 WL 869482 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2014). The Court has “substantial discretion” under Farrar “to decide whether no fee or some fee would be reasonable, as long as [it] acknowledge[s] that a nominal damages award is presumptively a technical victory that does not merit an award of ...


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