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Eastway Construction Corp. v. City of New York

decided as amended.: June 8, 1987.

EASTWAY CONSTRUCTION CORP., GEORGE JAFFEE, IRVING H. KANAREK, AND ROBERT JACOBS, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, NATHAN LEVENTHAL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DEPUTY MAYOR OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, ANTHONY G. GLIEDMAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING PRESERVATION AND DEVELOPMENT, CHARLES REISS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DEPUTY COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK CITY OFFICE OF DEVELOPMENT, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND THE COMMUNITY PRESERVATION CORPORATION, MICHAEL LAPPIN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PRESIDENT OF THE COMMUNITY PRESERVATION CORPORATION, JOHN DOES ONE THROUGH FIFTY, AND CHEMICAL BANK, N.A., DEFENDANTS



Appeal from an order of the District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Jack B. Weinstein, Chief Judge), after a remand from this Court, 762 F.2d 243, assessing an attorney's fee against the plaintiff in the amount of $1,000. Modified and remanded. Judge Pratt dissents with a separate opinion.

Author: Newman

Before: KAUFMAN, NEWMAN and PRATT, Circuit Judges.

JON O. NEWMAN, Circuit Judge:

In Eastway Construction Corp. v. City of New York, 762 F.2d 243 (2d Cir. 1985) ("Eastway I"), a panel of this Court determined that the prevailing municipal defendants should receive an award of "a reasonable attorney's fee" and remanded the case for the determination of the appropriate amount. On remand, Chief Judge Weinstein concluded that, although the lodestar amount of a fee based on the hours reasonably expended by defendants' counsel and the market rate for their services was $52,912.50, the fee to be awarded would be $1,000. 637 F. Supp. 558 (E.D.N.Y. 1986). We have concluded that the award falls below even the range within which a district judge may exercise his considerable discretion in such matters, and we therefore modify the award to the amount at the lower limit of the range appropriate for this case, $10,000.

The circumstances of the litigation are fully set forth in our prior opinion and the opinion of the District Court on remand. Suffice it to recount here only that the litigation involved a civil rights claim and an antitrust claim, both of which were determined in Eastway I to be frivolous, thereby creating liability for an award of a reasonable attorney's fee to the municipal defendants under both 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (1982) and Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendants have returned to this Court with two objections to the fee award made by the District Court. First, they contend that it was an abuse of discretion to award anything less than the full lodestar amount. Second, they urge that the appropriate award, in whatever amount, should not have been imposed solely on the plaintiffs but should have been imposed upon their counsel and perhaps also upon the plaintiffs.

1. The Amount of the Fee Award

We recognized in Eastway I that "the district courts retain broad discretion in fashioning sanctions, and apportioning fees between attorney and client." 762 F.2d at 254 n.7. The "specifics" of an attorney's fee award, we observed, would be reviewed under an "'abuse of discretion' standard." Id.

It is arguable that the discretion of district judges under Rule 11 should focus primarily if not exclusively upon the choice of sanctions that might be selected after a court has determined that the Rule has been violated. Under this view, once the sanction of a reasonable attorney's fee has been chosen, the amount of that fee should be determined by the lodestar method, now commonly used in determining a reasonable fee appropriate for a prevailing plaintiff under section 1988. The opposing view proceeds from the fact that an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant, under either section 1988 or Rule 11, serves not only as compensation for the defendant but also as a sanction against the plaintiff and, sometimes under Rule 11, against his attorney. It is of the essence of decision-making with regard to sanctions that their severity be carefully calibrated by those entrusted with the responsibility for imposing them. Though some discretion is always exercised in selecting from among the sanctions available under Rule 11, use of the lodestar amount whenever a court elects to award a defendant an attorney's fee might lead some judges to impose an excessive sanction upon some plaintiffs and might inhibit other judges from ever selecting an attorney's fee as the appropriate sanction.

Each of these opposing views has force, and were the slate clean, we would have to assess them with some care. Indeed, one member of the panel, Judge Pratt, holds the view that an attorney's fee, whenever awarded to a prevailing defendant, should normally be the lodestar amount. But a majority of the panel is persuaded that however we might weigh the competing considerations were we formulating Rule 11, the course of the law concerning use of attorney's fees as one of an array of sanctions against frivolous litigation has recognized that a lodestar amount need not be routinely awarded.

In Faraci v. Hickey-Freeman Co., 607 F.2d 1025 (2d Cir. 1979), we applied a flexible approach to a defendant's fee award under the fee-shifting position of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), a provision we have construed to authorize a defendant's fee award where the plaintiff's claim is frivolous. Carrion v. Yeshiva University, 535 F.2d 722, 727 (2d Cir. 1976). See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. E.E.O.C., 434 U.S. 412, 421, 54 L. Ed. 2d 648, 98 S. Ct. 694 (1978). The standards for awarding fees to prevailing defendants under Title VII and section 1988 are the same. Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14, 66 L. Ed. 2d 163, 101 S. Ct. 173 (1980). In Faraci, the defendant's legal fees amount to $11,500. The District Judge exercised his discretion to allow only $2,500. On appeal, we concluded that under all the circumstances a fee award of only $200 was appropriate. See also Carrion v. Yeshiva University, supra, 535 F.2d at 728 (defendant "certainly not made whole" by fee award of $5,000). We have also awarded prevailing defendants less than the lodestar amount of a legal fee in exercising our authority under Rule 38 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure in determining what amount of legal fees are to be awarded as a sanction for a frivolous appeal. See, e.g., United States v. Potamkin Cadillac Corp., 697 F.2d 491, 495 (2d Cir.) (double costs plus $500 attorney's fee), cert. denied, 462 U.S. 1144, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1379, 103 S. Ct. 3128 (1983); In re Hartford Textile Corp., 659 F.2d 299, 306 (2d Cir. 1981) (double costs plus $5,000 attorney's fee), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1018, 72 L. Ed. 2d 136, 102 S. Ct. 1714 (1982).

The case law under Rule 11 also reflects the exercise of discretion to award only that portion of a defendant's attorney's fee thought reasonable to serve the sanctioning purpose of the Rule. E.g., Nixon v. Individual Head of St. Joseph Mortgage Co., Inc., 612 F. Supp. 253, 256 (N.D. Ind. 1985) ($250 for each of defendants' two attorneys), aff'd, 787 F.2d 595 (7th Cir. 1986); Fox v. Boucher, 603 F. Supp. 216, 220 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) ($3,000)), aff'd, 794 F.2d 34 (2d Cir. 1986); Index Fund v. Hagopian, 107 F.R.D. 95, 99 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) ($100); Weisman v. Rivlin, 598 F. Supp. 724, 726-27 (D.D.C. 1984) ($200); Heimbaugh v. City of San Francisco, 591 F. Supp. 1573, 1277 (N.D. Cal. 1984) ($50). See also S. M. Kassin, An Empirical Study of Rule 11 Sanctions 6, n.20, and accompanying text (Federal Judicial Center 1985) (reporting 65 cases in which "some portion" of defendant's attorney's fees has been awarded under rule 11). Fees far below the lodestar amount have frequently been awarded to prevailing defendants under section 1988. E.g., Kostiuk v. Town of Riverhead, 570 F. Supp. 603, 612-13 n.4 (E.D.N.Y. 1983) ($250).

To recognize that district judges have discretion in determining the amount of a defendant's fee that would be reasonable to serve as a sanction is not, however, to forgo traditional appellate review of the exercise of such discretion. All discretion is to be exercised within reasonable limits. The concept of discretion implies that a decision is lawful at any point within the outer limits of the range of choices appropriate to the issue at hand; at the same time, a decision outside those limits exceeds or, as it is infelicitously said, "abuses" allowable discretion. See Stormy Clime Ltd. v. ProGroup, Inc., 809 F.2d 971, 974 (2d Cir. 1987); Friendly, Indiscretion About Discretion, 31 Emory L. Rev. 747, 773-78 (1982).

In this case, Chief Judge Weinstein has thoughtfully considered a variety of factors bearing on the appropriate amount of a fee to be awarded as a sanction. Without necessarily endorsing the pertinence of each factor, we agree with his general conclusion that a fee substantially less than the lodestar amount is permissible. However, discharging our responsibilities to monitor the outer limits of discretion in such matters, we have concluded that the bottom of the range of discretion appropriate to this case is a fee of $10,000. We ...


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