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VALMONTE v. BANE

July 24, 1995

ANNA VALMONTE, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, against MARY JO BANE, as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, and J. DANIEL BLOOMER, as Commissioner of the Orange County Department of Social Services, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: ALLEN G. SCHWARTZ

 OPINION and ORDER *fn1"

 ALLEN G. SCHWARTZ, DISTRICT JUDGE:

 Plaintiff Anna Valmonte, on behalf of herself and the class she seeks to represent, moves for an award of attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. *fn2" For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion is granted.

 The facts and prior proceedings of this lawsuit have been comprehensively set forth in previous opinions of this Court and the Second Circuit. See Valmonte v. Perales, 788 F. Supp. 745 (S.D.N.Y. 1992); Valmonte v. Bane, 812 F. Supp. 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1993); Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d 992 (2d Cir. 1994). Familiarity with these decisions is presumed; however, a summary of the facts and proceedings which bear upon the instant motion is presented below.

 In 1991, plaintiff Anna Valmonte commenced this action against the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Commissioner of the Orange County Department of Social Services pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the inclusion by defendants of plaintiff's name on the New York State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment ("the Central Register") violated her constitutional rights. *fn3" More precisely, plaintiff, who had been employed some years before as a "paraprofessional" in a public school system, claimed that the state's provisions for: the designation of individuals as abusive or neglectful in the Central Register; the review of such designations; and the dissemination of information contained in the Central Register to potential employers in the child care field violated, inter alia, her rights of privacy and substantive and procedural due process under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.

 Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b) (6) for failure to state a claim. Upon such motion, this Court dismissed certain of plaintiff's federal constitutional claims as well as each of her state law claims by Order dated March 31, 1992 (the "March 31, 1992 Order"). Valmonte v. Perales, 788 F. Supp. 745 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (J. Conboy). Thereafter, by Order dated February 5, 1993 (the "February 5, 1993 Order"), this Court sua sponte reconsidered defendants' motion to dismiss and dismissed the remaining counts of plaintiff's complaint. Valmonte v. Bane, 812 F. Supp. 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1993) (J. Conboy).

 On appeal, the Second Circuit addressed whether the following state actions violated plaintiff's constitutional rights: (1) the inclusion of plaintiff's name on the Central Register; (2) the communication of information on the Central Register to potential employers in the child care field; and (3) the statutory requirement that any employer who would hire plaintiff despite her inclusion on the Central Register justify that decision in writing. Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d 992, 999 (2d Cir. 1994). In applying what has become known as the "stigma plus" standard for constitutional deprivation, Neu v. Corcoran, 869 F.2d 662, 667 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 816, 110 S. Ct. 66, 107 L. Ed. 2d 33 (1989), the Second Circuit held that plaintiff had in fact met the "stigma plus" standard and thus demonstrated a violation of her constitutional rights. Specifically, the Circuit Court concluded that communication of plaintiff's status on the Central Register would stigmatize her, and found further -- addressing an issue which the appellate panel acknowledged to be one of first impression -- that plaintiff had a cognizable liberty interest in pursuing employment in her chosen field, such that the added burdens imposed upon would-be employers represented an unconstitutional and "specific deprivation of [plaintiff's] opportunity to seek employment caused by a statutory impediment established by the state." Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d at 999, 1001.

 The Second Circuit also considered whether the DSS policy of including individuals in the Central Register on the basis of "some credible evidence" supporting an allegation of abuse or neglect constituted an adequate safeguard of plaintiff's procedural due process rights. Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d at 1002. The court held that while the plaintiff's liberty interest in seeking employment in the child care field was "fairly evenly balanced" by the state's interest in 'ensuring that those with abusive backgrounds not be inadvertently given access to children," the "some credible evidence" standard employed by the DSS in designating the plaintiff as abusive entailed an "enormous risk of error." Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d at 1003, 1004, 1005. The court also concluded that existing provisions for post-deprivation hearings, held after an individual had already been denied employment on the basis of inclusion in the register and conducted on a "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard, failed to cure the constitutional deprivation wrought upon plaintiff as a result of the "unacceptably high risk of error" in the initial administrative hearing. Accordingly, the Circuit Court reversed the February 5, 1993 Order and remanded the matter for consistent proceedings in this court. Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d at 1003, 1004.

 Plaintiff now moves for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 which states in relevant part:

 
In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 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.

 In exercising our discretion on this issue, we must address two issues. First, we must evaluate whether the results achieved thus far by plaintiff render her a "prevailing party" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1988, such that a basis exists to support an award of attorney's fees pendente lite. Second, if we so find, we must settle upon an amount that would constitute a "reasonable attorney's fee" in the instant case.

 For the reasons set forth below, this Court concludes that plaintiff has achieved results sufficient to support a finding that she is a prevailing party within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Accordingly, we grant plaintiff's motion for an award of attorney's fees and costs pendente lite, subject to certain limitations which are described below.

 Prevailing Party Analysis

 First, in circumstances such as those before us, we find that a partial reversal and remand suffices to render plaintiff a "prevailing party" under the relevant case law. The facts of the present case are generally analogous to those of Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Independent School Dist., in which petitioners, a group of teachers' associations, challenged the respondent school district's policies regarding employee communications on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. 489 U.S. 782, 784, 109 S. Ct. 1486, 103 L. Ed. 2d 866 (1989). The District Court for the Northern District of Texas "rejected petitioners' claims in almost all respects." Thereafter, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's decision, finding inter alia that several aspects of respondent's policies were in fact unconstitutional, and remanded the case for further proceedings before the District Court. Garland, 489 U.S. at 785-6 (summarizing procedural history).

 Following a summary affirmance by the Supreme Court, the petitioners filed an application for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. In reversing the denial of the fee application by both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court reiterated its holding in Hanrahan v. Hampton that pendente lite awards are authorized in cases where a party "has established his entitlement to some relief on the merits on his claims, either in the trial court or on appeal." Hanrahan, 446 U.S. 754, 757, 100 S. Ct. 1987, 64 L. Ed. 2d 670 (1980); Garland, 489 U.S. at 789. The Court explained:

 
if petitioners' victory . . . had been only an interim one, with other issues remanded for further proceedings in the District Court, petitioners would have been entitled to some fee award for their successful claims under § 1988 . . . A prevailing party must be one who has succeeded on any significant claim affording it some ...

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