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FAUNTLEROY v. STASZAK

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


April 30, 1998

DARCEL and LAWRENCE FAUNTLEROY, JR., HEATHER MATTHEWS, YVONNNE and NORMAN BENJAMIN, DALLAS WILLIAMS, SHERYL and RICHARD LOCKSKIN, and THERESA and LAVERNE HAYDEN, Plaintiffs,
v.
RICHARD STASZAK, Individually and in his official capacity as Commissioner, SCHENECTADY COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Defendant.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCAVOY

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

 Following settlement of the instant action brought under 42 U.S.C. section 1981, Plaintiffs now move for an order awarding attorneys' fees.

 I. BACKGROUND

 Plaintiffs, represented by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Inc., and the Greater Upstate Law Project, Inc., commenced this litigation in 1990 challenging Defendant's procedures for the issuance of certain public assistance benefits. On February 18, 1992, a consent decree settling the case was approved by the Court (the "Consent Decree").

 The Consent Decree required periodic reporting by Defendant for three years concerning the timeliness of benefit applications. These reports contained detailed information regarding the number of applications for public assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid; the date the applications were filed; the date of interview; the date a determination was made on the application; and, the date a check was issued. Defendant also was required, inter alia, to produce data showing the number of applications disposed of within thirty days of filing, broken down by the number of applications granted, denied, and withdrawn.

 By consent of the parties, the terms of the Consent Decree were extended, with some modifications, three times until May, 1997. Plaintiffs' attorneys devoted significant hours monitoring Defendant's compliance with the Consent Decree, including reviewing the required reports and performing statistical analyses of the data provided. According to Plaintiffs, this monitoring was particularly necessary because Defendant's reports showed continued delays in the processing of public assistance applications.

 Plaintiffs' attorneys now move the Court for an order awarding attorneys' fees for the time spent monitoring Defendant's compliance with the Consent Decree. They seek $ 75,735, broken down as follows:

 

Greater Upstate Law Project

 

Susan Antos: 109.8 hours at $ 150 per hour: $ 16,470

 

Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York

 

Lewis Steele: 270.7 hours at $ 150 per hour: $ 40,605

 

Albert Jackson: 248.8 hours at $ 75 per hour: $ 18,660

 II. DISCUSSION

 Defendant opposes Plaintiffs' fee application on the basis that (1) Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties, (2) Plaintiffs waived their right to request attorneys' fees, and (3) Plaintiffs' request is unreasonable.

 A. Prevailing Party

 A plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party for attorneys' fees purposes "if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1939, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 (1983) (quotation omitted). The "plaintiff must obtain an enforceable judgment against the defendant from whom fees are sought . . . or comparable relief through a consent decree or settlement." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 113 S. Ct. 566, 573, 121 L. Ed. 2d 494 (1992).

 Defendant argues that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because the Schenectady Department of Social Services merely agreed to abide by existing law. Defendant's argument misses the point. Law is not self-policing. Indeed, prior to the settlement of this case Defendant was arguably not in compliance with state and federal law. It is often incumbent upon individual plaintiffs, expending time and money, to seek judicial involvement to ensure compliance with civil rights law. Defendant's present argument, moreover, would preclude attorneys' fees in any case where a party is seeking to vindicate preexisting rights under federal and state law. Plainly, this is not the test for determining prevailing party status.

 The key to determining whether a party prevails "is whether the litigation resulted in an alteration of the legal relationship between the parties." Ass'n for Retarded Citizens of Connecticut, Inc. v. Thorne, 68 F.3d 547, 552 (2d Cir. 1995) (citing Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 109 S. Ct. 1486, 1493-94, 103 L. Ed. 2d 866 (1989)). "Victory can be achieved . . . 'if the defendant, under pressure of the lawsuit, alters his conduct (or threatened conduct) towards the plaintiff that was the basis for the suit." Marbley v. Bane, 57 F.3d 224, 234 (2d Cir. 1995) (quoting Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 107 S. Ct. 2672, 2676, 96 L. Ed. 2d 654 (1987)).

 The fact that a claim has been resolved by settlement, as in this case, does not preclude a finding that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties; "it is plain that a party may prevail when it vindicates rights--regardless of whether there is a formal judgment--through a settlement or consent judgment." Wilder v. Bernstein, 965 F.2d 1196, 1202 (2d Cir. 1992); Marbley, 57 F.3d at 234 ("Securing an enforceable decree or agreement may evidence prevailing party status.").

 Here, there is little doubt that Plaintiffs' were prevailing parties. The Consent Decree altered Defendant's conduct by requiring that Defendant, inter alia, cease limiting the number of applications taken each day through pre-screening appointments, see Consent Decree P 9, schedule eligibility appointments within five days, see Consent Decree P 14(c), and screen all cases to determine eligibility for emergency public assistance, see Consent Decree P 10.

 Furthermore, a fee award is not precluded because the services were rendered in an effort to secure compliance with a consent decree. "It is within the sound discretion of the district court to grant an award for services performed that are 'useful and of a type ordinarily necessary' to secure the final result obtained from litigation to enforce civil rights." Vecchia v. Town of North Hempstead, 927 F. Supp. 579, 581 (E.D.N.Y. 1996). Services rendered in monitoring compliance under a consent decree are reimbursable. See, e.g., Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 106 S. Ct. 3088, 3096, 92 L. Ed. 2d 439 (1986); Diaz v. Romer, 961 F.2d 1508, 1511-12 (10th Cir. 1992); Vecchia, 927 F. Supp. at 581.

 B. Waiver

 Defendant argues that Plaintiffs are not entitled to an award of attorneys' fees because they waived these fees when they entered into the Consent Decree, which disposed of Plaintiffs' claims. Defendant concedes, however, that the Consent Decree is silent as to the waiver of fees.

 The Second Circuit has held that a settlement agreement using broad language to effect a mutual release of claims and accompanied by a stipulation that the case be dismissed "without costs to any party" "is, absent circumstances indicating otherwise, intended to settle all claims involved in the particular litigation, including a claim for attorney's fees." Brown v. General Motors Corp., 722 F.2d 1009, 1012 (2d Cir. 1983). As in any case involving a settlement, "it is the intent of the parties which governs." Brown, 722 F.2d at 1012.

 In Valley Disposal v. Central Vermont Solid Waste, 71 F.3d 1053 (2d Cir. 1995), the circuit clarified its prior holding by stating that "we reject the description of Brown as standing for the stark proposition that 'silence equals waiver.'" Id. at 1058. Instead, the circuit noted that "we found a waiver of attorneys' fees in Brown where the parties had entered into a settlement agreement that contained both a general release of claims and a stipulation of dismissal 'without costs to any party,' partly because 'costs' are commonly understood to include attorneys' fees." Valley Disposal, 71 F.3d at 1058 (quoting Brown, 722 F.2d 1009 at 1012).

 Viewing the present Consent Decree in light of the Second Circuit's holdings in Brown and Valley Disposal, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs did not intend to waive their claim to attorneys' fees. *fn1" First, the Consent Decree does not purport to execute a "general release of claims" between the parties. See Valley Disposal, 71 F.3d at 1058. Second, the Consent Decree does not state in broad terms, or in any terms for that matter, that the settlement would be "without costs to either party." See Brown, 722 F.2d at 1012 (citing with approval cases finding no waiver "where the settlement agreement neither mentions fees nor purports to effect a general release of all claims against the defendant"). For these reasons, the Court cannot conclude that the Consent Decree manifested an unspoken intent to waive Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees.

 C. Attorneys' Fees

 The Supreme Court has held that to determine the amount of "reasonable attorney's fees," the Court must first establish a "lodestar" figure by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by the party's attorneys by a reasonable hourly rate. See Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888, 79 L. Ed. 2d 891, 104 S. Ct. 1541 (1984); Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40, 103 S. Ct. 1933 (1983). The operative term is "reasonable."

 i. Lodestar Figure - Reasonable Rate

 To determine the hourly rate, the Supreme Court has adopted a marketplace model, Blum, 465 U.S. at 896, which contemplates "the normal rate in the legal community for substantially similar work by competent practitioners." Fiacco v. Rensselaer, 663 F. Supp. 743, 745 (N.D.N.Y. 1987); see also Levy v. Scranton, 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15015, 1992 WL 265936 (N.D.N.Y. 1992); Auburn Enlarged City School District v. Coastal Environmental Safety and Control, Inc., 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2381, 1990 WL 19139 (N.D.N.Y. 1990). The district court also considers other rates that have been awarded in similar cases in the same district. See, e.g., Miner v. City of Glens Falls, 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17370, 1992 WL 349668 (N.D.N.Y. 1992), aff'd, 999 F.2d 655 (2d Cir. 1993). After reviewing cases in this district, the Court will apply the prevailing market rates found within the Northern District of New York in its calculation of an award of attorneys' fees as follows: Attorney Type of Work Hourly Rate Partner Legal $ 150 Associate Legal $ 100 Paralegal Legal $ 75

19980430

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