The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kimba L. Wood, District Judge.
The Court assumes familiarity with the facts of this case,
particularly its Order of September 15, 1998, denying defendant's
motion for summary judgment. That order was subsequently amended
on January 6, 1999, to address issues unrelated to the present
fee application (the "Amended Summary Judgment Order").
A. Attorneys' Fees Awards Under § 1988
Under § 1988, in any action or proceeding to enforce § 1983,
"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." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The district court has
discretion in determining the amount of the fee award, based on
its knowledge of the circumstances of the case. See Hensley v.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40
(1983). This discretion is not unconstrained. "The starting point
for the determination of a reasonable fee is the calculation of
the lodestar amount. . . . In determining the number of hours
reasonably expended for purposes of calculating the lodestar, the
district court should exclude excessive, redundant or otherwise
unnecessary hours, as well as hours dedicated to severable
unsuccessful claims." Quaratino v. Tiffany & Co., 166 F.3d 422,
425 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-35, 103
S.Ct. 1933). The focus of the Court's inquiry, therefore, should
be the determination of the appropriate lodestar amount.
Although this lodestar amount should be presumed to represent a
reasonable fee, see Orchano v. Advanced Recovery, Inc.,
107 F.3d 94, 98 (2d Cir. 1997), the Court may turn to "considerations
that may lead the district court to adjust the fee upward or
downward, including the important factor of the `results
obtained.'" Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434, 103 S.Ct. 1933 (citation
omitted). However, these "factors usually are subsumed within the
initial calculation of hours reasonably expended at a reasonable
hourly rate." Id. at 434 n. 9, 103 S.Ct. 1933; see also
Greenbaum v. Svenska Handelsbanken, N.Y., 998 F. Supp. 301,
303-04 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (quoting Hensley). Because several of
the challenges defendants raise to the fee application address
the reasonableness of plaintiffs' counsel's rates and the number
of hours expended on this case, the Court will first consider
whether defendants' claims should have any effect on the Court's
calculation of the lodestar amount.
B. Relationship Between Outcome and Award
Defendants suggest that a reduction in the lodestar amount is
warranted for two reasons: first, the amount of damages awarded
at trial was significantly smaller than the amount requested in
fees; and second, many of plaintiffs' claims were dismissed in
the Court's Summary Judgment Order. The Court will consider these
claims in turn.
Defendants assert that the "extremely modest jury verdict" of
"a token punitive damages award" compels a reduction of the
lodestar amount. (See Def. Mem. at 21, 23; see also id. at 1
(contrasting "exorbitant award of attorneys' fees sought" with
"the modest [jury] award of $50,002, less than the minimum
diversity jurisdictional amount under the federal statutes."))
The amount of money plaintiffs recovered is plainly irrelevant to
the present motion. In United States Football League v. National
Football League, 887 F.2d 408, 415 (2d Cir. 1989), the Second
Circuit approved an award of attorneys' fees of $5.5 million
dollars in a case in which plaintiffs were awarded a mere three
dollars. See id. at 410-11. A few
months ago, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected an approach
that would have reduced an attorneys' fees award on the basis of
the amount of damages ultimately awarded at trial:
Congress enacted fee-shifting in civil rights
litigation precisely because the expected monetary
recovery in many cases was too small to attract
effective legal representation. See City of
Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 575, 106 S.Ct.
2686, 91 L.Ed.2d 466 (1986) (plurality opinion)
("Congress did not intend for fees in civil rights
cases . . . to depend on obtaining substantial
monetary relief."). Were we to adopt the "billing
judgment" approach that the district court advocates,
we would contravene that clear legislative intent by
relinking the effectiveness of a civil rights
plaintiff's legal representation solely to the dollar
value of her claim. As a near-unanimous Supreme Court
reiterated in Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87,
109 S.Ct. 939, 103 L.Ed.2d 67 (1989), "a civil rights
plaintiff seeks to vindicate important civil and
constitutional rights that cannot be valued solely in
monetary terms," id. at 96, 109 S.Ct. 939 (quoting
Rivera, 477 U.S. at 574, 106 S.Ct. 2686), and we
are unwilling to hold that the plaintiff's attorney
should calculate the value of her client's rights in
just those "monetary terms."
Quaratino, 166 F.3d at 426 (internal citations omitted); see
also DiFilippo v. Morizio, 759 F.2d 231, 235 (2d Cir. 1985) ("We
believe a reduction made on the grounds of a low award to be
error unless the size of the award is the result of the quality
of representation."); Broome v. Biondi, 17 F. Supp.2d 230, 241
n. 11 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) ("The fact that third-party defendant's fee
award is larger than the damages awarded to the plaintiff is
irrelevant."). The fact that the requested fees are significantly
greater than the amount plaintiffs recovered at trial should not,
therefore, be part of the Court's analysis.
Defendants' more substantive objection is that because
plaintiffs did not succeed on all their claims, counsel should
not be permitted to seek fees for hours expended in support of
these claims. Defendants argue that because plaintiffs did not
prevail on their claim that defendants' failure to provide
pre-removal notice and opportunity to be heard violated the Due
Process Clause (see Amended Summary Judgment Order at 37),
hours devoted to this claim should be excluded.
The Supreme Court has stated that "`the most critical factor'
in determining the reasonableness of a fee award `is the degree
of success obtained.'" Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114, 113
S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at
436, 103 S.Ct. 1933). Fees may be awarded for unsuccessful claims
only when they are "`inextricably intertwined'" or "`involve a
common core of facts or [are] based on related legal theories.'"
Reed v. A.W. Lawrence & Co., 95 F.3d 1170, 1183 (2d Cir. 1996)
(quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435, 103 S.Ct. 1933); see also
Grant v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 973 F.2d 96, 101 (2d Cir. 1992).
The Court must evaluate whether the degree of plaintiffs' success
merits granting the fee application in its entirety, or whether a
reduction is warranted based on the degree of success. See
United States Football League, 887 F.2d at 415 (affirming
reduction of award by 20% to reflect limited success); Ragin v.
Harry Macklowe Real Estate Co., 870 F. Supp. 510, 523 (S.D.N Y
1994) (reducing award by 50%), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on
other grounds, 6 F.3d 898 (2d Cir. 1993).
However, all of plaintiffs' claims rested on the central
contention that "there is a constitutionally protected liberty
interest in the stability and integrity of the relationship
between such a foster mother and foster child." (Id. at 2.)
Thus plaintiffs' claims certainly involved "`related legal
theories.'" Reed, 95 F.3d at 1183 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S.
at 435, 103 S.Ct. 1933). Plaintiffs' lack of success in extending
these protections to pre-removal notice and an opportunity to be
heard limits, but does not undermine, the basic thrust of
plaintiffs' argument. As a practical matter, many of the hours
billed in this case would have been devoted to plaintiffs' basic
constitutional argument, with a relatively small share devoted to
the extension of this principle in the specific context of
defendants' alleged failure to provide pre-removal due process
protections. As ...