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KNOEFFLER v. TOWN OF MAMAKATING

December 12, 2000

PAUL KNOEFFLER, PLAINTIFF,
V.
TOWN OF MAMAKATING, DUANE ROE, SUPERVISOR TOWN OF MAMAKATING, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, AND JOHN GRIFO, BUILDING INSPECTOR, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William C. Conner, U.S.D.S.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Paul Knoeffler moves for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs against defendant Town of Mamakating (the "Town") in the amount of $35,785.12 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. On March 15, 2000, this Court granted in part plaintiffs summary judgment motion declaring that Chapter 44 of the Mamakating Town Code (the "Code") and both the original and amended versions of § 199-45 of the Code were unconstitutional. See Knoeffler v. Town of Mamakating, 87 F. Supp.2d 322 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). Plaintiff was also granted permission to seek damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See id. For the reasons stated hereinafter, plaintiff is awarded fees and expenses totaling $33,347.62.

DISCUSSION

I. Section 1988

In a § 1983 case, "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 Supreme Court has stated that the prevailing party should recover attorneys' fees "unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983) (citations omitted). Because no circumstances exist that would render an award of attorneys' fees unjust, this Court must now pursue a two-step analysis. The initial inquiry concerns whether the plaintiff is a prevailing party under the statute. After crossing the `statutory threshold' the Court must then determine whether the fee is `reasonable.' Lilly v. County of Orange, 910 F. Supp. 945, 949 (S.D.N Y 1996) (Conner, J.) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933); see also Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434, 103 S.Ct. 1933 (holding that the hours not billed to a client cannot be billed to an adversary).

A. Prevailing Party

A party is considered "prevailing," if he "obtains at least some relief on the merits." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (citations omitted). "A party need not succeed on every issue raised by him, nor even the most crucial one." LaRouche v. Kezer, 20 F.3d 68, 71 (1994) (citing Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 103 L.Ed.2d 866 (1989); Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 757-58, 100 S.Ct. 1987, 64 L.Ed.2d 670 (1980) (per curiam)). The party merely has to prevail on a "significant claim." LaRouche, 20 F.3d at 71 (citing Garland, 489 U.S. at 791-92, 109 S.Ct. 1486; Hanrahan, 446 U.S. at 757, 100 S.Ct. 1987). The focus of the inquiry rests upon the "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111, 113 S.Ct. 566 (quoting Garland, 489 U.S. at 792-93, 109 S.Ct. 1486). Therefore, a party does not even have to receive actual damages, but may be considered prevailing if he gains relief through a consent decree or settlement. See LaRouche, 20 F.3d at 71 (citing Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980)).

In this case, plaintiff is clearly a prevailing party. On March 15, 2000, this Court declared that Chapter 44 of the Code and both the original and amended versions of § 199-45 of the Code were unconstitutional. See Knoeffler, 87 F. Supp.2d at 322. At a damages hearing, held on July 5, 2000, plaintiff was awarded $4,308 in damages for costs and emotional distress. The relationship between the parties was materially altered.

B. Reasonable Fee

In determining reasonable attorneys' fees, the district court must consider the "lodestar figure based upon the number of hours reasonably expended by counsel on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Luciano v. Olsten Corp., 109 F.3d 111, 115 (2d Cir. 1997) (citing Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 94, 109 S.Ct. 939, 103 L.Ed.2d 67 (1989); Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of the Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1159 (2d Cir. 1994)); New York Ass'n for Retarded Children v. Carey, 711 F.2d 1136, 1140 (2d Cir. 1983). The lodestar figure provides an objective basis by which to estimate the fees. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933. "The party seeking the award must submit evidence supporting his claim of hours worked and rates charged." Id. However, the district court has broad discretion in determining the amount of attorneys' fees awarded to the prevailing party. See id. at 437, 103 S.Ct. 1933; Luciano, 109 F.3d at 115.

1. Reasonable Hourly Rates

A reasonable hourly rate is one "in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonable comparable skill, experience, and reputation" Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984).

a. Michael Sussman

Michael Sussman, a seasoned attorney with 22 years of experience litigating Federal Civil Rights cases for the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP and in private practice (Sussman Affm. ¶ 4) seeks payment for 18.5 hours at a rate of $325 per hour, for a total of $6,012.50. He has argued over 100 cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals, conducted more than sixty civil rights trials and won awards for outstanding service during his tenure at the U.S. Department of Justice. (Id. ¶ 5).

Sussman admits that he currently charges his clients $300 per hour (Pl. Mem. Supp. Atty. Fees at 5), but requests the Court to increase the same to $325. Although the Court is not bound by the rate the attorney charges his clients, but may look at the complexity of the legal issues and other relevant factors, we do not find any reason to raise Sussman's rates by $25.

Courts have consistently found that $300 for a lead attorney is well within reason. See Versace v. Versace, No. 98 Civ. 0123, 2000 WL 739569, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 8, 2000) (noting that rates of $300 and $340 per hour are within the range of reasonable attorneys' fees in New York) (citing Maddalone v. United Brotherhood of Carpenters, No. 95 Civ. 2112, 1999 WL 269913, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. May 4, 1999)); see also Ginsberg v. Valhalla Anesthesia Assocs., P.C., No. 96 Civ. 6462, 1998 WL 19997, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Jan.20, 1998) (stating that lead attorneys receive in the range from $250 to $350; finding that $300 was reasonable). Furthermore, the Court finds that Sussman did not play a significant role in the case. A major portion of the 18.5 hours expended by him were spent editing and reviewing Bergstein's work. The fact that plaintiff received excellent results in the underlying civil action does not warrant an increase in Sussman's fees; at most, it warrants an increase in Bergstein's. Therefore, Sussman shall receive an hourly rate of $300, for 18.5 hours, for a total of $5,550.

b. Stephen Bergstein

Stephen Bergstein, a seventh-year associate, requests payment for 147.9 hours of work, at a rate of $200 per hour, totaling $29,580.*fn1 As a senior associate, Bergstein submits that over the past seven years, he has: practiced civil rights litigation; either briefed or argued over 100 cases in both the state and federal courts; and drafted petitions and amicus briefs that have been submitted to the United States Supreme Court. (Bergstein Affm. ¶ 13.)

In order to establish the reasonable hourly rates of associates, the party seeking the award may provide the court with affidavits from similarly situated attorneys. See Cruz, 34 F.3d at 1160. In this case, Bergstein submits the affirmation of Ambrose W. Wotorson in support of his requested rate of $200 per hour. (Bergstein Affm., Ex. B.) Wotorson, a graduate from the University of Miami School of Law in 1992, was an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn for three years before commencing employment at the Law Offices of Michael Sussman in 1995. In 1997, after working at the Sussman firm, he resigned to start his own practice in New York City. In 1998, he was awarded $200 per hour by Judge Brieant after prevailing in a racial discrimination suit. See Agonafer v. Rubin, 35 F. Supp.2d 300 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).

Although this Court does not find Bergstein and Wotorson to be similarly situated because the latter owns his own law practice, we do find that $200 per hour is a reasonable hourly rate for a civil rights attorney with seven years experience. See Marisol A. ex rel Forbes v. Giuliani, 111 F. Supp.2d 381, 386 (S.D.N Y 2000) (finding that $230-$250 per hour is a reasonable rate for attorneys with seven to nine years experience); Sowemimo v. D.A.O.R. Sec., Inc., No. 97 Civ. 1083, 2000 WL 890229, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 30, 2000) (awarding $200 per hour to a "moderately experienced civil rights lawyer"); Williams v. New York City Hous. Auth., 975 F. Supp. 317, 323 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (awarding $200 per hour to senior associates) (citing Ciner Mfg. Co. v. S.M. Gold Fashion Mfg. Corp., No. 94 Civ. 3831, 1997 WL 193330, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr.21, 1997) (awarding $190 per hour pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505)); Berlinsky v. Alcatel Alsthom Compagnie Generale D'Electricite, 970 F. Supp. 348, 350 (S.D.N.Y. 1997); Bridges v. Eastman Kodak Co., No. 91 Civ. 7985, 1996 WL 47304, at *11-42 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 6, 1996) (awarding $200 per hour to seventh year associate); Helbrans v. Coombe, 890 F. Supp. 227, 234 (S.D.N Y 1995) (awarding $225 per hour for senior associates); Loper v. New York City Police Dep't, 853 F. Supp. 716, 720 (S.D.N Y 1994) (awarding $250 per hour to a seventh year associate); see also Fernandez v. North Shore Orthopedic Surgery & Sports Med., No. Civ. A CIV 96-4489, 2000 WL 130637, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Feb.4, 2000) ("The hourly rates awarded by courts in [the Eastern District of New York] during the past few years have ranged from $200 to $225 for partners and from $100 for junior associates to $200 for senior associates.") (citations omitted). Defendant argues that Bergstein should be allowed only $175 per hour and relies on the fact that for approximately 1996 to 1999, that amount was awarded to Bergstein in his § 1988 fee applications. (Bergstein Affm. ¶ 11.) However, defendant fails to acknowledge that in January 2000, Magistrate Judge Yanthis awarded fees to Bergstein of $190. See Stern v. Michelangelo Apts., Inc., No. 97 Civ. 9532, at 8 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). In Stern, the fee application was made in July 1999, one year prior to the date in which the fee application was made in this case; Bergstein was a sixth-year associate. (Bergstein Affm. ¶ 11.) It is reasonable for seventh-year associates to receive $10 per hour more than sixth-year associates to reflect the legal expertise gained by them over a year. Accordingly, Bergstein will receive $200 per hour.

i. Office Location

The relevant community for a fee determination is the judicial district in which the court sits, namely, the Southern District of New York. See In re Agent Orange Prod. Liab. Litig., 818 F.2d 226, 231-32 (2d Cir. 1987); Williams, 975 F. Supp. at 322. Defendant argues that Sussman and Bergstein are citing New York City rates which should not be granted because their office is located in Orange County where the cost of doing business is significantly cheaper. However, New York City rates have dictated the amount of attorneys' fees in the Southern District of New York, irrespective of the actual office location. See Stewart v. Barclay's Bus. Credit, Inc., 860 F. Supp. 150, 150 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) ("[O]ur Court has traditionally applied the hourly rates of New York City practitioners in these matters, recognizing that the relevant community served is the entire Southern District of New York, and if a lawyer chooses to live and work within that district in a more salubrious place, or a cheaper one, that is his or her own personal choice.") (citation omitted), aff'd, 54 F.3d 766 (2d Cir. 1995); Loper, 853 F. Supp. at 719 (awarding fees to a New Jersey based firm according to the New York City market rates). In any event, this Court has reviewed the background of Sussman and Bergstein and the complexity of the issues in this case and finds that the rates of $300 and $200 per hour, respectively, are reasonable in view of their experience. See, e.g., Ward v. New York City Hous. Auth., No. 97 Civ. 8550, 1999 WL 446025, *9-11 (S.D.N Y June 28, 1999) (awarding Sussman $300 per hour and Bergstein $175 per hour without reference to office location).

2. Reasonable Amount of Time Spent

Defendant attacks the reasonableness of the hours expended by plaintiffs counsel on several grounds: (1) excessiveness in comparison to defense counsel's time; (2) fee padding; (3) failure to settle; and (4) unreasonableness of time expended for specific tasks. Before addressing these arguments, the Court will ...


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