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SUGARMAN v. VILLAGE OF CHESTER
July 15, 2002
RISA SUGARMAN, PLAINTIFF,
VILLAGE OF CHESTER, TOWN OF CORNWALL, TOWN OF DEERPARK, TOWN OF GOSHEN, VILLAGE OF GOSHEN, VILLAGE OF GREENWOOD LAKE, TOWN OF HAMPTONBURGH, VILLAGE OF HARRIMAN, VILLAGE OF HIGHLAND FALLS, VILLAGE OF MAYBROOK, CITY OF MIDDLETOWN, VILLAGE OF MONROE, CITY OF NEWBURGH, TOWN OF NEW WINDSOR, CITY OF PORT JERVIS, TOWN OF TUXEDO, TOWN OF WALLKILL, VILLAGE OF WARWICK, VILLAGE OF WASHINGTONVILLE, TOWN OF WAWAYANDA AND TOWN OF WOODBURY, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: William C. Conner, Senior District Judge.
On September 25, 2001, plaintiff Risa Sugarman brought this
action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that various municipal
ordinances regulating the posting of political signs violated
the First Amendment. On April 5, 2002 this Court issued an
Opinion and Order granting summary judgment in favor of
plaintiff against defendants Village of Goshen, Town of
Hamptonburgh, Town of New Windsor ("New Windsor"), Town of
Walkill, Village of Warwick, City of Middletown, Village of
Chester and Town of Greenwood Lake ("Greenwood Lake"). See
Sugarman v. Village of Chester, 192 F. Supp.2d 282 (S.D.N.Y.
2002) (Conner, J.). Plaintiff now moves for an award of
reasonable attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $7,019.30
against Greenwood Lake and $9,059.30 against New Windsor
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons stated
hereinafter, plaintiff is awarded fees and expenses of $6,218.26
against Greenwood Lake and $8,258.26 against New Windsor.
Prior to calculating a reasonable fee, a court must first
determine whether the party seeking the fee award is a
prevailing party under the statute. See Colbert v. Furumoto
Realty Inc., 144 F. Supp.2d 251, 259 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (Conner,
J.). 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 (2d
Cir. 1994) (citing Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep.
Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 103 L.Ed.2d 866
(1989)). The party merely has to prevail on a "significant
claim." LaRouche, 20 F.3d at 71. 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.
Therefore, a party does not 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;
see also LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 143 F.3d 748, 757 (2d
Cir. 1998) ("It is sufficient that the plaintiff succeeded on
any significant issue in the litigation, if he received actual
relief on the merits of his claim that materially alters the
legal relationship between the parties by modifying the
defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the
plaintiff.") (quotations and citations omitted).
In Sugarman, plaintiff argued that Greenwood Lake's sign
ordinance was unconstitutional because it imposed content-based
speech regulations and because the statute failed to provide
adequately for the expeditious grant or denial of permit
applications. See Sugarman, 192 F. Supp.2d at 292-95. Greenwood
Lake cross-moved and was granted summary judgment with respect
to plaintiffs claims that the sign ordinance imposed
content-based regulations. See id. However, summary judgment
was granted in favor of plaintiff on the ground that the sign
ordinance failed to ensure that a permit determination was made
expeditiously. See id. at 295. As a result, the ordinance was
declared unconstitutional and, despite Greenwood Lake's
conclusory argument to the contrary, there is little doubt that
plaintiff is a prevailing party. In fact, plaintiff succeeded in
obtaining the primary relief sought against Greenwood Lake — a
declaration that the sign ordinance was unconstitutional. See
id. at 292-96; see also Knoeffler v. Mamakating,
126 F. Supp.2d 305, 311 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (Conner, J.). The
relationship between the parties was thus materially altered to
II. Reasonable Attorneys' Fees
Having determined that plaintiff is entitled to attorneys'
fees, we must determine the reasonable amount of such fees. The
district court begins by considering 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)). The lodestar figure provides an objective
basis for setting the fees. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103
S.Ct. 1933. There is a strong presumption that the lodestar
figure represents a reasonable fee, and should not be reduced
"simply because a plaintiff recovered a low damage award."
Cowan v. Prudential Ins. Co., 935 F.2d 522, 526 (2d Cir.
"The party seeking the award must submit evidence supporting his
claim of hours worked and rates charged." Hensley, 461 U.S. at
433, 103 S.Ct. 1933. 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.
Plaintiff seeks a combined award of attorneys' fees and costs
of $16,078.60 against Greenwood Lake and New Windsor. As this
action initially involved several defendants, many of whom have
settled at various stages in the litigation, a detailed
explanation of the fee application is required. Prior to this
Court granting summary judgment against eight defendants,
plaintiff settled with thirteen defendants for a total of
$22,000. Plaintiff suggests that this Court should reduce
plaintiffs fee entitlement by the settlement amount for all work
expended prior to January 14, 2001, when plaintiff received
commitments that nine parties would settle. (Pl. Mem. Supp. Mot.
Att'ys Fees at 10.) For work performed up to and including
January 14, plaintiff requests fees in the amount of $23,890.30.
(Id. at 12.) This figure is based on 167.9 billable hours
expended by Stephen Bergstein at an hourly rate of $240 and
26.02 billable hours attributable to Helen Ullrich at an hourly
rate of $215, less the $22,000 received through settlement. For
work performed after January 14, plaintiff seeks attorneys' fees
of $21,780 for Bergstein (90.75 hours at an hourly rate of $240)
and $3,784 for Ullrich (17.6 hours at an hourly rate of $215).
(Id.) Plaintiff also seeks $1,426.32 in paralegal and other
litigation costs and $953.75 for travel and clerical tasks.
(Id. at 13.) Accordingly, as of the date of the instant
application, plaintiff seeks a total of $51,834.37 in attorneys'
fees and costs from the remaining eight defendants, to be
divided evenly at $6,479.30 each. However, plaintiff has
subsequently settled with six of the remaining defendants,
leaving only Greenwood Lake and New Windsor. In defending the
fee application, plaintiff has incurred additional attorneys'
fees in the amount of $540 for Greenwood Lake (2.25 hours at
Bergstein's hourly rate of $240) and $2,580 for New Windsor
(10.75 hours at Bergstein's hourly rate of $240). (Bergstein
Supp. Aff. ¶ 5.) Therefore, plaintiff now seeks recovery of
attorneys' fees and costs of $7,019.30 from Greenwood Lake and
$9,059.30 from New Windsor.
A. 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). "[T]he fee applicant bears the burden of
establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the
appropriate hours expended and hourly rates." Hensley, 461
U.S. at 437, 103 S.Ct. 1933. 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, although such information is not required.
See Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of Intern. Broth. of Elec.
Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1160 (2d Cir. 1994).
Stephen Bergstein, a partner in the law firm of Thornton,
Bergstein & Ullrich, seeks reimbursement for attorneys' fees at
an hourly rate of $240. After graduating from law school in
1993, Bergstein worked for the Law Offices of Michael H. Sussman
through September 2001, where he focused almost exclusively on
civil rights, labor and constitutional litigation. (Bergstein
Aff. ¶ 26.) In September 2001, Bergstein began his current
practice which is limited to civil rights, constitutional and
environmental litigation. Bergstein has litigated or assisted in
numerous civil rights litigations and has also lectured on the
subject. (Id. ¶¶ 29-35.) His litigation experience also
includes a prior constitutional challenge to municipal sign laws
before this Court. See Knoeffler, 126 F. Supp.2d at 305. Helen
Ullrich graduated from law school in 1996 and is also a partner
in the law firm of Thornton, Bergstein & Ullrich. (Ullrich Aff.
¶¶ 17-18.) Ullrich has significant experience in civil rights and
constitutional litigation and is seeking an award of attorneys'
fees at an hourly rate of $215. (Id. ¶ 23.) Additionally,
Ullrich served as Town Council-woman in the Town of Hamptonburgh
for three years where she gained experience in drafting zoning
ordinances. (Id. ¶ 24.) In support of their applications,
Bergstein and Ullrich submit the Affidavit of Michael Sussman.
Sussman is a seasoned attorney with 24 years of experience
litigating Federal Civil Rights cases for the U.S. Department of
Justice, the NAACP and in private practice. (Sussman Aff. ¶ 1.)
He currently is the owner of the Law Offices of Michael H.
Sussman. (Id.) As a former employer of both Bergstein and
Ullrich, Sussman personally attests to their skill and
experience in constitutional litigation and states that the
requested hourly rates are reasonable and consistent with rates
charged by similarly situated attorneys.
We conclude that $240 is a reasonable hourly rate for
Bergstein. In Knoeffler, this Court awarded Bergstein, a
seven-year associate at the time, hourly fees in the amount of
$200. 126 F. Supp.2d at 312. In the two years since, Bergstein
has gained considerable experience and now owns his own law
practice. Furthermore, the proposed hourly rate is consistent
with recent awards granted attorneys with similar experience in
the relevant geographic area. See, e.g., Fink v. City of New
York, 154 F. Supp.2d 403, 407 (E.D.N.Y. 2001) ("Fee awards in
other Eastern District of New York cases have ranged from $200
to $250 for partners."); Anderson v. City of New York,
132 F. Supp.2d 239, 243 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (awarding $250 per hour for
attorney with six years' experience); 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). Likewise, we conclude that $215
per hour is a reasonable rate for Ullrich, a partner with six
years experience in constitutional litigation. See, e.g.,
Williams v. New York City Housing Auth., 975 F. Supp. 317, 323
(S.D.N.Y. 1997) (awarding $250 for junior partners and $200 for
senior associates); Knoeffler, 126 F. Supp.2d at 312 (awarding
$200 to a senior associate with seven years experience). New
Windsor argues that the requested rates are exceedingly
generous, as attorneys under contract with New Windsor are not
paid hourly rates exceeding $175. However, the rate at which New
Windsor chooses to compensate its attorneys is not the relevant
inquiry, but rather the prevailing market rate paid to attorneys
situated similarly to Bergstein and Ullrich. See Huntington
Branch NAACP v. Town of Huntington, 749 F. Supp. 62, 64
(E.D.N.Y. 1990) ...