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SUGARMAN v. VILLAGE OF CHESTER

July 15, 2002

RISA SUGARMAN, PLAINTIFF,
V.
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.

    OPINION AND ORDER

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.

DISCUSSION

Familiarity with the facts of this case as set forth in this Court's prior Opinion and Order is presumed. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 authorizes district courts to award reasonable attorneys' fees to prevailing parties in civil rights litigations. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988. 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). Although a district court traditionally has wide discretion in deciding whether to award fees, "this discretion is narrowed by a presumption that successful civil rights litigants should ordinarily recover attorneys' fees." Raishevich v. Foster, 247 F.3d 337, 344 (2d Cir. 2001).

I. Prevailing Party

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 plaintiffs benefit.

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. 1991). "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) ...


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