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Stokely v. George

September 28, 2006

BRENDA STOKELY, CHUCK MOHAN, AND GLORIA JACKSON, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RAGLAN GEORGE, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DISTRICT COUNCIL 1707, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, AND DISTRICT COUNSEL 1707, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: George B. Daniels, District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Brenda Stokely, former president of District Counsel 1707 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO ("DC 1707"), and DC 1707 members Chuck Mohan and Gloria Jackson (collectively "Plaintiffs"), made an application for attorneys' fees and costs incurred in prosecuting the above-captioned matter. The application was referred to Magistrate Judge Pitman for a Report and Recommendation ("Report"). Magistrate Judge Pitman recommended that the application be granted and that attorneys' fees and costs be awarded in the amount of $44,535.25. Plaintiff is awarded attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $40,535.25.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs brought this action against DC 1707 and its Executive Director (collectively "Defendants"), alleging that she was removed as DC 1707's president in violation of Section 101(a) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act ("LMRDA"), 29 U.S.C. § 411(a), and Section 301 of the Labor Management Reporting Act ("LMRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 185.

In January 2004, after Stokely was laid-off from her former full-time job, DC 1707's Executive Board voted to give her a stipend in an amount equaling 60% of her former salary. A year later, in January 2005, the DC 1707 Executive Director removed Stokely from the office of president because, according to Defendants, the DC 1707 Constitution prohibits a salaried DC 1707 employee from serving as an officer. Stokely claimed that her removal from office was in retaliation for her outspoken criticism of the Executive Director.

At the same time Plaintiffs commenced this action, Plaintiffs applied to this Court for a preliminary injunction directing that Stokely be reinstated as DC 1707's president. At a hearing on Plaintiffs' application, this Court found that the DC 1707 Constitution did not prohibit Stokely from remaining in office, and this Court issued a preliminary injunction directing that Stokely be reinstated as DC 1707's president. Stokely's term expired two months later and she was not re-elected, rendering further injunctive relief moot. In addition, Plaintiffs withdrew their claim for monetary damages. Plaintiffs then made an application for attorneys' fees and costs incurred in seeking Stokely's reinstatement.

Magistrate Judge Pitman recommended that Plaintiffs' request for attorneys' fees be granted because in initiating this litigation, Plaintiffs conferred a common benefit on DC 1707's members by enforcing the right of union members to choose their own president. Using the "lodestar" method to compute Plaintiffs' reasonable attorneys' fees, and after determining that the hours spent on this matter and rates charged by Plaintiffs' attorneys were reasonable, Magistrate Judge Pitman recommended that Plaintiffs be awarded $43,985.00 in attorneys' fees and $550.25 in costs.

Defendants filed timely objections to the Report. Defendants objected to the Report's finding that by initiating this litigation, Plaintiffs conferred a common benefit on DC 1707's members by enforcing union members' right to choose their own president. Defendants contend that because there was no finding that Defendants violated the LMRDA, Plaintiffs could not have conferred a substantial benefit on DC 1707's members by enforcing members' rights under that statute. Defendants also objected to the Report's finding that Plaintiffs' abandonment of their damages claim, which mooted the controversy and precluded a final adjudication on the merits, did not bar the recovery of attorneys' fees. Finally, Defendants object to Magistrate Judge Pitman's refusal to eliminate the fees of attorney Louie Nikolaidis, to reduce the fee award for the time Plaintiffs' attorneys spent on clerical or ministerial tasks, and to reduce the award based on the limited success of the litigation.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations set forth within the Report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). When there are objections to the Report, the Court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which objections are made. Id.; Rivera v. Barnhart, 432 F.Supp.2d 271, 273 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). The Court is not required to conduct a de novo hearing on the matter. United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980). "It is sufficient that the district court arrive at its own, independent conclusion about those portions of the magistrate's report to which objection is made . . . ." Nelson v. Smith, 618 F. Supp. 1186, 1189-90 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) (quoting Hernandez v. Estelle, 711 F.2d 619, 620 (5th Cir. 1983)). Thus, the Court is obligated to exercise "sound judicial discretion with respect to whether reliance should be placed on [the magistrate judge's] findings." Am. Express Int'l Banking Corp. v. Sabet, 512 F.Supp. 472, 473 (S.D.N.Y.1981), aff'd, 697 F.2d 287 (2d Cir. 1982). The Court, however, "may adopt the uncontested portions of the report unless they show clear error." La Barbera v. A.F.C. Enterprises, Inc., 402 F.Supp.2d 474, 476-77 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (citations omitted). This Court has considered Defendants' objections to the Report and finds them to be without merit.

COMMON BENEFIT DOCTRINE

"Generally, courts may not award attorneys' fees to a prevailing party absent statutory or contractual authority." Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union v. Wall-Mart Stores, Inc., 54 F.3d 69, 71 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). One exception to the general rule, however, is the "common benefit" theory. Id. Under this theory, "a prevailing party [may] obtain reimbursement of attorneys' fees in cases where the litigation has conferred a substantial benefit on the members of an ascertainable class and where it is possible to spread the costs proportionately among the members of the class." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). And while it is true that "[u]nion members who succeed in vindicating rights guaranteed by Section 101 of the LMRDA may recover attorney's fees" under the common benefit doctrine, Local Union 38, Sheet Metal Workers' Int'l Ass'n v. Pelella, 350 F.3d 72, 90 (2d Cir. 2003), it is not true that the absence of a LMRDA violation precludes such an award. Rather, the "[a]pplication of the [common benefit] doctrine is not predicated upon the type of action sustained, but depends instead on the equitable circumstances of each case." Polonski v. Trump Taj Mahal Assocs., 137 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 1998).

Under the circumstances of this case, the equities weigh in favor of awarding attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs. The DC 1707 Executive Board and Executive Director voted to give Stokely a stipend when Stokely lost her job. No one questioned whether paying Stokely a stipend violated the DC 1707 Constitution. In was not until a year later did it suddenly "come to [the Executive Director's] attention" that her receipt of a stipend might preclude Stokely from continuing as president of DC 1707. After her removal, Stokely filed this action and immediately sought an injunction reinstating her as president. Although the Court did not reach the question of whether Stokely's removal violated the LMRDA, the Court ordered that Stokely be reinstated as president because her receipt of a stipend did not violate the DC 1707 Constitution.

Thus, Stokely's reinstatement remedied her wrongful removal from office. Whether she was reinstated because the Defendants violated the LMRDA or because her removal violated the DC 1707 Constitution, she was reinstated and her reinstatement effected a substantial benefit on the members of DC 1707-namely, it enforced all DC 1707 members' right to elect their union officials, and the right not to have those elected officials arbitrarily removed from office before the expiration of their term. Moreover, it matters little that Stokely might have been motivated by her own desire to retain elected office. In vindicating her rights and winning reinstatement, she "contributed to the preservation of union democracy" and, notwithstanding her personal motivations, "rendered a substantial service to [her] union as an institution and ...


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