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Hnot v. Willis Group Holdings Ltd.

April 7, 2008

SHELLEY HNOT AND HEIDI SCHELLER, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED PERSONS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WILLIS GROUP HOLDINGS LTD., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs petition pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) for an award of attorney's fees and expenses in connection with an employment class action that resulted in a settlement approved by this Court. Defendants challenge the fees requested as excessive. For the following reasons, plaintiffs' petition will be granted in part.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs brought this sex discrimination suit against their current or former employer, Willis Group Holdings, Ltd., et al. ("Willis"), a global insurance brokerage company, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, and the laws of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The dispute began in 1999 with the filing of EEOC charges on behalf of several Willis employees, and a suit was brought in this Court in 2001. (Pls. Mem. 1.) From 2002 through 2004 the parties engaged in discovery, and in 2005, plaintiffs moved for class certification, which was granted. See Hnot v. Willis Group Holdings Ltd., 228 F.R.D. 476, 486-87 (S.D.N.Y. 2005). The class encompassed all current and former female employees who were employed by defendant in the Northeast Region in positions eligible for various officer titles during an approximately three year period. Id. at 480. Additional pre-trial motions followed, with trial scheduled to begin in June 2007. The case was settled on the eve of trial, and in February 2008 -- nearly nine years after the dispute began -- that settlement was approved by this Court.

The settlement provided for monetary relief for the class as well as changes in Willis policies and procedures. The parties did not agree on an award of attorney's fees and expenses, and left the amount of such an award to be decided by the Court. Plaintiffs have been represented by two law firms, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll ("Cohen") and Warshaw Burstein Cohen Schlesinger & Kuh, LLP ("Warshaw"), and the petition seeks $2,160,009.09 in fees and $389,238.57 in expenses for Cohen and $1,689,644.50 in fees and $55,267.99 in expenses for Warshaw. The petition covers work done through October 22, 2007.*fn1

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standards

In a Title VII employment discrimination suit, a court may award a "reasonable attorney's fee" to a "prevailing party." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). A "prevailing party" is one who "succeeds on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the party sought in bringing suit." Bridges v. Eastman Kodak Co., 102 F.3d 56, 58 (2d Cir. 1996). A plaintiff involved in litigation that is resolved by settlement can be a "prevailing party" provided that the settlement "affords the plaintiff all or some of the relief he sought through a judgment," such as "a monetary settlement or a change in conduct that redresses the plaintiffs' grievances." Lyte v. Sara Lee Corp., 950 F.2d 101, 103-04 (2d Cir. 1991).

The essential calculation in determining a reasonable attorney's fee is "the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).*fn2 Hours reasonably expended are hours actually expended by counsel minus "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary" hours. Id. at 434. In determining whether hours should be excluded, the inquiry is not based on what effort was necessary in hindsight, but rather on whether "at the time the work was performed, a reasonable attorney would have engaged in similar time expenditures." Grant v. Martinez, 973 F.2d 96, 99 (2d Cir. 1992). Even work on ultimately unsuccessful claims is compensable, so long as the "plaintiff's unsuccessful claims are not 'wholly unrelated' to the plaintiff's successful claims."

Lunday v. City of Albany, 42 F.3d 131, 134 (2d Cir. 1994), quoting Grant, 973 F.2d at 101.

The other component, the reasonable hourly rate, is "the rate a paying client would be willing to pay," bearing in mind "all of the case-specific variables that we and other courts have identified as relevant to the reasonableness of attorney's fees in setting a reasonable hourly rate." Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 493 F.3d 110, 117 (2d Cir. 2007).*fn3 Multiplying the reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable hours expended returns the "presumptively reasonable fee," which is not normally adjusted thereafter, since the "reasonable hourly rate" and the "hours reasonably expended" already incorporate the essential information needed to calculate a reasonable fee. Arbor Hill, 493 F.3d at 118. In addition to compensation for hours reasonably expended, "awards of attorney's fees in civil rights suits under fee-shifting statutes . . . normally include those reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the attorney and which are normally charged fee-paying clients." Reichman v. Bonsignore, Brignati & Mazzotta P.C., 818 F.2d 278, 283 (2d Cir. 1987).

II. Plaintiffs' Petition

Plaintiffs submit extensive documentation in support of their petition for fees and expenses. Cohen and Warshaw have provided detailed records itemizing the hours spent by attorneys and paralegals on the litigation. (Webber Decl. Ex. B; Lee Decl. Ex. A.) For each person, they have provided an hourly billing rate, which is the rate paid by each firm's paying clients. (Webber Decl. ¶¶ 4, 6; Lee Decl. ¶¶ 4, 6.) Cohen has also provided biographies of the attorneys who principally worked on the litigation, detailing their experience in civil rights and employment litigation (Webber Decl. Ex. A), and a declaration from an employment and civil rights litigator at another New York law firm that the rates sought by Cohen are "consistent with the rates charged by my firm and by other firms that regularly represent plaintiffs in employment discrimination in this district." (Outten Decl. ¶ 4.) Each firm also submits an itemized list of expenses incurred in pursuing the litigation. (Webber Decl. ¶¶ 14-15; Lee Decl. ¶¶ 16-17.)

In general, plaintiffs' documentation shows their fees to be reasonable. Altogether, plaintiffs' petition seeks $3,849,653.59 in fees and $444,506.56 in expenses for the two firms. This is, to be sure, a large number, but it is not outlandish in light of the nature of the litigation, which was a very large, complicated and extensive endeavor, and required plaintiffs to clear a number of procedural hurdles. Both firms began work on the case in 1999, when they investigated claims and filed EEOC charges on behalf of individual employees at Willis. (Webber Decl. ¶ 2; Lee Decl. ¶ 2.) After joining forces in 2001, they jointly prepared an amended complaint, briefs in support of class certification, briefs in opposition to defendant's motions for summary judgment, and various motions in limine. (Webber Decl. ¶ 10; Lee Decl. ¶ 11.) They also conducted extensive discovery, including review of documents and the taking of fifteen depositions and the defense of three. (Webber Decl. ¶ 10; Lee Decl. ¶ 10.) Because settlement occurred on the eve of trial, substantial time was devoted to trial preparation. (Webber Decl. ¶ 10; Lee Decl. ¶ ...


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