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Lochren v. County of Suffolk

May 8, 2008

SANDRA LOCHREN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF SUFFOLK, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lindsay, Magistrate Judge

ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs, six female police officers, commenced this pregnancy discrimination action in June 2001, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y. Executive Law § 290, et seq. The plaintiffs challenged the April 2000 policy of the defendant County of Suffolk (the "County") that excluded from light duty status any police officer who suffers an off-duty injury, condition or illness. Following a jury trial, the plaintiffs obtained damages and invalidated the policy. Thereafter, the parties entered into a consent decree that altered the policy by allowing pregnant police officers to be given limited duty assignments. The plaintiffs have now made an application for attorneys' fees and costs. For the following reasons, the plaintiffs are awarded $578,704.14 for attorneys' fees and costs.

The parties are presumed to be familiar with the facts of this case, and thus, the underlying facts will only be recited when necessary to put the discussion in context.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Eligibility for Attorneys' Fees

"In the United States, parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees -- the prevailing party is not entitled to collect from the loser. . . . Congress, however, has authorized the award of attorney's fees to the 'prevailing party' in numerous statutes, . . . such as . . . the Civil Rights Act of 1964, . . . 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(k)." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc., v. West Virginia Dept. Of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 602 (2001). The Civil Rights Act provides:

In any action or proceeding under [Title VII] the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorneys' fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Accordingly, the threshold issue before the court is whether the plaintiffs are prevailing parties.

Since "the same standards are 'generally applicable in all cases in which Congress has authorized an award of fees to a 'prevailing party,'" the court is guided by cases addressing prevailing party status without regard to whether the cases involve civil rights plaintiffs. See NAACP v. Town of East Haven, 259 F.3d 113, 117, n.5 (2d Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1129 (2002)(citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). "'[T]o qualify as a prevailing party, a civil rights plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of the claim' either through a 'judgment,' a 'consent decree' or a 'settlement.'" Davis v. City of New Rochelle, 156 F.R.D. 549, 554 (S.D.N.Y. 1994)(citing Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992)). "Otherwise, the judgment or settlement cannot be said to 'affect the behavior of the defendant toward the plaintiff" so as to amount to a "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties, and thereby transform the plaintiff into a prevailing party." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 112.

Applying these standards, the court concludes that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties. To begin with, the plaintiffs secured a jury verdict in the amount of $56,087.36. [Doc. No. 152]. Each of the plaintiffs was awarded either actual damages and/or damages for emotional distress in connection with the plaintiffs' pregnancy discrimination claim.*fn1 Thereafter, in response to the plaintiffs' motion for a permanent injunction, the parties entered into a consent decree "provid[ing] all pregnant officers who request limited duty, upon presentation of a doctor's note, limited duty positions for a period of at least six months during their pregnancies" and prohibiting the County from "revert[ing] back to the April 2000 limited duty policy." [Doc. No. 164].

After the Supreme Court rejected the catalyst theory, that is, the idea that a plaintiff was a prevailing party if his lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct, the Circuits were split on the type of judicial relief necessary to convey prevailing party status. See Maine Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 35 v. Mr. & Mrs. R., 321 F.3d 9 (1st Cir. 2003)(interlocutory orders conferring substantive relief sufficient to convey prevailing party status); compare Christina A. v. Bloomberg, 315 F.3d 990 (8th Cir. 2003)(only enforceable judgment on the merits or consent decree conveys prevailing party status). Aligning itself with the First Circuit, this Circuit has held that a broad range of outcomes convey the judicial imprimatur necessary to a fee award. See Preservation Coalition v. Fed. Transit Admin., 356 F.3d 444, 452 (2d Cir. 2004). In so holding, the Second Circuit has stated that the courts are to focus on the "materiality of the judicial outcome," and convey prevailing party status when the court sanctions a substantive and material alteration in the legal relationship of the parties. Id. at 451- 52. There is no question that such a material alteration has occurred here, and thus, the plaintiffs are prevailing parties whose reasonable attorneys' fees and costs are compensable.

B. Determining an Appropriate Fee

For many years attorneys' fee awards in this district have been determined by calculating the "lodestar" figure, which was based on the number of hours expended, multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. See Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of the IBEW, 34 F.3d 1148, 1159 (2d Cir. 1994) (citing F.H. Krear & Co. v. Nineteen Named Trustees, 810 F.2d 1250, 1263 (2d Cir. 1987)). The party seeking reimbursement of these fees bears the burden of proving the reasonableness and the necessity of hours spent and rates charged. See generally, N.Y. State Ass'n for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, 711 F.2d 1136 (2d Cir. 1983). Recently, the Second Circuit has attempted to clarify the fee-calculation rules and it is with these clarified rules in mind that the court will determine the appropriateness of ...


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