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Starkey v. Somers Central School Dist.

December 23, 2008

NANCY STARKEY, AS NATURAL PARENT AND GUARDIAN OF HER DAUGHTER SAMANTHA STARKEY, AN INFANT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOMERS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT AND DR. RICHARD BRODOW, DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Nancy Starkey brought this action on behalf of her infant daughter Samantha against defendants Somers Central School District and its Superintendent, Dr. Richard Brodow, seeking damages for alleged violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. ("IDEA") and various other statutes, and for alleged violations of Samantha's constitutional rights to, among other things, due process of law, in connection with disciplinary proceedings against Samantha. The Court dismissed seven of the eight claims in the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim. Starkey v. Somers Central School District, 319 F. Supp.2d 410 (S.D.N.Y. 2004). Following discovery, the Court denied in substantial part defendants' motion for summary judgment on the remaining claim, which alleged substantive and procedural due process violations in connection with the disciplinary proceedings, and set the case for trial. After jury selection, the case was settled for $20,000, plus legal fees in an amount to be decided by the Court under 42 U.S.C. §1988. Plaintiff now moves for an award of fees. Defendants do not object to the award of fees, but argue that the fee award should be substantially less than that requested by plaintiff. Plaintiff's motion will be granted to the extent set forth below.*fn1

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff seeks a fee award of $118,960. Defendants suggest that an award of $29,707.50 is more appropriate, arguing (1) that time spent on the unsuccessful causes of action should be excluded; (2) that fees should be denied for various allegedly excessive and unreasonable hours included in plaintiff's calculation; (3) that fees should be denied for time spent after an offer of judgment had been made by the defendants; and (4) that the award should be further reduced because of the modest damages ultimately accepted by the plaintiff in the settlement.*fn2

I. Legal Standards

Under § 1988, fees may be awarded to a "prevailing party" in a civil rights action such as this. Plaintiffs are considered prevailing parties if "they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). Defendants do not contest that plaintiff is a prevailing party in whose favor fees can be awarded. In this circuit, courts awarding such fees are required to determine a "presumptively reasonable fee" that is calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably spent by the attorney on the case by the hourly rate that "a paying client would be willing to pay" for the attorney's services in the matter. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Assn. v. County of Albany, 522 F.3d 182, 190 (2d Cir. 2008). The fees to be awarded are designed to "approximate" the amount that would be paid in the "free market." Id. at 184.

Here, except to the extent they argue that some of his time was billed for clerical or administrative tasks that should be billed at a lower rate, defendants do not challenge plaintiff's counsel's claimed hourly rate of $200, which is modest enough for an attorney of counsel's level of experience doing this sort of work in this market. Rather, they challenge primarily the number of hours for which counsel should be paid. The case law provides guidance on several fronts in assessing such a challenge.

First, it is well established that "[w]here the plaintiff failed to prevail on a claim that is distinct in all respects from his successful claims, the hours spent on the unsuccessful claim should be excluded in considering the amount of a reasonable fee." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440. "A prevailing party who is entitled to a fee award for his successful prosecution of successful claims is not entitled to a fee award for unsuccessful claims that were 'based on different facts and different legal theories.'" Kirsch v. Fleet Street, Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 173 (2d Cir. 1998), quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. Deciding whether the successful and unsuccessful claim are "unrelated," however, is not an exact science. As the Supreme Court has noted, in many cases "plaintiff's claims for relief will involve a common core of facts or will be based on related legal theories. Much of counsel's time will be devoted generally to the litigation as a whole, making it difficult to divide the hours expended on a claim-by-claim basis. Such a lawsuit cannot be viewed as a series of discrete claims." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435.

Second, in assessing "the number of hours reasonably expended" on a matter, id. at 433 (emphasis added), the Court must "exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission." Id. at 434. In determining the appropriateness of hours expended, the burden is on the party seeking the fee award to document the necessity for the time spent. "Applications for fee awards should generally be documented by contemporaneously created time records that specify, for each attorney, the date, the hours expended, and the nature of the work done." Kirsch, 148 F.3d at 173.

Third, attorneys' fees incurred by a plaintiff after an offer of settlement pursuant to Rule 68, Fed. R. Civ. P., may not be recovered where the plaintiff achieves no better result than was offered. Marek v. Chesney, 473 U.S. 1 (1985).

Finally, "[t]he product of reasonable hours times a reasonable rate does not end the inquiry. There remain other considerations that may lead the district court to adjust the fee upward or downward, including the important factor of the 'results obtained.'" Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized this factor:

"the most critical factor" in determining the reasonableness of a fee award "is the degree of success obtained." Hensley, supra, 461 U.S. at 436. . . . "Where recovery of private damages is the purpose of . . . civil rights litigation, a district court, in fixing fees, is obligated to give primary consideration to the amount of damages awarded as compared to the amount sought." Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 585 (1986) (Powell, J., concurring in judgment). Such a comparison promotes the court's "central" responsibility to "make the assessment of what is a reasonable fee under the circumstances of the case." Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 96 (1989).

Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114-15 (1992).

With these principles in mind, defendants' various objections ...


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