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Willis v. Onondaga County Sheriff's Dep't

August 24, 2010

O'DELL WILLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ONONDAGA COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEP'T; AND KEVIN WALSH, ONONDAGA COUNTY SHERIFF, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court in this civil rights action filed by O'Dell Willis ("Plaintiff") is Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees. (Dkt. No. 69.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

On February 22, 2010, a trial commenced in this matter. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff awarding him nominal damages in the amount of $1 on his Title VII hostile work environment claim. Plaintiff's counsel now makes an untimely motion for attorney's fees in the amount of $36,388.00, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k).*fn1

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Rule 54(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a motion for attorney's fees be "filed no later than 14 days after the entry of judgment." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(i). For a district court to extend the filing deadline of Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d) after the expiration of the deadline, the court "is required to find excusable neglect under [Fed. R. Civ. P.] 6(b)(2)." Tancredi v. Metro. Life Insur. Co., 378 F.3d 220, 228 (2d Cir. 2004). The Supreme Court has held that, for a district court to find excusable neglect under Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(b), the court must balance the following factors: "[1] the danger of prejudice to the [non-movant], [2] the length of the delay and its potential impact on judicial proceedings, [3] the reason for the delay, including whether it was within the reasonable control of the movant, and [4] whether the movant acted in good faith." Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Assoc. Ltd. P'ship, 507 U.S. 380, 392, 395 (1993) (holding that excusable neglect "is a somewhat 'elastic concept'" whose "determination is at bottom an equitable one, taking account of all relevant circumstances surrounding the party's omission").*fn2

Assuming that such a motion is filed within the filing deadline (or that a court finds excusable neglect for an untimely filing), Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d) confers on federal courts the ability to award attorney's fees to the prevailing party when directed by federal statute or the civil rules. Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d). Title VII states, in its pertinent part, that a "court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.... " 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) (2006). In deciding whether or not to award attorney's fees, there is a two-step analysis that courts must employ. First, "the party must be a prevailing party in order to recover." Pino v. Locasio, 101 F.3d 235, 237 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal quotations and citations omitted). "[I]f []he is, then the requested fee must also be reasonable." Pino, 101 F.3d at 237 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

In Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), the Supreme Court held that "a plaintiff 'prevails' when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111-12. According to the Court, a plaintiff who is awarded $1 in nominal damages is a prevailing party because, "a judgment for damages in any amount, whether compensatory or nominal, modifies the defendant's behavior for the plaintiff's benefit by forcing the defendant to pay an amount of money he otherwise would not pay." Id. at 113.

Assuming a Plaintiff is a prevailing party, the most important factor in determining the reasonableness of a fee is the degree of success obtained. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 113. When a plaintiff seeks compensatory damages but only receives nominal damages, "the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all." Id. at 115. Having said that, the Second Circuit also considers the public purpose of the action when evaluating reasonableness. See Pino, 101 F.3d at 239 (adopting standard from Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in Farrar, and noting that for a nominal damages plaintiff to receive attorney's fees, there must be "a new rule of liability that serve[s] a significant public purpose").*fn3 However, if a lawsuit merely gives plaintiff "the moral satisfaction of knowing that a federal court concluded that their rights had been violated" then the public purpose exception does not apply. Pino, 101 F.3d at 238.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Motion for Extension of Rule 54(d) Filing Timeline

As stated in Part I of this Decision and Order, Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees is untimely. Plaintiff's counsel argues that, because she had an illness that prevented her from meeting the filing deadline, this illness should be considered excusable neglect because all of the factors of the Pioneer test point in favor of granting the extension. In response, Defendants argue as follows: (1) granting the extension would prejudice their case because they have missed the deadline to file a notice of appeal; and (2) the reason for the delay was not reasonable because Plaintiff's counsel could have notified the Court or Defendant's counsel that she was going to miss the deadline.

1. Prejudice to Non-Movant

As an initial matter, the Court is not persuaded by Defendants' argument that they will suffer prejudice in the event that the Court awards Plaintiff an extension of time. This is because it appears that, if the Court awards Plaintiff an extension of time, Defendants would still have at least one, and possibly two, avenues to appeal the Court's decision.More specifically, Defendants have a right to appeal the Court's decision to grant an extension of time. See Losacco v. City of Middletown, 71 F.3d 88, 93 (2d Cir. 1995) (reviewing a district court's grant of extension of time for abuse of discretion). In addition, if the Court decides to award Plaintiff attorney's fees, Defendants may appeal that decision because it is a separate ...


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