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Finch v. New York State Office of Children and Family Services

March 5, 2012

BARBARA FINCH, INDIVIDUALLY, ON BEHALF OF MANNY MOE AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, CAROL JORDAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, AND BARBARA ORTIZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES; JOHN A. JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS THE COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES; THE CITY OF NEW YORK, ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES; WILLIAM C. BELL, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF THE ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK; DAVE R. PETERS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR, STATE CENTRAL REGISTER, NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, DIVISION OF DEVELOPMENT AND PREVENTION SERVICES; JANE DOE 1, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS A SUPERVISOR OF THE STATE CENTRAL REGISTER; JANE DOE 2, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE STATE CENTRAL REGISTER; JOHN DOE 1, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS A SUPERVISOR OF ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES; AND JOHN DOE 2, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS AN EMPLOYEE OF ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDEREN'S SERVICES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shira A. Scheindlin, U.S.D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

On February 24, 2004, plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against, inter alia, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services ("OCFS"); John A. Johnson, Commissioner of the OCFS; and Dave R. Peters, Director of the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (the "SCR") (collectively the "State Defendants" or "defendants").*fn1 Plaintiffs alleged that the inordinate delays in the scheduling of administrative hearings -- in which class members could challenge their listing as subjects of "indicated" reports of child abuse/maltreatment in the SCR -- violated their due process rights. After this Court certified a class, which was subsequently divided into two subclasses (Subclass A and Subclass B), the parties settled all outstanding claims. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 ("section 1988"), plaintiffs now move for the following attorneys' fees and costs: $711,781.25 in attorney's fees and $16,343.10 in costs relating to the Subclass A litigation; $50,000.00 in attorneys' fees and $639.00 in costs for first year monitoring services rendered with regard to the Subclass B litigation; $18,685.42 in attorneys' fees incurred in recovering attorneys' fees and costs under section 1988; and $7,554.87 for additional fees and costs incurred in recovering fees and costs under section 1988.*fn2 For the following reasons, plaintiffs' motion is granted but not in the amounts requested.

II. BACKGROUND

This case was originally assigned to the Honorable Richard C. Casey, who died on March 22, 2007. While under the supervision of Judge Casey, plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint on June 14, 2004. The State Defendants moved to dismiss the First Amended Complaint in its entirety while plaintiffs cross-moved to have New York Social Services Law § 422(6) ("NY SSL § 422(6)") declared unconstitutional.*fn3 Although these motions were fully submitted as of April 8, 2005, they were not decided until after the case had been reassigned to my docket on May 25, 2007.*fn4

In an Opinion and Order dated July 3, 2007, the motion to dismiss was decided and the following claims were dismissed: "(1) all claims against the OCFS; (2) all claims brought under the Ninth Amendment of the United States Constitution; (3) claims for money damages against the individual State defendants in their official capacities; (4) claims for money damages against the individual State defendants in their individual capacities; and (5) claims seeking injunctive relief for past conduct."*fn5 Any claims against the State Defendants based on state statutory violations were also dismissed.*fn6 Plaintiffs' cross-motion seeking declaratory relief was withdrawn and deemed moot.*fn7 Thus, only the claim for prospective injunctive relief against the individual State Defendants survived the motion to dismiss.*fn8

Plaintiffs then moved for class certification. On August 11, 2008, this Court certified the following class: all persons: (1) who are working or desire to work or to be licensed in the childcare field; (2) who are now, or in the future will be, listed on the Statewide Central Register as subjects of indicated reports of child abuse that were investigated by and indicated by a designated investigative agency; (3) who timely requested amendment of the indicated reports; and (4) whose requests for amendment have not been disposed of.*fn9 Plaintiffs then moved, and the State Defendants cross-moved, for summary judgment. Both motions were denied in a Memorandum Opinion and Order dated December 18, 2008.*fn10

Plaintiffs filed their Third Amended Complaint on August 17, 2009. The Third Cause of Action in the Third Amended Complaint defined the claims of persons whom the parties later designated as members of Subclass B. In the Stipulation of Partial Settlement of Class Action ("Stipulation of Settlement"), signed by the Court on February 5, 2010, the members of the class previously certified in this action were designated as members of Subclass A and a separate Subclass B was certified with regard to persons who were incorrectly classified by the OCFS as having waived the right to an administrative hearing. After a fairness hearing was held on April 20, 2010, the Subclass B Stipulation of Settlement was finally approved. Class counsel was appointed to monitor compliance.

After the Subclass B settlement was approved, the parties resolved the issue of attorneys' fees and class counsel was paid $400,000.00 for work done on behalf of the Subclass B members through the effective date of the Stipulation of Settlement. The Stipulation of Settlement further provided that class counsel could seek additional attorneys' fees for work done monitoring the State Defendants' compliance with the terms of the settlement. Monitoring fees for the first year of monitoring were capped at $50,000.00.*fn11

The remaining causes of action in the Third Amended Complaint applicable to Subclass A members were scheduled to go to trial on October 27, 2010. On the eve of trial, the parties informed the Court that they intended to settle the two remaining causes of action (the First and Second Causes of Action). Accordingly, the parties entered a Stipulation of Settlement of Class Action, dated November 4, 2010 (the "State Settlement Agreement"). A fairness hearing was scheduled for February 7, 2011, to evaluate the fairness, reasonableness and adequacy of both the State and City settlements.*fn12 At the fairness hearing, no one objected to the proposed settlements. On February 17, 2011, the Court gave its final approval of the State Settlement Agreement, thereby resolving the Subclass A members' outstanding claims. The instant motion followed.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

A "prevailing party" in a civil rights action is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees and costs.*fn13 Furthermore, a prevailing party is also entitled to reimbursement for time reasonably expended in preparing his attorneys' fee application.*fn14 A "prevailing party" is a party who achieves a "'material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties'. . . ."*fn15 District courts are afforded considerable discretion in determining the amount of reasonable attorneys' fees in any given case.*fn16 The methodology to be used in determining those amounts is the "lodestar" approach. In addition, "the fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates."*fn17
The Supreme Court has endorsed the "lodestar" approach as the superior method to be used in determining attorneys' fees, describing it as "'the guiding light of . . . fee-shifting jurisprudence.'"*fn18 Disfavoring the Johnson approach and its twelve, case-specific factors*fn19 as being too subjective,*fn20 the

Supreme Court has stated that "there is a 'strong presumption' the lodestar figure is reasonable[.]"*fn21 In applying Perdue, the Second Circuit has stated:

Both this Court and the Supreme Court have held that the lodestar -- the product of a reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable number of hours required by the case -- creates a "presumptively reasonable fee." While the lodestar is not always conclusive, its presumptive reasonability means that, absent extraordinary circumstances, failing to calculate it as a starting point is legal error. A detailed explanation of the lodestar calculation is unnecessary, but compliance with the Supreme Court's directive that fee award calculations be "objective and reviewable," implies the district court should at least provide the number of hours and hourly rate it used to produce the lodestar figure.*fn22

According to the Supreme Court, the lodestar method produces an award that roughly approximates the fee that the prevailing attorney would have received if he or she had been representing a paying client who was billed by the hour in a comparable case. [Furthermore], the lodestar method is readily administrable; and unlike the Johnson approach, the lodestar calculation is "objective," and thus cabins the discretion of trial judges, permits meaningful judicial review, and produces reasonably predictable results.*fn23

The aim of section 1988 "is to enforce the covered civil rights statutes, not to provide 'a form of economic relief to improve the financial lot of attorneys.'"*fn24

Thus, "a 'reasonable' fee is a fee that is sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious civil rights case."*fn25 There is a "strong" presumption that "the lodestar method yields a fee that ...


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