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Penny T. Collins v. New York State Dep't of Corr. and Cmty. Servs.; John Burge; Harold

October 22, 2012


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


Currently before the court in this employment discrimination action against the above-captioned entity and three correctional employees ("Defendants") is a motion by plaintiff Penny T. Collins ("Plaintiff") against defendant New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services ("DOCCS") for attorney's fees, paralegal fees, expert fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Plaintiff seeks an award of $286,176.25 in attorney's fees, $14,109.50 in paralegal fees, $18,084.27 in expert fees, and $14,249.22 in costs. DOCCS opposes the motion. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Relevant Background

Plaintiff commenced this action on May 8, 2007 against DOCCS as well as the State of New York, Brian Fisher ("Fisher"), Glenn S. Goord ("Goord"), John Burge ("Burge"), Harold Graham ("Graham"), and Troy Mitchell ("Mitchell"). Plaintiff asserted the following claims against all defendants: gender discrimination, hostile work environment, disparate treatment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") and the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y. EXEC. LAW § 296 ("NYHRL"); and discrimination and hostile work environment under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In addition, Plaintiff asserted a claim of aiding and abetting discrimination and retaliation under NYHRL against Mitchell only.

Beginning in October 2006, Plaintiff was represented by Green & Seifter Attorneys, PLLC ("Green & Seifter").*fn1 When this action was commenced, attorneys John L. Valentino and Lawrence M. Ordway, Jr., of Green & Seifter appeared on behalf of Plaintiff. In December 2008, attorneys Valentino and Ordway withdrew as counsel for Plaintiff, with permission of Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles. Thereafter, attorney Mairead E. Connor appeared as Plaintiff's counsel.

With permission of Magistrate Judge Peebles, Plaintiff amended her complaint on May 22, 2009, in order to add the jurisdictional predicate of the receipt of a "right to sue" letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thereafter, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied in its entirety by Senior District Judge Neal P. McCurn. In denying Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Judge McCurn granted Plaintiff's motion to strike Defendants' statement of material facts for failure to comply with a provision of the Local Rules of this court requiring specific citations to the record. In doing so, Judge McCurn noted that Defendants' statement of material facts contained thirty-six numbered facts, of which eighteen had no citations whatsoever and the remaining facts included partial and/or general citations. See Dkt. No. 86, at 9. Judge McCurn went on to note that, in opposing Defendants' motion for summary judgment, "counsel for plaintiff was relegated to searching for truffles, not only to support her own recitation of material facts in dispute, but to provide the citations to defendants' facts which they then relied upon for their reply." Id. In the end, Defendants' motion for summary judgment was denied on the merits, without regard to their statement of material facts, with the court instead relying on the amended complaint and the court's own review of the record.

After an eight-day jury trial, Plaintiff prevailed on her Title VII and NYHRL hostile work environment claim against DOCCS. The jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff's favor on that claim and awarded Plaintiff $500,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in back pay.

Thereafter, Defendants sought judgment as a matter of law dismissing Plaintiff's NYHRL hostile work environment claim against DOCCS pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and further moved to alter or amend the judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e), decreasing the jury's award of compensatory damages to $300,000, which is the statutory cap for damages on such a claim under Title VII. The Court denied defendants' Rule 50(b) and Rule 59(e) motions. Thereafter, Defendants filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.*fn2

In the interim, Plaintiff filed the current motion for attorney's fees, paralegal fees, expert fees and costs. Generally, in support of her motion, Plaintiff contends that the number of hours expended in litigating this action is reasonable and that the hourly rates requested are reasonable given the rates charged in this district for similar litigation. DOCCS opposes Plaintiff's motion, generally arguing that, because Plaintiff was only successful on one of her claims against one defendant, her award for attorney's fees, paralegal fees, expert fees and costs should be reduced proportionately. In addition, DOCCS argues that Plaintiff's fee petition is not well supported, citing her failure to provide retainer agreements or include hourly rates on invoices. DOCCS also challenges the reasonableness of the requested hourly rates for the attorneys and paralegals who worked on her case.

II. Analysis

Under Title VII, "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, costs, other than attorney's fees, should be allowed to the prevailing party. See FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(1). "A plaintiff prevails when she 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). Here, there is no dispute that Plaintiff is a "prevailing party" under Title VII and Rule 54 as she succeeded on her hostile work environment claim against DOCCS, thereby clearly achieving some of the benefit she sought in commencing this action.

A. Attorney's Fees

Traditionally, courts have determined a "reasonable attorney's fee" by calculating the lodestar -- the product of the number of hours required by the matter and a reasonable hourly rate. See Millea v. Metro-North R. Co., 658 F.3d 154, 166 (2d Cir. 2011) (citing Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, - U.S. -, -, 130 S. Ct. 1662, 1673 (2010); Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Assoc. v. Cnty. of Albany, 522 F.3d 182, 183 (2d Cir.2008)). A reasonable hourly rate is "what a reasonable, paying client would be willing to pay, given that such a party wishes to spend the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively." Bergerson v. New York State Office of Mental Health, 652 F.3d 277, 289-290 (2d Cir. 2011) (citations and quotations omitted). The reasonable amount of time spent on a matter is dependent in part on the degree of difficulty of the factual and legal issues involved. See Hofler v. Family of Woodstock, Inc., No. 1:07-cv-1055, 2012 WL 527668, at * 5 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 17, 2012). Courts may reduce from the lodestar calculation hours that are "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary" and consequently are not reasonable. See id. (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1939-40 (1983). Finally, it is important to note that the fee applicant bears the burden of documenting the hours reasonably expended and the reasonable hourly rates. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437, 103 S. Ct. at 1941.

Bearing these principles in mind, the court must first determine the reasonable hourly rate to apply, and then decide whether the number of hours ...

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