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Spencer v. City of New York

United States District Court, Second Circuit

November 13, 2013

EUGENIA SPENCER, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK (including THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK); JAMES PHILEMY, ILYSSA MANDELL, and JOHN and/or JANE DOE(S), each in their official and individual capacities, Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

KIMBA M. WOOD, District Judge.

Plaintiff Eugenia Spencer, a school teacher employed by the New York City Department of Education, brought this action against Defendants James Philemy and Ilyssa Mandell, respectively the Interim Acting School Principal and Interim Acting Assistant Principal of the school where Plaintiff was employed, alleging violations of the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff sought $220, 000 in back pay, $176, 000 in front pay, $500, 000 in emotional damages, and an unspecified amount of punitive damages. Transcript of Jury Trial at 829-30 [Dkt. No. 107]. After a five-day trial, the jury found that Defendants violated Plaintiff's First Amendment rights by giving her unsatisfactory employment ratings in retaliation for speech that Plaintiff made as a citizen on matters of public concern and awarded Plaintiff $25, 000 in damages. The Court ordered the conversion of Plaintiff's unsatisfactory performance rating for the 2003-2004 academic year into a satisfactory performance rating and the expungement of three documents upon which Defendants based the unsatisfactory rating. Spencer v. City of New York, 06 CV 2852, 2012 WL 2866263, at *13 (S.D.N.Y. July 12, 2012) (Wood, J).

Plaintiff now seeks attorneys' fees and costs totaling $407, 695.00, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and Federal Rule Civil Procedure 54(d). For the reasons stated below, the Court awards Plaintiff attorneys' fees in the amount of $232, 390.80 and costs in the amount of $6, 668.94.

DISCUSSION

I. Right to Attorneys' Fees

a. Prevailing Party Requirement

Section 1988 provides that in cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." A party is considered prevailing if the suit obtains "at least some relief on the merits of [the] claim." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992). "Because the prevailing party test requires only that the suit obtain some' of the benefit sought, the fact that specific relief prayed for in the complaint was not obtained by the plaintiff does not preclude prevailing party status." 10 James WM. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 54.171[3][c] (3d ed. 2013). The central inquiry is whether the party "has favorably effected a material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties' by court order." Garcia v. Yonkers Sch. Dist., 561 F.3d 97, 102 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 604 (2001)).

Plaintiff in this case is clearly the prevailing party. The jury found that Defendants violated her First Amendment rights, and they awarded her $25, 000 in damages. The Court further ordered the conversion of Plaintiff's unsatisfactory performance rating for the academic year into a satisfactory performance rating and the expungement of three documents upon which Defendants based the unsatisfactory rating. Although Plaintiff sought far more than the $25, 000 in damages the jury awarded, "the limited success of the suit goes not to [the determination of prevailing party status], but instead to the amount of the reasonable fee." 10 James WM. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice §54.171[3][c] (3d ed. 2013).

II. Reasonable Fee Amount

In Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 493 F.3d 110 (2d Cir. 2007), amended on other grounds by 522 F.3d 182 (2d Cir. 2008), the Second Circuit "abandon[ed]' the lodestar' approach to awarding attorney's fees, and adopted instead a presumptively reasonable fee' calculation." Simmons v. New York City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 172 (2d Cir. 2009). Although the Supreme Court has since expressed its preference for the lodestar method in Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542 (2010), most district courts in this Circuit continue to apply Arbor Hill 's "presumptively reasonable fee" calculation in setting the reasonable fee amount.[1] Accordingly, this Court will determine the reasonable fee amount using the Second Circuit's preferred method.

Under the presumptively reasonable fee calculation, the court first sets a "reasonable hourly rate, ' bearing in mind all the case-specific variables" highlighted by the Second Circuit in Arbor Hill. Adorno v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 685 F.Supp.2d 507, 510-11 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (Chin, J). The court then "uses that reasonable hourly rate to calculate the presumptively reasonable fee' by multiplying the rate by the number of hours reasonably expended." Id. Once the presumptively reasonable fee is determined, the court adjusts the figure "for traditional factors such as the degree of the plaintiff's success." Id.

a. Reasonable Hourly Rate

The reasonable hourly rate is the rate "a reasonable, paying client would be willing to pay." Arbor Hill, 522 F.3d at 184. In determining what a reasonable, paying client would be willing to pay, the Second Circuit instructed district courts to consider the twelve factors listed by the Fifth Circuit in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th. Cir. 1974):

(1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the level of skill required to perform the legal service properly; (4) the preclusion of employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the attorney's customary hourly rate; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; (8) the amount involved in the case and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the "undesirability" of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.

Id. at 187.

The Second Circuit further directed district courts to consider:

the complexity and difficulty of the case, the available expertise and capacity of the client's other counsel (if any), the resources required to prosecute the case effectively (taking account of the resources being marshaled on the other side but not endorsing scorched earth tactics), the timing demands of the case, whether an attorney might have an interest (independent of that of his client) in achieving the ends of the litigation or might initiate the representation himself, whether an attorney might have initially acted pro bono (such that a client might be aware that the ...

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