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Kovach v. City University of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 4, 2015

KATHLEEN KOVACH, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, et al., Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

LORNA G. SCHOFIELD, District Judge.

Plaintiff Kathleen Kovach brings suit against her employer, the City University of New York ("CUNY"), and various administrative officials at Brooklyn College alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. After extensive mediation, the parties reached a settlement on all issues except attorneys' fees. Plaintiff now moves for attorneys' fees in the amount of $117, 537.07. In addition, Plaintiff's former attorney, Anne Clark, moves to enforce the charging lien of her law firm Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C. (the "Vladeck Firm") on Plaintiff's recovery in this case. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees is granted in part, and the Vladeck Firm's motion to enforce its lien is also granted in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Only facts necessary to resolve the present motions are recited below. Unless otherwise noted, the facts are undisputed.

A. Procedural Overview

On August 18, 2010, Plaintiff filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights a charge of discrimination that would eventually give rise to the present lawsuit. She filed the operative Complaint in this action on October 11, 2013. Pursuant to this District's Standing Administrative Order in certain employment discrimination cases, the case was automatically referred for mediation on December 17, 2013. By joint letter dated April 17, 2014, the parties informed the Court that they had reached an "agreement in principle." This agreement - a result of two mediations at which Anne Clark of the Vladeck Firm represented Plaintiff - was formalized in a term sheet signed by all parties in March 2014, at the conclusion of the second mediation session.

By letter dated May 9, 2014, Plaintiff (writing for herself and not through counsel) expressed dissatisfaction with Ms. Clark's representation during the mediation. The Court granted Plaintiff's application to terminate Ms. Clark as her counsel of record on May 27, 2015. On June 26, 2014, Steven Sledzick, Plaintiff's current attorney for purposes of the attorneys' fees motion, filed a notice of appearance.

At a conference in this matter on August 1, 2014, the case was again referred to mediation. After further mediation, the parties filed a stipulation of settlement, which the Court approved on October 20, 2014, resolving all claims except the demand for attorneys' fees. All parties agree that this settlement agreement is virtually identical to the agreement negotiated by the Vladeck Firm on Plaintiff's behalf. On November 11, 2104, Plaintiff filed her motion for attorneys' fees, and on November 17, 2014, and with the Court's leave, the Vladeck Firm filed, under seal and ex parte as to Defendants, its motion to enforce its charging lien. Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, but "advised by new counsel, " in opposition to the Vladeck Firm's motion.

B. Plaintiff's Attorneys

Over the course of this case, Plaintiff has been represented by four different law firms, and she seeks attorneys' fees for each firm's representation.

Plaintiff first hired Richard Corenthal of the law firm Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. (the "Meyer Suozzi Firm"). Based on the invoices Plaintiff has submitted in connection with the motion for attorneys' fees, the Meyer Suozzi Firm represented Plaintiff from approximately December 2009 to June 2010. According to Plaintiff's retainer agreement with the Meyer Suozzi Firm, the representation was "for advice and representation to settle [Plaintiff's] disability discrimination and retaliation claims against [CUNY] and Brooklyn College." Further, "[r]epresentation for purposes of instituting administrative proceedings or a lawsuit is not covered by th[e] retainer agreement." Plaintiff requests attorneys' fees in the amount of $3, 900 for the Meyer Suozzi Firm's work.

In July 2010, Plaintiff retained Martin Silberman of the Silberman Law Firm (the "Silberman Firm") to represent her in the New York State Division of Human Rights. The retainer agreement between the Silberman Firm and Plaintiff did not extend to "litigat[ing] this case in court." Plaintiff has produced invoices showing that Mr. Silberman, who graduated from law school in 1977, did the bulk of the work at an hourly rate of $300. The Silberman Firm's documented fees and expenses total $7, 318.79.[1] However, based on Plaintiff's personal records, she claims attorneys' fees in the amount of $8, 864.99-$1, 546.20 more than the documented amount. She explains that she "do[es] not have all of the bills and records of payments" for the Silberman Firm because she has moved.

Plaintiff then retained the Vladeck Firm from September 2012 to July 2014 to represent her in this action. In her declaration, Ms. Clark of the Vladeck Firm states, based on extensive documentation, that the Firm's fees and expenses in this case total $89, 023.83.[2] Ms. Clark explains that in arriving at the total amount, she had "examined the computer entries for which fees are sought" and certified that the fees were "accurate, reasonable and necessarily incurred in the prosecution of the case." Among other exclusions, the Vladeck Firm also excluded the time and expenses incurred after May 9, 2014, the date Plaintiff terminated her relationship with the firm.

The Vladeck Firm focuses on employment law and has been very successful in representing employees in litigation and arbitration. Ms. Clark, a partner at the firm, has practiced law for approximately 25 years, has served as lead and co-counsel at trial in numerous employment cases and has taught employment and discrimination law at various law schools for over a decade. The Vladeck Firm billed Ms. Clark's time at an hourly rate of $700, Ms. Clark's standard rate since 2012. The firm also charged $350 per hour for an associate who has practiced law for almost a decade and $200 per hour for a recent law school graduate.

Plaintiff signed two successive retainer agreements with the Vladeck Firm. The first retainer, which Plaintiff signed on October 10, 2012 (the "2012 Retainer"), stated that the Vladeck Firm would bill Ms. Clark's time at $700 per hour, associates at $250 to $400 per hour, law clerks at $150 per hour and paralegals at $125 per hour. The 2012 Retainer further provided that "[i]f there is a settlement in this matter, [the Vladeck Firm] will also receive 5% of any gross amount accepted by [Plaintiff] (including any amount [CUNY] pays towards attorneys' fees)."

On November 18, 2013, Plaintiff signed a second retainer with the Vladeck Firm (the "2013 Retainer"), which explicitly superseded and replaced the older retainer. Under the 2013 Retainer, the Vladeck Firm agreed to bill at the reduced hourly rates of $300 per hour for Ms. Clark and $200 for associates, with no change in the remaining rates. However, the 2013 Retainer provided that "if we[, i.e., the Vladeck Firm] obtain a monetary settlement or verdict in your favor, we would ...


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