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Deferio v. City of Syracuse

United States District Court, N.D. New York

June 21, 2018

CITY OF SYRACUSE, et al., Defendants.


          Lawrence E. Kahn, U.S. District Judge


         Before the Court in this civil rights action filed by plaintiff James Deferio is his motion for $194, 001.89 in attorneys' fees and nontaxable expenses pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d). Dkt. Nos. 131-7 (“Motion”) at 1, 150-1 (“Reply”) at 2. Defendants have opposed the Motion. Dkt. No. 147 (“Response”). As detailed below, the Motion is granted in part. Plaintiff has also moved pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1920 for a bill of costs totaling $3, 145, to which Defendants have no objection. Dkt. Nos. 133 (“Motion for Bill of Costs”), 146 (“Response to Motion for Bill of Costs”). That motion is granted in full.


         Familiarity with the Court's January 31, 2018 memorandum-decision and order is presumed. Dkt. No. 128 (“January 2018 Order”). Plaintiff started this action on March 31, 2016 against the City of Syracuse and three of its police department personnel-Captain Joseph Sweeny, Sergeant Jamey Locastro (collectively, the “Officers”), and Chief of Police Frank Fowler, in his official capacity-pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First Amendment and due process rights. Dkt. No. 1 (“Complaint”). Generally, Plaintiff's allegations arise out of his efforts to express his religious beliefs on public sidewalks at the Central New York Pride Parade and Festival in 2014 and 2015. Id. He claimed that his free speech rights were infringed when the Officers, pursuant to a municipal policy, barred Plaintiff from demonstrating immediately adjacent to the festival's entrance, forcing him to move across the street-away from pedestrian traffic into and out of the festival. Id.

         In his Complaint, Plaintiff sought declaratory relief, preliminary injunction, a permanent injunction, nominal damages, attorneys' fees, and costs. Compl. at 18-20. Five days after filing his Complaint, Plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction concerning the then-upcoming 2016 Pride Parade and Festival. Dkt. Nos. 6-1 (“Preliminary Injunction Motion”), 6-15 (“Preliminary Injunction Memorandum”). In a June 8, 2016 memorandum-decision and order, the Court granted Plaintiff's Preliminary Injunction Motion and enjoined Defendants “from excluding Plaintiff from or restricting his ability to demonstrate in the areas surrounding the entrances to the 2016 CNY Pride Event based on the establishment of a buffer zone.” Dkt. No. 24 (“June 2016 Order”) at 20. Plaintiff attended the Pride Parade and Festival in 2016 and 2017 without incident. Dkt. No. 116-25 (“Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts”) ¶¶ 146-55.

         After extensive discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment on June 30, 2017. Dkt. No. 109 (“Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment”). Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on July 31, 2017. Dkt. Nos. 116-1 (“Cross-Motion”), 116-26 (“Cross-Memorandum”). In addition to nominal damages, Plaintiff sought permanent injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment. Cross-Mot. at 2; Cross-Mem. at 26-29.

         On January 31, 2018, the Court granted Plaintiff's Cross-Motion as to Plaintiff's First Amendment claims against Defendants Locastro and Sweeny, awarding the requested $1 in nominal damages. Jan. 2018 Order at 44. The Court denied Plaintiff's requests for injunctive and declaratory relief. Id. The Court also granted Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's due process and Monell municipal liability claims, dismissing Syracuse and Chief Fowler as defendants. Jan. 2018 Order at 44. The Court deferred ruling on attorneys' fees and costs until further briefing. Id. at 43. Both parties have since filed notices of the appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Dkt. Nos. 132 and 134.

         With the fees and costs briefing now in hand, the Court turns to that issue.


         A. Jurisdiction Over Collateral Matters

         As a preliminary matter, the Court will address an issue not raised by either party, but is relevant to the procedural posture of the case. While both parties have filed notices of appeal, “a district court retains residual jurisdiction over collateral matters, including claims for attorneys' fees.” Tancredi v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 378 F.3d 220, 225 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Moreover, when presented with a motion for attorney's fees while an appeal is pending, a district court, in its discretion, may “rule on the claim for fees, . . . defer its ruling on the motion, or . . . deny the motion without prejudice[ ].” Id., at 226. To defer a ruling on the attorneys' fee issue until resolution of the pending cross-appeals, however, could prompt a second appellate challenge and, accordingly, run contrary to the Second Circuit's teaching that Rule 54(d) and its time limit for submitting fee applications are intended to avoid “piecemeal appeals” by consolidating appellate resolution of fee award disputes with other, substantive arguments raised on appeal. Id. at 227. While additional motion practice to address the issue of additional attorneys' fees incurred in connection with the pending appeal and any subsequent proceedings in this court may well be unavoidable, this possible eventuality does not provide a basis to defer ruling upon the pending fee application.

         B. Prevailing Party

         1. Legal Standard

         Under § 1988, “a court has discretion to ‘allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee' in a civil rights lawsuit filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” James v. City of Boise, Idaho, 136 S.Ct. 685, 686 (2016) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1988). “A plaintiff who has prevailed on a claim under § 1983 should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render an award unjust.” Orchano v. Advanced Recovery, Inc., 107 F.3d 94, 97 (2d Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). “[P]laintiffs may be considered ‘prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992). The Supreme Court has described this standard as “generous, ” such that nominal damages of one dollar are enough to bring the plaintiff across the “prevailing party” threshold. Id. at 112.

         2. Application

         As stated in the January 2018 Order, Plaintiff is “clearly the prevailing party in this case.” Jan. 2018 Order at 41. Defendants want to deny him all fees, suggesting that Plaintiff's victory in this case is purely technical or de minimis. Resp. at 2-3. While the Court declined to grant permanent injunctive or declaratory relief, and dismissed the City and Police Chief as defendants, the Plaintiff succeeded on a core issue of his case-he proved a violation of his First Amendment rights, albeit only by the Officers. For this constitutional violation, Plaintiff sought only $1 in nominal damages, and has been awarded that $1.

         Defendants, relying primarily on Alvarez v. City of New York, No. 11-CV-5464, 2017 WL 6033425, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 5, 2017), argue that when there are only nominal damages, a ground-breaking conclusion of law is a necessary condition for awarding attorney's fees. Resp. at 2. This requirement, however, applies only to cases where the Plaintiff initially sought a non-nominal remedy. The defendant in Alvarez sought considerable compensatory and punitive damages, and in fact rejected a settlement offer of $150, 001 on the eve of trial. Alvarez, 2017 WL 6033425 at *3. In that context, the $1 awarded to Alvarez could be deemed hollow. Here, however, Deferio largely got what he asked for. And an award of nominal damages “recognizes the importance to organized society that [constitutional] rights be scrupulously observed.” Memphis Comm. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 308 n.11 (1986).

         True, Plaintiff was denied permanent injunctive and declaratory relief, but he obtained the practical effect of such relief. The January 2018 Order delineates the deficiencies of Defendants' actions in 2014 and 2015 so they will not be repeated again. And there is no need for declaratory relief when the matter was resolved in the context of a claim for damages. Plaintiff's dismissed Monell and due process claims were of import in this action, but not so great as to turn Plaintiff's victory into a pyrrhic one.

         Given his degree of success, Plaintiff is a prevailing party entitled to attorneys' fees.

         C. Reasonable Attorneys' Fees

         As to the calculation of the attorneys' fees, “the lodestar-the product of a reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable number of hours required by the case-creates a presumptively reasonable fee.” Millea v. Metro-North R. Co., 658 F.3d 154, 166 (2d Cir. 2011). “[T]he 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.” Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 551 (2010). The Supreme Court has expressed a preference for the lodestar method over the twelve factor test enunciated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974). Perdue, 559 U.S. at 550.

         The burden is on the party seeking attorneys' fees to submit sufficient evidence to support the rates claimed and the hours worked. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The Court now ...

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