Ford v. Cnty. of Hudson, Civ. No. 07-5002 (KM) (SCM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtKEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.
PartiesHELEN FORD, Plaintiff, v. COUNTY OF HUDSON, HUDSON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, OSCAR AVILES, and DAVID KRUSZNIS, Defendants.
Decision Date08 March 2017
Docket NumberCiv. No. 07-5002 (KM) (SCM)

HELEN FORD, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF HUDSON,
HUDSON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS,
OSCAR AVILES, and DAVID KRUSZNIS, Defendants.

Civ. No. 07-5002 (KM) (SCM)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

March 8, 2017


OPINION

KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:

A jury awarded the plaintiff, Helen Ford ("Ford"), $39,338 in damages on a small portion of the claims asserted. Now, as a prevailing party, she moves for an award of attorney's fees in the amount of $702,303, plus a 40% contingency enhancement. Ford also seeks $94,337 in litigation costs, $15,070 in prejudgment interest, and post-judgment interest.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court awards Ford attorney's fees (including a 5% contingency enhancement) in the amount of $262,540, costs in the amount of $46,787, and prejudgment interest in an amount to be determined. Post-judgment interest shall accrue at the statutory rate. See 28 U.S.C. § 1961(a).

I. BACKGROUND

Because I write for the parties, I summarize the facts and history of the case only briefly. Ford, who was employed by the Hudson County Correctional Center, was suspended and terminated in March 2006 based on disciplinary charges. Ford appealed that 2006 suspension and termination within the Civil Service ("CSC") system. The State ALJ found that the 2006 disciplinary charges leading to Ford's suspension/termination were not supported by sufficient

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evidence, awarded approximately $78,000 in backpay, and required that Ford be restored to her position. (See Trial Ex. P-19, ECF no. 271-4 at 27)

On October 17, 2007, Ford filed her original complaint in this action. (ECF no. 1, referred to herein as the "Complaint")1 She sued two supervisors and Hudson County (the "County") for retaliation and workplace gender discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983; the New Jersey Civil Rights Act ("NJCRA"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:6-2; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-1. The original complaint was based on Ford's March 2006 suspension and termination. It also contained more general allegations of discrimination in the workplace.

Ford returned to work, pursuant to the ALJ's order of reinstatement, in September 2009. On November 16, 2010, Ford filed a Supplemental Pleading (ECF no. 47) which added allegations dating from the period after her reinstatement in September 2009. Her supervisors and the County, she alleged, bore responsibility for a series of discriminatory or retaliatory acts, including those of nonparties Lt. Ronald Edwards and Officer Brian Coyne.

This protracted case was thoroughly and vigorously litigated, through the discovery process and beyond. The allegations were both broad and detailed, covering a decade; they ranged from the serious to the fairly minor.

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Trial commenced on January 19, 2016, and lasted over five weeks. The jury, after a day and a half of deliberations, returned its verdict on February 25, 2016. Exercising its fact-finding role to assess the credibility of evidence and witnesses, including plaintiff herself, the jury rejected outright most of Ford's claims. As to Deputy Warden David Krusznis, the jury denied all claims. As to Director Oscar Aviles, the jury found only that he was liable as supervisor for Edwards's discriminatory denial of Ford's request to attend a Microsoft training seminar, while permitting a male officer to attend, and that he was accountable for 10% of the emotional damages assessed. As to the County, the jury imposed Monell liability for failure to train, supervise, or enforce its policies. The jury handed down a damages award totaling $39,338.75.

On March 14, 2016, judgment was entered in accordance with the jury's verdict. (ECF no. 248) Because defendant Krusznis was not found liable on any claim, a no-cause judgment was entered as to him. Because Aviles had been found liable only for 10% of the $30,000 in emotional damages, judgment was entered against him in the amount of $3000. Because the County was found liable for the remaining 90% of the emotional damages ($27,000), plus 100% of the economic damages ($9338.75), judgment was entered against the County in a total amount of $36,338.75. The damages award thus totaled $39,338.75.

II. ATTORNEY'S FEES

A. Ford's Entitlement to Attorney's Fees

The usual American Rule is that the parties shall bear their own attorney's fees. Several federal and state fee-shifting statutes, however, authorize courts to award a "reasonable attorney's fee" to the "prevailing party" in civil rights and discrimination actions.2

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A plaintiff is a "prevailing party" entitled to an attorney's fee where she "succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1937 (1983). Although Ford did not succeed on most of her claims, the jury did find defendant Aviles liable as a supervisor for a subordinate's discriminatory act, and found the County liable for failure to train, supervise, or enforce policies. To that extent, then, Ford is a prevailing party entitled to reasonable attorney's fees under (1) Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k); (2) Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988; (3) the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-27.1; and (4) the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:6-2(f).3

B. Reasonable Attorney's Fees and Costs

Hensley v. Eckerhart sets a generous standard for determining whether the plaintiff will be awarded an attorney's fee at all. The next step, however, is for the district court to determine what fee amount is "reasonable" under the circumstances. Id. "Federal and state law on attorney's fee awards is generally similar, with the major exception of the contingency enhancement [discussed below in Section II.B.3], which is only available under state law." Blakey v. Cont'l Airlines, Inc., 2 F. Supp. 2d 598, 602 (D.N.J. 1998).

"The starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the lodestar, which courts determine by calculating the 'number of hours

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reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." McKenna v. City of Philadelphia, 582 F.3d 447, 455 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433); Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 334-35, 661 A.2d 1202, 1226 (1995) (discussing NJLAD and other state fee-shifting statutes). However, the circumstances, especially the "results obtained," may warrant upward or downward adjustment.4 Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. I consider first the hourly rate, and second, the number of hours reasonably expended in achieving the result.

1. Reasonable Hourly Rate

"In determining a reasonable hourly rate, the court should assess the skill and experience of the prevailing attorneys and compare their rates to the rates in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation." Blakey, 2 F. Supp. 2d at 602 (citing Rendine, 141 N.J. at 337, 661 A.2d 1202). "Furthermore, to take into account delay in payment, the hourly rate should be based on current rates rather than the rates in effect when the services were performed." Id. (same).

Ford's attorney, D. Gayle Loftis, Esq., seeks an award of fees for herself and another attorney at the following hourly rates:

Requested Rate
D. Gayle Loftis (Lead Counsel)
$450
Timothy J. Foley5
$150

The defendants do not maintain that $450/hour is excessive in relation to prevailing rates.6 Rather, they note that this is not Loftis's actual rate; she is

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not entitled, they say, to charge them an hourly rate in excess of the $400/hour that she actually charges clients, as reflected in her billing records. (County Opp. 4 n.2) Loftis concedes that her current hourly rate is $400, not the requested $450. (Pl. Mot. 8) Loftis will not be awarded fees at a rate higher than the one she billed in this case, or the one she currently bills paying clients.

Further, the defendants contend that Loftis's maximum rate should apply only to her appearances for trial and motion hearings; a lesser rate, they say, should apply to "work that was more appropriately performed by an associate or a paralegal." (Aviles Opp. 8-9)7 Loftis first responds that the defendants have not suggested any alternative hourly rate schedule for less complex tasks. Second, she contends that this Court should not penalize her for handling the case on her own. Hiring temporary staff, she notes, would have been an out-of-pocket expense, incurred in a case where she was at risk of recovering nothing. Further, she says, "civil rights and employment litigation requires a specific knowledge of federal and state statutory law and federal procedural law that is not easily obtained or likely to be found in temporary staff." (Pl. Reply 6-7)

I agree that I may not fault a solo practitioner for being a solo practitioner. And although a solo attorney is not compelled to charge her full rate for all tasks, I must concede that it is common for attorneys to charge a blanket hourly rate.

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Ultimately, however, I am moved to apply a $400 rate across the board to Ms. Loftis's hours because the defendants have not suggested any concrete alternative. "[O]nce a prevailing party has produced 'sufficient evidence of what constitutes a reasonable market rate for the essential character and complexity of the legal services rendered in order to make out a prima facie case[,] . . . the opposing party bears the burden of producing record evidence that will contest this rate.'" McCutcheon v. Am.'s Servicing Co., 560 F.3d 143, 150 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Lanni v. New Jersey, 259 F.3d 146, 149 (3d Cir. 2001)). Ford has produced sufficient evidence demonstrating that the rate she actually charges, $400/hour, is a reasonable one for her services. Even...

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