9710196, Cooper, et al. v. Gorski, Ruling on Motion for Attorneys Fees
CHRO #9710196 and : #9710197
Remand Case: Ricky and Regina Cooper, et al.
Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities ex rel. Ricky and Regina Cooper, Complainants
Andrew and Hanna Gorski, Respondents
April 16, 2001
RULING ON MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS FEES
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
On January 5, 2001, the undersigned issued a decision in the above-referenced remand case in favor of the Complainants, awarding them $5,000.00 as compensation for their emotional distress damages. Subsequent to this decision, on January 18, 2001, the Complainants filed a Petition for Reconsideration in which they sought modification of the decision in the form of a request for attorney’s fees and costs.
This Petition for Reconsideration was granted on January 31, and the Complainants were given 30 days to file Motions for attorneys’ fees and costs along with supporting documentation. On March 2, 2001, the Complainants filed their Motion and attached to it a memorandum of law in support thereof, along with an affidavit concerning the fees and costs claimed. Complainants seek an award of $20,000.00 for attorney’s fees.
In response to this Motion the Respondents filed an Objection on March 8, 2001 asserting six (6) grounds for objecting to this request. Both the Motion and Objection were filed in a timely manner, consistent with the undersigned’s Ruling of January 31, and thus are properly before me.
Conn. Gen. Statutes § 46a-86(c) provides that "upon a finding of a discriminatory practice prohibited by (this) section … the presiding officer shall (emphasis added) determine the damage suffered by the Complainant, which damage shall include … and shall allow (emphasis added) reasonable attorneys fees and costs." "Where the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous … we need look no further than the words themselves," Cashman v. Cashman, 41 Conn. Ap. 382, 385-6 (1996), and in this instance that language is plain and directory. A violation of C.G.S. § 46a-64(c) does indeed expose Respondents to attorneys’ fees pursuant to its clear language.
Thus, the issue before me is not whether attorneys’ fees should be awarded, but how much. The statute says they should be "reasonable," which naturally means that they are extremely fact dependent on a given case. In this matter, the Complainants were individually represented by the Civil Rights Clinic of the University of Connecticut Law School.
The objection to the Motion contains largely generalized attacks on the attorneys fees request. Those numbered No. 4 and No. 5 deal with the representation of the complainants by the Civil Rights Law Clinic. The fact that the latter is a non-profit legal organization does not advance Respondent’s claims, as it has been held that attorneys’ fees are appropriate in such circumstances. See Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 (1983); Miele v. New York State Teamsters Conf. Pension & Retirement Fund, 831 F.2d 407, 409 (2nd Cir. 1987) ("prevailing market rates are fully applicable to fee awards to non-profit organizations"). As noted by the Complainants, CHRO hearing officers have in fact made awards to the Civil Rights Clinic in previous cases. See CHRO ex rel. Gonzalez v. Murphy, Case No. 9510408 (Aug. 5, 1998). Thus, there is no sound basis for enumerated objection No. 4.
In their objection No. 5, the Respondents essentially reiterate, with specific application to the Law Clinic, their general contention that the requested attorneys fees are excessive and unreasonable in light of the nature of the case (see objections 1, 2, and 3). The undersigned finds some merit in this contention, which will be discussed more extensively hereinafter.
Respondents also claim (Objection No. 6) that the "fees claimed are wholly disproportionate to the $5,000.00 award, thereby becoming punitive in nature". However accurate this description may be, the Respondents do not cite any legal authority which ties attorneys fees to the damage awarded complainants in cases such as this one. The Complainants, on the other hand, cite City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561 *1986) in support of the proposition that there is no rule of proportionality applicable in cases where damages are awarded to civil rights plaintiffs. Thus, the Respondents objection in No. 6 is also without merit.
The Courts have generally used as the "lodestar" figure in determining an award of reasonable attorneys fees the number of hours spent by the attorneys multiplied by the relevant market rate. See Henry v. Webermeier, 738 F.2d 188 (7th Cir. 1984). The hourly market rate "should be the rate charged by attorneys of similar skill and experience doing substantially similar litigation" Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 895, 896. In this case, the Complainants are seeking $200.00/hr. for the attorneys’ time and $60.00/hr. for law student time. As such, these rates seem reasonable to me based on my knowledge of the fees charged for such services in this area. They also appear to be judicially recognized as reasonable. See Skubel v. Sullivan, 1998 WL 136176 (D.Conn. March 11, 1998).
The Complainants have submitted a thorough and meticulous itemization of the time spent on this file, and have even broken out these hours by category of work performed (See "Attorney and Law Student Hours for Each Category of Work Performed" p.3 Affidavit of Jon Bauer). It is difficult, therefore, under these circumstances to challenge the claim presented as to the hours of work dedicated to this case (i.e., performed).
Nonetheless, it is hard not to agree with the Respondents that the total amount of time spent is wholly disproportionate to the complexity – or lack thereof – of this case. A grand total of 512.3 hours does indeed seem excessive when measured against the requirements of a two-day trial involving a relatively limited number of witnesses. The events crucial to the outcome of the case revolved around one meeting of less than an hour at the Respondents apartment (See Jan. 5, 2001 decision).
It is hard to reconcile these facts. For example, 53.8 hours appears much too high for "case planning: analyzing evidence, developing legal theories and strategy" (Bauer affidavit p.3). Similarly, a total of 176.3 hours certainly seems excessive for "trial preparation," as does 122 hours for the Post Hearing Brief. The Complainants would appear to recognize this because their own calculations would have resulted in attorneys fees of $45,064.00 (Complainants Memorandum of Law p.4). There is no doubt that such a figure would be excessive, and this clearly explains their reducing their request to $20,000.00. Pro-rating this figure (approximately 44%) to the hours claimed devoted to the case would result in 45 hours of attorneys time and approximately 180 hours for law student time, assuming the same hourly rate was used (i.e., a total of 225 hours vis a vis 512 hours).
Although even the latter figure seems somewhat high to the undersigned, it does not appear to be unreasonably so, particularly in light of the detailed time sheet information provided in support of the request. Therefore, based on the submissions before me, I find the attorneys fee request, as modified (reduced), to be reasonable, albeit perhaps barely so.
The decision rendered by me on January 5, 2001 is amended to award, in addition to the $5,000 in emotional distress damages, the sum of $20,000.00 as reasonable attorneys fees pursuant to C.G.S. § 46a-86(c).
DATED AT HARTFORD, CT this 16th day of April, 2001.
Hon. Gordon T. Allen
Presiding Human Rights Referee
Regina & Ricky Cooper
Jon Bauer, Esq. & Paul Chill, Esq.
Andrew & Hanna Gorski
Daniel A. Silver, Esq.
Philip A. Murphy, Commission Counsel
David Teed, Assistant Attorney General & Emily Melendez, Assistant Attorney General