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Callaghan v. City of South Portland

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

March 31, 2014

KAREN CALLAGHAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF SOUTH PORTLAND, Defendant

ORDER

Thomas D. Warren, Justice, Superior Court.

Before the court is plaintiffs' application for attorneys fees. Specifically, the plaintiffs are seeking an award of fees and costs in a total amount of $85, 204.40. This includes their original request for attorney's fees and costs of $81, 296.90, plus an additional amount of $3, 907.50 sought for their work in responding to the City's objections to their original fee request.

The parties appear to agree that, as prevailing parties on constitutional claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiffs are entitled to their reasonable attorneys fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. What constitutes a reasonable fee is determined through the lodestar method -- determining the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Torres-Rivera v. O'Neill-Cancel, 524 F.3d 331, 336 (1st Cir. 2008).[1]

In determining the lodestar, the court may eliminate time that was " unreasonably, unnecessarily, or inefficiently devoted to the case" and may disallow hours claimed " if it determines that the time is insufficiently documented." Torres-Rivera v. O'Neill-Cancel, 524 F.3d at 336, citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-34; Bangs v. Town of Wells, 2003 ME 129 ¶ 20, 834 A.2d 955. The court must also consider the results obtained and adjust the fee award downward if time was spent on unsuccessful claims. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-35. Bangs v. Town of Wells, 2003 ME 129 ¶ 20.

In this case the City contends that the award to plaintiffs for fees and costs should be reduced to somewhere in the neighborhood of $16, 700 -- a reduction amounting to approximately 80 percent of the amount sought. The City contends (1) that many of the hours of work for which fees have been sought were excessive, redundant, or unnecessary, (2) that the time for which fees are sought has been inadequately documented, (3) that the hourly rate sought by plaintiffs is too high, and (4) that the fee award should be reduced by what the City characterizes as plaintiffs' limited success in the lawsuit.

Each of the City's criticisms is considered below. On all these issues, it bears emphasis that, as the Supreme Court has observed, the essential goal " is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection." Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2216 (2011).

1. Successful Outcome

The City's first argument that plaintiffs achieved only limited success in this action is based on the Law Court's ruling that the relief should be limited to the two named plaintiffs. Callaghan v. City of South Portland, 2013 ME 78 ¶ ¶ 35-36.

Plaintiffs originally sought injunctive relief precluding the City from enforcing the challenged personnel policy as against the two plaintiffs and a declaratory judgment declaring the policy unconstitutional as applied to any city employees seeking nomination or election to the School Board or engaging in campaign activity in connection with School Board elections.[2] This court, in ruling for plaintiffs, granted declaratory and injunctive relief that was not limited to the two named plaintiffs. Such relief was granted because at no point during the original Superior Court proceedings did the City raise an argument that if any relief were awarded, it should be limited to the two named plaintiffs.

The court has reviewed the briefs on appeal as well as the memoranda of law filed in this court and can find no argument or discussion by either plaintiffs or the City relating to whether relief should be limited to the two named plaintiffs. At all times both parties focused solely on the merits of the constitutional claims.

What this means is that none of the time spent by plaintiffs' counsel can be ascribed to the broader relief which the Law Court vacated after affirming the relief awarded to the individual plaintiffs. As a result, the court cannot reduce plaintiffs' award based on time spent on unsuccessful claims.

The City's second argument with respect to lack of success is that since relief ultimately was only awarded to the two named plaintiffs and one of the two named plaintiffs has now left City employment, the societal importance of the rights vindicated here was " virtually absent." City's Opposition to Motion for Attorneys Fees dated January 10, 2014 at 14-15. The problem with this argument is that the City strenuously litigated every aspect of this case, moving for reconsideration before the Law Court even after relief had been limited to the two named plaintiffs and then seeking to have the decision vacated on remand. The court can only assume that this was because of the precedential effect of the Law Court's ruling -- even after the only specific relief awarded was limited to the named plaintiffs.

Given that the City defended this case with such vigor, the court cannot agree with its subsequent attempt to downplay the success achieved. No reduction in the attorneys fee award will be made based on the City's contention that only limited success was achieved.

2. Allegedly Redundant or Unnecessary Work

The City challenges certain specific categories of the time spent by David Lourie, trial and appellate counsel for plaintiff, as redundant, duplicative, or unnecessary. According to the court's calculations, Mr. Lourie is seeking compensation for 215.8 hours not including time spent in ...


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