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Nanetti v. University of Illinois at Chicago

decided: January 31, 1989.

RAFAELLA Y. NANETTI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT CHICAGO, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 85 C 9874--Brian Barnett Duff, Judge.

Wood, Jr., Easterbrook, Circuit Judges and Gordon, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Wood

WOOD, JR., Circuit Judge.

After two tenure reviews and the filing of a sex discrimination suit under TItle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Plaintiff Rafaella Y. Nanetti received a tenure offer from the University of Illinois at Chicago (the University). Nanetti did not receive, and seeks now, the payment of her attorneys' fees.

The parties settled the discrimination suit, after the University offered Nanetti tenure at a salary of $34,720, but reserved the issue of attorneys' fees for the district court to determine. The University argued that Nanetti is not a prevailing party for purposes of obtaining attorneys' fees under Title VII. The district court agreed with the University and also held that, even if she had prevailed, her fees were unreasonable. We find that Nanetti prevailed with regard to a salary increase but not with regard to the grant of tenure. We also find that the fees incurred on the successful claim were not unreasonable for the reason stated by the district court. We therefore reverse and remand to the district court to determine the sum of fees that Nanetti reasonably incurred to obtain the salary increase.

I. FACTS

Nanetti joined the faculty of the University's School of Urban Planning and Policy in 1978 and came before the University's three tenure committees in the academic year 1983-84. At this first tenure review, a split developed between the members of the three reviewing committees and the administrative officers who headed the committees. Each committee recommended tenure while each of the three administrative officers voted against tenure. Because the split was controversial, the chancellor's office in April 1984 ordered the tenure committees to review Nanetti a second time, after her return from a fellowship at Oxford University in England. The chancellor's office described this second shot at tenure as "exceptional steps" in the tenure process.

Nevertheless, Nanetti hired an attorney in June 1984 and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Her attorney attempted to persuade the chancellor to reconsider his final decision on Nanetti's tenure, and failing that, to change the tenure process itself--all these efforts were to no avail. Nanetti then obtained authority from the EEOC to file suit against the University and filed a complaint in November 1985. Nanetti took no further legal action until the entry of the settlement.

At the second tenure review in May and June of 1986, Nanetti quickly received approval for tenure. The school director recommended a salary of $31,086. Nanetti's attorney demanded that the University award back pay to Nanetti, increase her salary to the same amount she would have obtained had the University given her tenure in 1984, and also pay her attorneys' fees. The parties settled the discrimination suit at a salary of $34,720 in September 1986 but left open for litigation the question of attorneys' fees. Nanetti brought this suit for attorneys' fees under Title VII.

The district court denied attorneys' fees because Nanetti was not a prevailing party, and even if she was, "her legal fees were not reasonably incurred." Nanetti appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Prevailing Party

A prevailing party in a Title VII lawsuit is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees and costs reasonably incurred. 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-5(k) (1982).*fn1 "'Plaintiffs 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.'" Busche v. Burkee, 649 F.2d 509, 521 (7th Cir. 1981) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir. 1978)), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 897 (1981). Thus, a party may prevail through settlement. Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129, 65 L. Ed. 2d 653, 100 S. Ct. 2570 (1980); Harrington v. DeVito, 656 F.2d 264, 266 (7th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 993, 102 S. Ct. 1621, 71 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1982). When a party claims that she prevailed through settlement prior to full litigation on the merits, we apply a two-part test:

To prevail in a settled case, the plaintiffs' lawsuit must be causally linked to the achievement of the relief obtained. Secondly, the defendant must not have acted wholly gratuitously, i.e., the plaintiffs' claims, if ...


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