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Edwards v. Rogowski

March 18, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David H. Coar United States District Judge



After a four-day trial, a jury returned a verdict partially in favor of the plaintiffs in their civil-rights lawsuit against officers of the Melrose Park, Illinois police department. Following the verdict, the parties were unable to reach an agreement on attorneys' fees and costs. Pursuant to Local Rule 54.3, they have filed a joint statement cataloguing their disagreements. For the following reasons, the court GRANTS in part plaintiff Edwards's motion for attorney's fees and costs, awarding fees in the amount of $83,743 and costs in the amount of $2,102. The court also GRANTS in part the defendants' motion for costs, awarding them $178. The court DENIES defendant Negron's motion for costs.

I. Background

This case revolved around Donald Edwards's encounter with Melrose Park police officers on June 23, 2005, during an afternoon visit to his mother's home in the Melrose Commons Senior Residences. Edwards alleged that, without provocation, Officer Stephen Rogowski and two other officers dispersed oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray, at his face, tackled him to the ground, and beat him. His mother, Annie Brooks, observed the attack, which occurred outside her home. Edwards was arrested, and Officer Philip Negron drove him to a police station. There, Edwards alleged, he was handcuffed behind his back while officers slammed his face into a metal table and approximately six officers beat him until he was unconscious.

In the plaintiffs' complaint, Edwards advanced claims of excessive force and false arrest under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against defendants Rogowski, Negron, and Leslie Shankle, along with other, unnamed officers of the City of Melrose Park police department. He also alleged state-law claims against the officers for battery and malicious prosecution, and he advanced those same claims under a respondeat superior theory against the Village of Melrose Park. Finally, Brooks alleged state-law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Not all of these claims were presented to the jury. Prior to trial, Edwards voluntarily dismissed the false-arrest claim against Negron. On the second day of trial, the court granted Brooks's oral motion to voluntarily dismiss her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against Negron, and the court dismissed Edwards's claim of malicious prosecution against all defendants. On the third day of trial, the court directed a verdict in Negron's favor with respect to Edwards's excessive-force claims related to events occurring in the police station. Finally, the plaintiffs did not present their respondeat superior theory to the jury.

After the plaintiffs rested their case, they proposed a settlement for $60,000-$30,000 for the plaintiffs, and $30,000 in attorneys' fees. The defendants rejected the offer. During the plaintiffs' closing arguments, attorney Brendan Shiller asked the jury to award the plaintiffs the much higher sum of $500,000.

On February 28, 2008, the jury returned a mixed verdict. The jury found in Edwards's favor on the following claims: false arrest against Rogowski and Shankle; excessive force against Rogowski; and battery against Shankle and Rogowski. The jury found in favor of the defendant on Edwards's other claims-of excessive force against Shankle and Negron, and of battery against Negron. The jury also rejected plaintiff Brooks's claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Shankle and Rogowski. The jury awarded Edwards $29,500 in damages, of which $4,500 was compensatory and $25,000 was punitive.

The plaintiffs now move for attorneys' fees in the amount of $86,558, along with related nontaxable expenses of $2,346. Defendants contend that, if attorney's fees are awarded, they should total no more than $29,066, along with $1,727 in related non-taxable expenses. Defendants Rogowski, Shankle, and Negron also seek costs from plaintiff Brooks in the amount of $4,435, and Defendant Negron seeks the same amount from plaintiff Edwards.

II. Legal Standard

In a §1983 action, "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Meanwhile, "costs other than attorneys' fees shall be allowed as of course to the prevailing party unless the court otherwise directs." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1).

III. Analysis

As an initial matter, the defendants do not contest that Edwards prevailed. Because Edwards successfully proved the crux of his complaint-that he was deprived of his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from false arrest and excessive force-there is no doubt that he succeeded on a "significant issue" that achieved "some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992) (quotation marks and citation omitted).*fn1

The defendants do argue, though, that the jury awarded Edwards trivial relief ($29,500) given the amount the plaintiffs sought ($500,000). Because that award amounted to only 5% of the plaintiffs' request, defendants contend that the plaintiffs should be awarded $0, or a substantially reduced award, for their attorneys' efforts.

Ordinarily, a plaintiff who prevails in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit is entitled to a fee. See 42 U.S.C. §1988; Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). Nevertheless, "for trivial recoveries the only reasonable award of fees is zero." Fletcher v. City of Fort Wayne, 162 F.3d 975, 976 (7th Cir. 1998). In determining whether relief is trivial, the court must consider the difference between the judgment recovered and the recovery sought; the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed; and the public purpose served by the litigation. Fisher v. Kelly, 105 F.3d 350, 353 (7th Cir. 1997).

The jury's award of $29,500 is not trivial, and it does not warrant a significantly reduced fee, let alone an award of $0. First, the award primarily consists of punitive damages, which in and of itself demonstrates the plaintiffs' significant victory. See Thomas v. City of Tacoma, 410 F.3d 644, 648 (9th Cir. 2005)("The jury's award of punitive damages alone is sufficient to take it out of the nominal category.") Moreover, although $29,500 is only a small percentage of the amount the plaintiffs asked the jury to award, it is also nearly identical to the plaintiffs' settlement offer of $30,000 (excluding the $30,000 in fees). The defendants' refusal to pay that amount is additional evidence that the award is not trivial. Second, the legal issues on which the plaintiffs prevailed were indeed significant; Edwards successfully prosecuted both Fourth Amendment claims, thereby vindicating his constitutional rights. See City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 574 (1986). The award of punitive damages, moreover, reflects the significance of those constitutional deprivations in the eyes of the jury. Finally, the lawsuit served two important public purposes: it provided a vehicle for the jurors to convey the community's intolerance of the abusive tactics employed by the police in this case and, by recovering damages, Edwards contributed to the deterrence of future civil-rights violations. City of Riverside, 477 U.S. at 575. Accordingly, the court rejects the defendants' contention that $0, or a significantly reduced amount, should be awarded.

The defendants next argue that the court should not use the lodestar method to determine a reasonable fee. Instead, they say the court should award what the defendants assert is a typical contingency-fee rate of 25-40% of the recovery, which would mean a total fee award of between $7,375 and $11,800. Their argument is that, because the plaintiffs' attorneys have no paying clients, a contingency fee best represents the market rate for their services.

There is a "strong presumption" that the lodestar represents the "reasonable" fee for an attorney's services. City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562 (1992); JCW Invs., Inc. v. Novelty, Inc., 482 F.3d 910, 920 (7th Cir. 2007). And, although the court may consider an attorney's contingency-fee arrangement, it "does not impose an automatic ceiling on an award of attorney's fees." Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 93 (1989); see Webb v. James, 147 F.3d 617, 623 (7th Cir. 1998).

The defendants have not offered a persuasive reason to jettison the lodestar method and instead award an estimated contingency fee. The defendants contend only that doing so would best reflect the "market" rate for the attorneys' services. But that ignores the fact that, "were it not for the expectation of an additional, court-ordered award if the suit was successful but yielded little in the way of damages, the plaintiff might not have been able to interest a lawyer in taking the case in the first place." JCW Invs., 482 F.3d at 921 (quotation marks and citations omitted). Because the contingency-fee arrangement has limited relevance in establishing a market rate, the court will proceed with a lodestar calculation.

To calculate the lodestar amount, the court must multiply (1) the reasonable hours expended by plaintiffs' attorneys by (2) the market rate for their services. Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Auth., 491 F.3d 649, 659 (7th Cir. 2007). The court begins with the market rate.

A. Market Rate

"The market rate is the rate that lawyers of similar ability and experience in the community normally charge their paying clients for the type of work in question." Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). It is the plaintiff's attorney's burden to prove the market rate; she can do so by submitting evidence of her actual billing rate for comparable work, affidavits from similarly experienced attorneys attesting to the rates they charge clients for similar work, or evidence of fee awards she has received in similar cases. See id. at 659-60; People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Ed., 90 F.3d 1307, 1311-12 (7th Cir. 1996). The attorney may not simply attest that her requested rate is the market rate. Spegon v. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 554-56 (7th Cir. 1999). If ...

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