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Flanagan v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County

September 28, 2009

KIMBERLY FLANAGAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OFFICE OF THE CHIEF JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY, ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In August 2002, Plaintiff Kimberly Flanagan filed a charge of employment discrimination against her employer, the Cook County Adult Probation Department ("Adult Probation Department") with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Flanagan, a probation officer, alleged that managers in the Adult Probation Department had discriminated against her on the basis of her race and gender by failing to promote her and by failing to assign her to a weapons-carrying unit. After receiving notification of her right to sue from the EEOC, Plaintiff filed a complaint of race and sex discrimination against Defendant, the Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois ("Cook County"), in this court in December 2002. In March 2006, she filed a second lawsuit, alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The two cases were consolidated, and, following a 10-day trial, a jury returned a verdict for Defendant on the sex discrimination claim, but found for Flanagan on the retaliation claim.

Plaintiff now moves for attorneys' fees and costs as a "prevailing party" under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act of 1976. Defendant does not object to Plaintiff's petition in its entirety. Rather, Defendant opposes Plaintiff's motion to the extent that Flanagan seeks remuneration for work on her unsuccessful discrimination claims as well as her successful retaliation claim. Defendant contends that Plaintiff is entitled to no more than $149,768.62. As explained here, the court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to remuneration for her reasonable attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $230,188.42.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Kimberly Flanagan, an African-American woman, was hired as a probation officer for the Cook County Adult Probation Department (a unit of the Circuit Court of Cook County) in February 1999. (Flanagan, 1/23/07 p.m. Trial Tr. 20:10-12.) On August 28, 2002, Plaintiff filed charges of race and sex discrimination against Cook County with the EEOC. On December 18, 2002, after receiving notification of her right to sue, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court, alleging that Cook County discriminated against her based on her race and sex by failing to promote her or transfer her to one of several weapons-carrying units within the Adult Probation Department. (Flanagan v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Case No. 02-cv-9190, Compl. at 4-6.) Flanagan further alleged that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her race and sex by refusing her repeated requests for transfer, by imposing unfair conditions on her weapons qualification tests, and by conducting improper psychological testing to justify its refusal to transfer her. (Id. at 8-9.) On July 12, 2004, Judge Plunkett granted summary judgment in Defendant's favor on Plaintiff's race discrimination claim, but found disputes of material fact requiring a trial on her sex discrimination claim. (Case No. 02-cv-09190, Minute Order, D.E. 34.)*fn1

While her discrimination claim was pending, Flanagan continued to work for the Adult Probation Department, where she experienced what she regarded as retaliation in response to her discrimination suit. She filed a second complaint in this court on March 6, 2006, against Cook County and four of its employees: Donna Vaughan, Carolyn Lisle, Phil Loizon, and Michael Dickerson. Flanagan v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Case No. 06-cv-1462. In her 2006 complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Cook County and the individually-named Defendants had subjected her to "heightened scrutiny, harassment, and disciplinary action" as the result of her initial discrimination suit. (Case No. 06-cv-1462, Compl. at 4.) On April 21, 2006, Judge Plunkett granted Plaintiff's motion for consolidation of the sex discrimination claim and retaliation claim. (Case No. 02-cv-09190, Minute Entry, D.E. 71.) The consolidated cases were reassigned to this court. The court dismissed Flanagan's claims against the individual Defendants-Vaughan, Lisle, Loizon, and Dickerson-in their individual capacities on January 17, 2007 on grounds of qualified immunity. (Case No. 02-cv-09190, Order, D.E. 82.) The court denied Defendants' motion to sever the discrimination claims from the retaliation claims, however, (Case No. 02-cv-09190, Minute Entry, D.E. 78), and the consolidated claims were tried to a jury in January 2007. (Case No. 06-cv-1462, Minute Entry, D.E. 46.)

In light of the parties' dispute about the attorney time for which Flanagan is entitled to compensation, the court reviews the trial evidence briefly. Flanagan presented evidence of what she claimed was retaliatory conduct that began on March 17, 2004. The first incident was a confrontation between Flanagan and then-Chief Probation Officer Veronica Ballard. During a training session, Flanagan made comments in which she expressed doubts about the value of a new training program and characterized probation officers as "law enforcement" officers. (Harris, 1/22/07 p.m. Trial Tr. 78:25-79:11.) An internal debate about whether probation officers were meant to enforce the law or facilitate rehabilitation had long divided the Adult Probation Department. Ballard responded-in the hearing of the entire group-that if Flanagan "did not like what she [Ballard] was telling her, that she [Flanagan] needed to find a new job." (Harris, 1/22/07 p.m. Trial Tr. 79:12-18). Ballard and Flanagan clashed further at a subsequent meeting when Ballard accused Flanagan of being inattentive during the training session and told her that "she couldn't stand her." (Lisle 1/17/07 Trial Tr. 111:8-112-3; 51:17-52:3; Harris 1/22/07 p.m. Trial Tr. 83:15-84:5).

In her testimony, Flanagan described several other incidents that followed the Ballard encounter.*fn2 Defendant attempted to impeach this testimony (see e.g., Flanagan 1/23/07 p.m. Trial Tr. 794-97; 1/24/07 a.m. Trial Tr. 850-852) and called witnesses to rebut it. The jury ultimately found in favor of Defendant Cook County on Flanagan's sex discrimination claim, but ruled for Flanagan on the retaliation claim, awarding her $205,000. (Judgment in Civil Case No. 02-cv-9190, dated 1/29/07; Case No. 06-cv-1462, Order, D.E. 53; Verdict Form, D.E. 54.) The court later remitted the award to $75,000, which Plaintiff accepted. (Case No. 06-cv-1462 Order, D.E. 85; Minute Entry D.E. 87.) She now seeks an award of her reasonable attorneys' fees and costs under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act of 1976. 42 U.S.C. §1988.

DISCUSSION

Legal Standards Governing Fee Awards

The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. §1988, authorizes district courts to award reasonable attorneys' fees to "prevailing" parties in civil rights litigation. Status as a prevailing party is a threshold question under § 1988. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). The relevant inquiry is whether the Plaintiff "has succeeded on 'any significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit.'" Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Ind. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989). The parties do not dispute that the Plaintiff is a prevailing party for the purposes of § 1988, but Defendant argues that the amount she is entitled to recover must be reduced to account for the fact that she prevailed only on her retaliation claim.

In assessing this dispute, the court notes, first, that "there is no precise rule or formula" for making reasonable fees determinations. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. Nevertheless, the court's discretion is subject to recognized principles. "[I]t remains important . . . for the district court to provide a concise but clear explanation of its reasons for the fee award . . . . [T]he district court should make clear that it has considered the relationship between the amount of the fee awarded and the results obtained." Id. The "most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id. at 433. This calculation results in the lodestar amount, which the court may adjust upward or downward based on other considerations that are unique and specific to the case at hand. Id. Among the factors the court considers are those identified in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (5th Cir. 1974), and cited with approval in Hensley itself. 461 U.S. at 429-30.*fn3

When, as in this case, a plaintiff has been successful on some claims and unsuccessful on others, the crucial question is whether her successful and unsuccessful claims are related. "[W]here a claim on which a plaintiff won is unrelated to a claim on which she lost, the plaintiff should not recover for the unsuccessful claim." Merriweather v. Family Dollar Stores of Indiana, Inc., 103 F.3d 576, 583 (7th Cir. 1996). To put it another way, "a plaintiff who fails to prevail on a claim distinct from her other claims is not entitled to remuneration for unsuccessful work." Id., citing Kurowski v. Krajewski, 848 F.2d 767, 776 (7th Cir. 1988). The Seventh Circuit has explained that a "separate claim is an argument for additional relief for a distinct wrong." Wade v. Soo Line Railroad Corp., 500 F.3d 559, 563 (7th Cir. 2007). Where the plaintiff presents distinctly different claims for relief that are ...


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