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Sottoriva v. Claps

August 17, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 3:06-cv-03118-Jeanne E. Scott, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.


Before RIPPLE, KANNE, and SYKES,Circuit Judges.

Joseph A. Sottoriva, an employee of the Illinois Department of Human Rights (the "Department"), filed a three-count complaint against Rocco Claps, the Director of the Department, and Daniel Hynes, the Comptroller of the State of Illinois. Sottoriva alleged that Claps and Hynes violated his due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by withholding portions of his salary without an adequate hearing. Sottoriva sought injunctive relief and money damages. Sottoriva also accused Claps of violating Illinois' State Finance Act. On summary judgment, Sottoriva obtained limited injunctive relief on his due-process claim. Sottoriva's state-law claim did not survive summary judgment because it was jurisdictionally barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and he later withdrew his claim for money damages. Sottoriva then filed a petition for attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Accounting for Sottoriva's partial success, the district court reduced his fee award by 67%. Sottoriva now*fn1 appeals on the sole ground that this reduction in fees constituted an abuse of discretion. We conclude that the district court provided insufficient reasoning in support of its judgment; therefore, we vacate the order of the district court and remand for further consideration.

I. Background

Sottoriva began his employment with the Illinois Department of Human Rights in 1996. He was also a member of the United States Army Reserve, and along with many other reservists, was mobilized to active duty in the run-up to the Iraq War. From January 17, 2003, to August 17, 2004, Sottoriva was on leave from the Department as he discharged his military obligation, yet he remained on the Department's payroll during this entire period. On February 7, 2003, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich issued Executive Order 2003-6, which was designed to ensure no full-time employee of the State of Illinois would be penalized financially as a result of being called up to active duty in response to the Iraq War. This directive provided that any such employee would continue to receive his regular compensation as a State employee, plus benefits, but minus the base pay received for military service. Thus, the Department had a continuing financial obligation to Sottoriva provided that his military salary did not exceed his pre-existing compensation package from the State.

The Department had some difficulty in comparing Sottoriva's military pay with the State pay he would have earned during the same time period; the Army and Illinois used different pay periods and there were additional complications in accounting for benefits (Sottoriva elected to keep his State health plan) and taxes. As a result, the Department was unable to properly calculate how much compensation, if any, Sottoriva was entitled to on top of his military salary, and through no apparent fault of his own, Sottoriva was consistently overpaid throughout his tenure on active duty. Both Sottoriva and the Department recognized this "glitch" early on but were unable to resolve the problem.

In April 2004, as his tour of duty was nearing an end, Sottoriva received an email from the Department informing him that if he returned to work by July 1, he would owe $17,982.47 in excess payments. Sottoriva returned to work on August 25, and shortly thereafter he filed a union grievance pertaining to his overpayment. Sottoriva sought (1) a written accounting of what he was supposedly overpaid; (2) a waiver of the alleged overpayment of $17,982.47 based on the Department's administrative error; and (3) amended and accurate W-2 Forms for 2003 and 2004 to account for the fact that he paid taxes on income he was now being asked to return.

On May 23, 2005, the union and the Department resolved the grievance prior to arbitration by agreeing that Sottoriva needed to repay the overpayment of $17,982.47 to the Department. Sottoriva was not at this meeting and apparently had no advance warning that the meeting was to take place. The union and the Depart-ment also agreed to develop a payment plan over the summer. On August 30, 2005, during negotiations over the repayment plan, the Department informed Sottoriva's union representative that the Department had now calculated that Sottoriva in fact owed $24,105.03 in excess pay. At a September 1 meeting, the Department*fn2 presented Sottoriva with three optional repayment schedules and one involuntary withholding proposal. Sottoriva, through his counsel, disputed the amount he was now being asked to repay and demanded to inspect any documentation supporting this new number.

The Department sent copies of Sottoriva's pay records to the union representative, but it declined all requests for a further hearing that would enable Sottoriva to dispute the new sum.

Sottoriva did not select any of the three optional repayment plans, so on September 15 Claps, the Director of the Department, submitted an "Involuntary Withholding Request" to Hynes, the State Comptroller. The request sought to withhold $24,105.03 from Sottoriva over the course of many pay periods. On September 26 Hynes sent Sottoriva notice of this request and informed him that the withholding would begin immediately. This notice also informed Sottoriva of his right to file a formal protest of the withholding. Sottoriva filed such a protest, and on February 17, 2006, the Office of the Comptroller sent the Department a letter stating that it would no longer withhold the requested funds from Sottoriva's paycheck due to a "concern[] about the adequacy of the Department's proceedings held to establish the amount of debt owed by Mr. Sottoriva."

Beginning in May, the Department began withholding money from Sottoriva directly by simply manipulating Sottoriva's base pay rate. Sottoriva was informed of this decision before it happened, but the Comptroller had no internal mechanisms for challenging the legitimacy of base pay received (as opposed to withholdings). Sottoriva thereafter filed his three-count complaint against Claps and Hynes in federal court.

In Count I Sottoriva alleged that portions of his salary were being withheld without due process of law and sought an injunction prohibiting the defendants from withholding any of his wages. Sottoriva contended, at least implicitly, that (a) the grievance system provided through his union did not satisfy due-process requirements, and (b) the defendants violated his due-process rights by failing to grant any hearing to challenge the revised figure of $24,105.03. In Count II Sottoriva sought monetary damages from Claps for the losses that Sottoriva claimed to have suffered as a result of the due-process violation (tax losses in particular). In Count III Sottoriva alleged that Claps had violated Illinois' State Finance Act, 30 ILL. COMP. STAT. 105/9.06, and should thus be removed from office.

Claps won summary judgment on Count III because it was jurisdictionally barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Count I-whether there was a due-process violation-was the primary focus of the district court's attention. Both parties moved for summary judgment on this count, and both parties partially prevailed. 2008 WL 821870 (C.D. Ill. Mar. 26, 2008). The district court held that Sottoriva had received sufficient process through the union grievance procedure in the calculation of the $17,982.47 figure and that the Department could continue to withhold income from Sottoriva's paycheck to satisfy this amount. However, the district court also held that the Department was precluded from withholding any amount in ...

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