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Hasbbin Sughayyer v. City of Chicago

June 20, 2012

HASBBIN SUGHAYYER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, OFC. RUDOLPH GARZA AND OFC. SEAN CAMPBELL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Finnegan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Hasbbin Sughayyer filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting multiple claims against Defendants the City of Chicago (the "City"), Officer Rudolph Garza, and Officer Sean Campbell arising from a traffic stop and arrest on July 20, 2008. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that: (1) Defendant Garza used excessive force against her (Count II); (2) because of her religion, ethnicity or sex, Defendants Garza and Campbell treated her differently than others by falsely arresting her and using excessive force against her in violation of her right to equal protection of the laws (Count III); (3) Defendants Garza and Campbell falsely arrested her when they pulled over her car and detained her for an alleged failure to make a signal required by the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code (Count IV); (4) Defendants Garza and Campbell falsely arrested her when they took her into custody for possession of a narcotic substance, a vial of PCP that she denied the officers had recovered from her car (Count IV); (5) Defendants Garza and Campbell intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon her (Count VI); (6) Defendants Garza and Campbell caused her to be maliciously prosecuted for possession of PCP (Count VII); (7) Defendant City, through an employee or employees, converted her property, namely, jewelry and cash that was missing from her purse following the arrest (Count VIII); and (8) Defendant City was liable for the Defendant Officers' actions pursuant to 735 ILCS 10/9-102 (Count IX).*fn1

Following a five-day trial, on June 23, 2011, the jury found in favor of Plaintiff on her excessive force and conversion claims, and awarded a total of $12,937 ($11,937 for excessive force and $1,000 for conversion). The jury found in favor of Defendants on the malicious prosecution claim. It failed to reach a verdict as to the remaining claims and Plaintiff subsequently dismissed them with prejudice.

Plaintiff now seeks to recover $314,259.68 in attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and $8,968.66 in costs pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1920. For the reasons set forth here, Plaintiff is awarded $179,122.83 in fees and expenses, and $8,447.36 in costs.

DISCUSSION

In Section 1983 cases, a court has discretion to award "the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs" pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Walker v. Calumet City, Illinois, 565 F.3d 1031, 1033 (7th Cir. 2009). In addition, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(1) provides that "costs -- other than attorney's fees -- should be allowed to the prevailing party" unless "a court order provides otherwise." Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot recover any fees or costs because she achieved only nominal success relative to the relief she sought from this lawsuit. Alternatively, Defendants insist that any award of fees must be substantially reduced, and that her cost award must be modified to exclude excessive deposition transcript charges. The Court considers each argument below.

A. Prevailing Party under Section 1988

To be a prevailing party for purposes of federal fee-shifting statutes like 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a plaintiff must "succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit [she] sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). Under the Supreme Court's "generous formulation," a plaintiff may qualify as a prevailing party even if she receives only a nominal damages award. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109, 112 (1992). As the Court explained, "[a] judgment for damages in any amount, whether compensatory or nominal, modifies the defendant's behavior by forcing the defendant to pay an amount of money he otherwise would not pay." Id. at 113. At the same time, "[a] paltry jury award -- for example, $1 in Farrar -- implies that the only reasonable fee is zero." Cole v. Wodziak, 169 F.3d 486, 488 (7th Cir. 1999); Thompson v. City of Chicago, No. 07 C 1130, 2011 WL 2837589, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 14, 2011). Defendants initially concede that Plaintiff is "technically a 'prevailing party' under 1988," (Doc. 157, at 3), but later describe her prevailing party status as "questionable at best." (Id. at 9). In the Court's view, there can be no dispute that Plaintiff obtained a judgment in her favor on the excessive force claim and so is a prevailing party under the fee-shifting statute.*fn2 Defendants argue that Plaintiff is not entitled to fees, however, because her recovery of $11,937 was merely nominal as contemplated by Cole and Farrar.

(Id. at 3). In the words of the Farrar Court, "[a] plaintiff who seeks compensatory damages but receives no more than nominal damages is often [the type of] prevailing party" who "should receive no attorney's fees at all." 506 U.S. at 115. It is true that Plaintiff received a much smaller amount in damages than the $260,000 she sought. Nevertheless, in this Court's view, an award of nearly $12,000 (excluding the award for the conversion claim) is not "so 'nominal' as to bar an award of fees all together." Thompson, 2011 WL 2837589, at *4 ($15,000 award not nominal). See also Cole, 169 F.3d at 488 (where plaintiffs recovered $2,500 in compensatory damages and $2,000 in punitive damages, they were "prevailing parties and entitled to 'reasonable' fees.").

Defendants disagree, arguing that the large disparity between the amount Plaintiff requested and the amount she was awarded "has been held to justify an absolute bar on attorney's fee petitions." (Doc. 157, at 9). Defendants direct the Court to Tuf Racing Prods., Inc. v. American Suzuki Motor Corp., 223 F.3d 585 (7th Cir. 2000), where the Seventh Circuit stated that "it is right to penalize a plaintiff for putting the defendant to the bother of defending against a much larger claim than the plaintiff could prove." Id. at 592. As Defendants see it, Plaintiff recovered "less than 5% of [her] demand in closing arguments," (Doc. 157, at 3-4, 9), and she should not be awarded any fees under such circumstances. See, e.g., Perlman v. Zell, 185 F.3d 850, 859 (7th Cir. 1999) ("Recovery of less than 10% of the claim shows that . . . the defendant has won on the bulk of the seriously disputed items.").

Plaintiff's failure to recover even 5% of the damages that she sought is certainly a factor that this Court must consider in assessing the fee request, but it is not the only factor. See Tuf Racing Prods., 223 F.3d at 592 (observing that Perlman states the 10% standard "in a way that makes it sound like a rule, although the cases it cites for the rule treat it, rather, merely as a factor to consider along with other factors weighing for or against an award of attorneys' fees."). In this case, Plaintiff requested the jury to award $22,000 in compensatory damages against Officer Garza for the use of excessive force, and the jury awarded almost half of this amount. While the jury found in Defendants' favor on the malicious prosecution claims against both officers, Plaintiff sought only $10,000 in damages on these claims.

Plaintiff attributed the bulk of her compensatory damages ($120,000 of the $170,000 sought) to the alleged false arrest for possession of narcotics, a claim on which the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury also deadlocked on several other claims: false arrest for a traffic violation ($2,000 sought); intentional infliction of emotional distress for verbal abuse by the officers ($5,000 sought); and denial of equal protection from the officers' mistreatment based on Plaintiff's ethnicity ($10,000 sought). The jury similarly was unable to agree on Plaintiff's request for $90,000 in punitive damages: $50,000 against Officer Garza and $40,000 against Officer Campbell. Ultimately, Plaintiff chose to dismiss each of the deadlocked claims rather than retry the entire case before a new jury.*fn3

Because of the intertwining nature of the claims and facts, all flowing from a single traffic stop, the five-day trial in this case would not have been significantly shorter had Plaintiff opted to pursue only the excessive force claim. Indeed, of the eleven witnesses called to testify over four trial days, all but one (the individual who tested the PCP) gave testimony that focused at least in part on Plaintiff's allegations of excessive force and the ensuing damages. Plaintiff in particular testified at great length about each of the ways that Officer Garza used excessive force against her on the sidewalk and in the back seat of the squad car, and her resulting injuries. This included a detailed description of the scrapes and bruises she incurred from the excessive force while her attorney showed the jury numerous related photos. Plaintiff also called three damages witnesses: two health professionals, Dr. David Krueger and Dr. Laura Patton VanBuskirk, and her father, Zuhdi Sughayyer. Virtually all of Dr. Krueger's testimony pertained to the excessive force claim since he described the chiropractic and other treatment that he provided for the injuries. Dr. VanBuskirk testified about Plaintiff's post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") that allegedly resulted from the collective events that day, though Plaintiff's counsel attributed the PTSD primarily to the alleged false arrest on the narcotics charge. Plaintiff's father testified generally about the physical and emotional differences that he noticed in his daughter after the events that day.

Defendants too elicited testimony from several witnesses concerning the excessive force allegations.*fn4 Of course, Officers Garza and Campbell testified in detail about their interactions with Plaintiff and denied the use of any force. Officers who arrived after the arrest, such as Sergeant David Sepulveda, were questioned about how Plaintiff did not appear to have injuries when they saw her. Even the passenger in Plaintiff's car, who testified primarily about the allegations that PCP was found in the car, was asked by defense counsel whether she witnessed Officer Garza or Officer Campbell abuse Plaintiff in any way. While the witnesses gave additional testimony that was not directly relevant to the excessive force claim, some of this testimony would have been necessary for context even if Plaintiff had never brought the other claims.

For these reasons, this Court is not persuaded that this was a case where Defendants were put "to the bother of defending against a much larger claim than the plaintiff could prove." Tuf Racing Prods., 223 F.3d at 592. The already short trial certainly would have been somewhat shorter had Plaintiff brought only the excessive force claim, but not significantly so. Therefore, the Court declines to penalize Plaintiff by denying her attorneys' fees altogether, and instead finds that the jury's award of almost $12,000 on the excessive force claim is sufficient to render Plaintiff a prevailing party and entitle her to reasonable fees.

B. Prevailing Party under Rule 54(d)

In a related argument, Defendants claim that Plaintiff does not qualify as a prevailing party for purposes of recovering costs under Rule 54(d). A party prevails within the meaning of that Rule "when a final judgment awards it substantial relief." Smart v. Local 702 Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 573 F.3d 523, 525 (7th Cir. 2009). "When a party obtains substantial relief, it prevails even if it does not win on every claim." U.S. Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. Shorenstein Realty Servs., L.P., 803 F. Supp. 2d 920, 923 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (citing Slane v. Mariah Boats, Inc., 164 F.3d 1065, 1068 (7th Cir. 1999)). A district court enjoys "wide discretion in determining and awarding reasonable costs." Testa v. Village of Mundelein, Illinois, 89 F.3d 443, 447 (7th Cir. 1996).

Defendants contend that Plaintiff did not achieve substantial relief because she asserted upwards of 12 separate claims against three defendants, but the conversion claim aside, was ultimately successful on only a single excessive force claim against Defendant Garza. (Doc. 143, at 2-3). As noted, Defendants find it significant that Plaintiff recovered "less than 5% of the amount her attorney requested from the jury in closing argument," and also maintain that the one successful excessive force claim "was not the central issue in the litigation." (Id. at 3). Defendants further stress that Plaintiff received compensatory damages for medical expenses but no punitive damages, and insist that this recovery pales in comparison to the size of the case she tried. (Id.).

As in the attorneys' fee context, it appears that the10% threshold is "just a factor for consideration in a cost determination rather than a hard and fast rule." Valley Air Serv., Inc. v. Southaire, Inc., 432 Fed. Appx. 602, 607 (7th Cir. 2011). For the reasons discussed previously, this is not a case where Defendants were required to defend a "much larger claim" than Plaintiff could prove. Further, the excessive force claim was one of the central issues in the case about which there was considerable testimony. Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiff is a prevailing party for purposes of Rule 54(d), and she is entitled to costs. Compare First Commodity Traders, Inc. v. Heinold Commodities, Inc., 766 F.2d 1007, 1015 (7th Cir. 1985) (plaintiff was not the prevailing party under Rule 54(d) where it lost on all but one of seven claims on summary judgment, before even making it to trial).

C. Reasonable Attorneys' Fees

Having determined that Plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees, the Court next considers what constitutes a "reasonable" amount. In making this assessment, the Court uses the lodestar method, which entails "multiplying the 'number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation . . . by a reasonable hourly rate.'" Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 639 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). The lodestar amount may then be adjusted based on factors set forth in Hensley, but "[t]here is a strong presumption that the lodestar calculation yields a reasonable attorneys' fee award." Id.

According to their time records, Plaintiff's three attorneys, Mark Parts, Faith Spencer and Joseph Lopez, worked a total of 1,072.4 hours which, at their requested rates, amounts to fees of $471,390. (Doc. 158, at 14). This consists of 687.2 hours for Mr. Parts at $450 per hour, 250.8 hours for Ms. Spencer at $325 per hour, and 134.4 hours for Mr. Lopez at $600 per hour. Plaintiff recognizes, however, that her verdict, "though significant, was not all that she had hoped for." (Id. at 2). She suggested to the jury that they award $260,000 in damages (with $90,000 of this amount as punitive damages), and they only awarded $12,937 in compensatory damages. As a result, Plaintiff is willing to reduce the lodestar amount by one-third, for a total of $314,259.68. (Id. at 14). Defendants argue that the amount must be reduced much further to at most $72,128.75. (Doc. 157, at 12).

1. Lodestar Amount

The parties disagree regarding an appropriate lodestar amount, with Defendants maintaining that Plaintiff's requested hours and rates are unreasonable. The Court considers both elements in turn.

a. Number of Hours

"Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. See also Johnson v. GDF, Inc., 668 F.3d 927, 931 (7th Cir. 2012). In addition, "the court may reduce the award where the description of the work performed is inadequate." Thompson, 2011 WL 2837589, at *7. Defendants first object that many of the descriptions of work performed are vague and "provide little insight into whether the hours were reasonably expended." (Doc. 157, at 4; Doc. 157-1, Ex. A). For example, the time records of Mark Parts contain numerous entries stating "teleconference with Joe Lopez" (Joseph Lopez's time records similarly state "teleconference with Mark Parts") without any mention of the topic discussed. In response to Defendants' objections, Plaintiff's attorneys submitted new versions of their time records that include additional supporting details, such as the subject matter of teleconferences. (Doc. 158-1, Exs. 14, 15, 16).

The Court has reviewed the revised submissions and overrules Defendants' objections on vagueness grounds except where otherwise noted below; however, the Court will not allow Plaintiff to recover for time spent editing and supplementing time entries in response to the vagueness challenge (approximately 2.5 hours of work by Mr. Parts). It is the responsibility of counsel to keep detailed time records as work is performed in order to ensure they are accurate. Had ...


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