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Ratliff v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

July 8, 2013

CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.


ROBERT M. DOW, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff's petition for attorneys' fees and costs [156]. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part Plaintiff's petition for attorneys' fees and costs [156] and awards Plaintiff $315, 661.31 in fees and $4, 275.51 in costs. In the event that the parties once again cannot come to an agreement, Plaintiff is given fourteen days from the date of this opinion to submit a request for compensation for hours spent litigating the fee petition since December 7, 2012. Defendants are given 14 days from the date of Plaintiff's supplemental filing, if any, to file any objections to Plaintiff's supplemental filing.

I. Background

On June 17, 2009, Defendant Officers Carroll and Murphy arrested Plaintiff and charged him with aggravated assault. Those charges were dismissed when the complaining officer, Defendant Carroll, failed to appear in court. More than three years later, on November 29, 2012, following a four-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict against Defendants in this matter, and the following day the Court entered judgment on the verdict. As to Defendant Officer James Carroll, a verdict in favor of Plaintiff was entered on the claims of false arrest, illegal search and seizure, and malicious prosecution. As to Defendant Officer Brian Murphy, a judgment on the jury verdict was entered on the claims of false arrest and illegal search and seizure. The jury awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $30, 000, punitive damages against Defendant Officer Carroll in the amount of $15, 000.75, and punitive damages against Defendant Officer Murphy in the amount of $5, 000. Beyond the award of compensatory and punitive damages, the jury sent a note to the Court during deliberations, asking if they could punish the officers through community service. The jury also pointedly added seventy-five cents onto Defendant Carroll's punitive damages total, almost certainly in reference to the seventy-five cents that Plaintiff lost when the officers interrupted his service station stop.

A brief account of the procedural background also is relevant to the issue of attorneys' fees. Plaintiff filed his initial complaint on February 3, 2010. Defendants answered the complaint on April 7, 2010. The parties filed a report of their Rule 26(f) planning meeting on April 26, 2010, wherein Plaintiff sought ninety days and defendants sought five and one half months for the completion of fact discovery. The Court provided Defendants with all of the time they requested for discovery, ordering discovery closed by September 30, 2010. While Plaintiff and Defendants believed discovery would be complete by July 2010 and September 2010 respectively, discovery would not formally close until January 2012. As demonstrated below, the delay was due in large part to Defendants' two substitutions of counsel during the litigation and Defendants' untimely responsiveness during discovery.

The parties sought an agreed extension of time to complete fact discovery on September 13, 2010. The Court ordered discovery closed by December 31, 2010. In December, noting confusion caused by Defendants' substitution of counsel, the parties agreed to extend discovery until March 2011, and the Court allowed it. In late December, Plaintiff moved to compel the Cook County Sheriff's Merit Board to produce documents related to Plaintiff's employment application, which had been resolved during the pendency of the litigation. In open court, the City of Chicago agreed to provide any information given to the Merit Board, and Magistrate Judge Keys mooted Plaintiff's motion. In February 2011, the Court again extended discovery, until June 2011. The extension came on the heels of Defendants' motion to substitute counsel. At that time, Judge Keys held a status conference and reported that, "Plaintiff has not yet received from the City of Chicago the documents sought from the Cook County Merit Board." At the March 2, 2011 status, the parties still had not resolved the Merit Board issue. Finally, Plaintiff would refile his motion to compel the merit board to produce the records because after three months, the City of Chicago "indicated they do not possess the relevant information." The motion to compel was granted over objection.

In May 2011, the parties again moved to extend discovery to August. On July 19, 2011, Plaintiff filed another motion to compel against Defendants, which was mooted by Defendants' promise to comply. The Court extended discovery until September 16, 2011. Judge Keys again extended discovery to tie up loose ends, providing until October 17, 2011 for its completion. On October 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed another motion to compel, outlining various problems with Defendants' delays in producing discovery. The Court granted the motion in substantial part and deferred "ruling on Plaintiffs motion for the costs plaintiff's counsel incurred in the preparation of this motion." The records finally produced by Defendants revealed the existence of previously undisclosed communications records and required additional limited discovery. In December of 2011, Defendants moved to amend their answer to deny that they received notice to appear in court. The Court extended discovery once again, until January, 2012.

As previously noted, Plaintiff prevailed at trial. Defendants filed a timely post-trial motion. However, Defendants sought further extensions related to disclosure of their LR 54.3 disclosures and the post-trial motion briefing schedule. Prior to trial, Defendants never made a settlement offer. Throughout the litigation, Plaintiff's settlement demand was $99, 000, exclusive of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. After trial, Defendants offered Plaintiff $274, 000, inclusive of fees and costs.

II. Analysis

A. General standards

In order to entice competent attorneys to prosecute civil rights cases, Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1988, pursuant to which a "prevailing party" in a Section 1983 action is entitled to "reasonable" attorneys' fees. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983). A civil rights plaintiff is considered to be a "prevailing party" if he or she succeeds on "any significant issue in the litigation." Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989). As a result of the substantial jury verdict in this case, there can be no dispute that Plaintiff must be deemed a "prevailing party" who is entitled to an award of "reasonable" attorneys' fees.

In deciding the specific amount that is reasonable in the circumstances, the Supreme Court has directed district courts to consider as a "starting point" (or "lodestar") the number of hours expended in the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. The Court has stressed that the "most critical factor" in determining the reasonableness of a fee award is "the degree of success obtained" by the prevailing party. Id. at 436. Courts frequently attempt to measure success by viewing three factors: (i) the difference between the actual judgment and the recovery sought, (ii) the significance of the legal issues on which the plaintiff prevailed, and (iii) the public interest at stake in the litigation. See, e.g., Connolly v. Nat'l Sch. Bus. Serv., Inc., 177 F.3d 593, 597 (7th Cir. 1999).

The Supreme Court expressly has stated that when litigation of a § 1983 case leads to "excellent results" for the prevailing party, the plaintiff's attorney "should recover a fully compensatory fee." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. As the Court further explained, "[n]ormally this will encompass all hours reasonably expended on the litigation, and indeed in some cases of exceptional success an enhanced award may be justified." Id. Both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit have stressed that a fee award "should not be reduced simply because the plaintiff failed to prevail on every contention raised in the lawsuit." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435; see also Dunning v. Simmons Airlines, Inc., 62 F.3d 863, 873 (7th Cir. 1995). As the court of appeals summarized, " Hensley makes clear that when claims are interrelated, as is often the case in civil rights litigation, time spent pursuant to an unsuccessful claim may be compensable if it also contributed to the success of other claims." Jaffee v. Redmond, 142 F.3d 409, 413 (7th Cir. 1998).

Here, all of Plaintiff's claims had their genesis in a relatively brief interaction between Defendant Officers and Plaintiff. That interaction spawned four years of litigation. The malicious prosecution claim resulted from the decision to bring to trial the charges brought against Plaintiff following his interaction with Defendant Officers. Accordingly, this case is an exemplar of the cases in which "the plaintiff's claims of relief * * * involve a common core of facts or [are] based on related legal theories, " such that "much of counsel's time will be devoted generally to the litigation as a whole, making it difficult to divide the hours expended on a claim-by-claim basis." Ustrak v. Fairman, 851 F.2d 983, 988 (7th Cir. 1988). In such cases, "the district court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff." Id.; see also Bryant v. City ...

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