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Degorski v. Wilson

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 26, 2014

THOMAS WILSON, et al., Defendants.


ROBERT M. DOW, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff James Degorski's motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 [207]. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and awards Plaintiff's counsel $177, 570.00 in attorneys' fees.[1]

I. Background

Following a four-day jury trial, a jury entered a verdict in favor of Plaintiff James Degorski and against Defendant Wilson, finding that Defendant Wilson had violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights when he used excessive force against Plaintiff while Plaintiff was a pre-trial detainee in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The jury found in favor of Defendant Koch on Plaintiff's failure to intervene claim.[2] The jury awarded Plaintiff $225, 000 in compensatory damages and $226, 000 in punitive damages. Following trial, Defendant Wilson filed a motion pursuant to Rule 59(e), requesting that the Court amend the judgment and remit the punitive damages award to $0. In granting in part and denying in part Defendant Wilson's motion, the Court concluded that substantial evidence of malice, serious injuries, and an almost exact 1:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages in this case brought a significant award of punitive damages within the bounds of reasonableness. The Court further concluded that Defendant Wilson's use of force was reprehensible because the evidence supported the jury's obvious conclusion, as reflected in its verdict, that Wilson's actions were completely unprovoked and vicious. In this case, the jury clearly credited Plaintiff's version of the events- namely, that he did nothing prior to Wilson's assault. It was simply Plaintiff's status as a high-profile pre-trial detainee charged with a serious crime (initially processed at the jail on the day of the beating) that provoked Wilson to initiate a violent confrontation with Plaintiff. Plaintiff was severely beaten, lost consciousness, and suffered several fractures to his face that required surgery. Finally, the Court noted that the addition of the $1, 000.00 in their award of punitive damages reflected the jury's "sound reasoning" in setting the amount of those damages, taking into account not only Plaintiff's physical injuries, but Defendant Wilson's offensive actions in his role as an law enforcement officer. Although the Court was constrained by Seventh Circuit case law that "$125, 000 approaches the upper end of what was necessary to punish [the officer's] lone act of attacking a prisoner for no good reason" and ultimately concluded that $226, 000 in punitive damages for a lone act was too much, the Court only reduced the amount of punitive damages to $150, 000, as opposed to the $0 requested by Defendant. Defendants did not challenge the jury award of $225, 000 in compensatory damages against Defendant Wilson.

In April 2014, Plaintiff's counsel wrote to Defendants' counsel and disclosed her estimated attorneys' fees and costs associated with litigating this matter. Plaintiff's counsel also requested that defense counsel submit an accounting of defense costs and fees so that the parties could prepare a joint fee statement pursuant to Local Rule 54.3. Plaintiff offered to forego the entire punitive damages award in exchange for Defendant Wilson foregoing his right to appeal the judgment and agreeing to counsel's fees and costs.

On May 1, 2014, the parties held a telephonic conference in an attempt to resolve the outstanding monetary issues. The parties dispute the exact offers made, but it appears from a disagreeable e-mail exchange between Ms. Bonjean and Assistant States Attorney Michael Gallagher on May 2, 2014, that the best offer from Defendants was to (1) allow Plaintiff to retain between $25, 000 of his compensatory damages award and (2) agree that the IDOC would not seek a court-ordered lien for his cost of incarceration over $10, 000. Despite Defendants' representation that there was an offer to reasonably settle attorneys' fees, the attached e-mails (to which Defendants cite as support) do not reference an offer to settle attorneys' fees. Plaintiff's counsel declined Defendants' offer and reiterated Plaintiff's own best offer that if Defendant Wilson agreed to forego his appeal rights and the county agreed to pay Plaintiff's counsel's fees and costs, Plaintiff would forfeit the entire punitive damages award. Plaintiff acknowledged that numerous parties may stake claim to the remainder of Plaintiff's award of damages but Plaintiff could not agree to voluntarily forfeit nearly the entire award to the families of the victims, particularly since Plaintiff continues to pursue his appellate remedies. Both parties declined to continue negotiations. As of the filing of Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees, there is no evidence that Defendants engaged in any discussion with Plaintiff's counsel regarding fees and costs and it appears that, until the filing of their response brief, refused to tender any information about their own 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, Plaintiff's claims had their genesis in a relatively brief interaction between Defendant Officers and Plaintiff. That interaction spawned ten years of litigation. The jury then awarded Plaintiff almost half of a million dollars on his excessive force claim, although it denied relief on Plaintiff's failure to intervene claim against Defendant Koch. Based on the evidence presented at trial, 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 of Chicago, 200 F.3d 1092, 1101 (7th Cir. 2000) (explaining that the court should focus on "the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation"). Thus, due to the substantial compensatory and punitive damages verdicts against Defendant Wilson, the Court declines to divide the hours expended on a claim-by-claim basis and instead will focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by Plaintiff, which included a $225, 000 compensatory damages award, for which Wilson's former employer owes a statutory duty to indemnify.

Plaintiff obtained an exceptional result in this litigation in no small part due to the risk taken, as well as the efforts and skill deployed, by the attorneys working on this case. Section 1983 cases comprise a specialized federal practice area, one requiring knowledge of complex constitutional issues, creative and aggressive advocacy, and superior trial practice abilities. There are a limited number of firms able or willing to commit the massive time and advance the necessary resources required to take on such cases competently, much less win them.

The fact that Defendants were unwilling to put any meaningful settlement money on the table prior to trial (and even after a judgment was entered against them) only underscores the uphill nature of the battle here. Notwithstanding the very real possibility of recovering nothing had the jury found Defendant Wilson's testimony more compelling than Plaintiff's own testimony, Plaintiff's counsel proceeded to litigate the case aggressively, investing considerable ...

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