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Sommerfield v. City of Chicago

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 12, 2017

Detlef Sommerfield, Plaintiff-Appellant,
City of Chicago, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued May 19, 2017

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 06 C 3132 - Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and POSNER and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, Chief Judge.

         After years of protracted litigation, a jury awarded Chicago Police Officer Detlef Sommerfield $30, 000 in his workplace discrimination suit. For his efforts, Sommerfield's lawyer requested $1.5 million in attorney's fees, a sum the district court reduced to $430, 000. Sommerfield now appeals, challenging the district court's handling of his case and, in particular, its refusal to grant his attorney the full $1.5 million. We affirm.


         Sommerfield has been an officer with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) since 1994. From 2000 to 2007 he was assigned to the Eighth District, where he worked with Sergeant Lawrence Knasiak. Sommerfield is Jewish and German, which evidently bothered Knasiak. Throughout that time Knasiak publicly made offensive remarks about Sommer-field's ethnicity. Examples include "Jews are bloodsucking parasites" and "Germans are like niggers, couldn't get rid of them then, can't get rid of them now." We will not belabor the point-Knasiak's other comments were similarly outrageous.

         Sommerfield complained, and in March 2004 CPD's Internal Affairs Division launched an investigation of Knasiak that culminated in his suspension in April 2007. (Knasiak retired that June and so he never served this suspension.) Sommerfield also filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which found "reasonable cause to believe that [CPD] violated Title VII by harassing [Sommerfield] based on his national origin, German, and religion, Jewish." These complaints, Sommerfield believes, led to retaliation from an amorphous group of "supervisors" that included, but was not limited to, Knasiak. The alleged retaliatory acts included frequent postings to undesirable hospital duty, requirements to use his own car for police work, refusals to give him a beat-car assignment, and assignments in which he had to work alone. Sommerfield was disciplined, too: Knasiak filed an insubordination complaint against him on March 15, 2004; other officers lodged complaints in January 2003, December 2004, and April 2005. The cumulative disciplinary actions rendered Sommerfield ineligible for a promotion to the coveted post of dog handler. We refer to these incidents collectively as "staffing decisions."

         Sommerfield did not take this lying down. He filed another EEOC charge alleging retaliation, and the agency once again found reasonable cause. In June 2006, Sommerfield's lawyer, Joseph A. Longo, filed this lawsuit. The amended complaint alleged (1) discrimination based on religion, (2) discrimination based on national origin, (3) retaliation, (4) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and (5) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Sommerfield later asked the district court to sanction the City for not informing him that the City Council passed two resolutions congratulating Knasiak on his retirement.

         In September 2010 the district court pared down the complaint considerably by granting partial summary judgment for the City. It confined the discrimination counts (1 and 2) to the question whether Knasiak's statements had created a hostile work environment, and it eliminated Counts 4 and 5 altogether for lack of any evidence that would permit a finding that Sommerfield's injury resulted from an express policy, a widespread practice, or a policymaker's final action. It restricted the retaliation claim (Count 3) to the period after 2004. It excluded the staffing decisions from Count 3 because Sommerfield failed to point to facts establishing a jury question. Finally, the court refused to sanction the City, because the congratulatory resolutions were publicly available and there was no hint of bad faith in the City's failure to send them to Sommerfield.

         The slimmed-down case proceeded to trial, and in January 2012 the jury found for Sommerfield on the discrimination counts, but for the City on the retaliation count. It awarded him $30, 000, which prompted Longo to seek a princely $1, 496, 930 in attorney's fees for having prevailed. Longo claimed to have worked 3, 742 hours at an hourly rate of $395. Magistrate Judge Cole reduced the hours to 2, 878 and the rate to $300, which yielded a lodestar of $863, 000. At that point, he took into account the modest degree of success Sommerfield had achieved and halved the lodestar, for a final fee of $430, 000. The district court approved that recommendation, and this appeal followed.


         Sommerfield's complaints on appeal are wide-ranging, including the adverse rulings on summary judgment, the rejection of sanctions against the City, and the substantial reduction in the requested ...

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