Monday, December 23, 2013

Attorney's Fees Analysis in Civil Rights Matters Reaffirmed by Third Circuit

In its recent decision in the case of Dee v. Borough of Dunmore, 13-1596, 2013 WL 6234597 (3d Cir. Dec. 3, 2013), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the analysis required to determine the appropriate amount of attorney's fees counsel for a "prevailing party" is entitled to in a Section 1983 Civil Rights Action.

The Third Circuit initially noted that it had plenary review powers over the question of law of whether the District Court applied the proper standards in calculating reasonable attorney's fees.

Citing its own previous decision in the case of Washington v. Phila. County Ct. of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1034–35 (3d Cir.1996), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals noted that it is required to review the attorney's marketplace billing rate for clear error, along with the reasonableness of the District Court's award of fees for abuse of discretion.

The Dee Court noted that attorney fee awards in a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 civil rights action, as allowed by Section 1988, "are based on the lodestar, which is the product of the attorney's hours and rate. There is a strong presumption that the lodestar is a reasonable fee."

However, the appellate court noted that "a court may adjust this figure upward or downward when the lodestar is unreasonable," citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983).  It was emphasized that, "[u]nder the Hensley framework, the petitioner's 'results obtained' in the action, which is the level of the prevailing party's success, is a “crucial” factor. Id. at 430, 434.

In the Dee case, the Plaintiff’s had attorney asserted that the reasonable prevailing hourly rate for an attorney in her region of practice, i.e., Northeastern Pennsylvania, was $300 per hour.  The defense cited to prior local court decisions noting a reasonable rate of $215-$225 per hour. 

In Dee, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Federal Middle District Judge A. Richard Caputo’s finding that an hourly rate of $250 per hour was reasonable. 

The Third Circuit also approved the trial courts downward molding of the overall attorney’s fee figure based upon the limited results secured by the prevailing party in the matter as compared to all of the claims presented.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of the Third Circuit’s decision in Dee, may click this LINK.

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