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NOBLE v. HERRINGTON

February 13, 1989

Dorothy L. Noble, Plaintiff,
v.
John S. Herrington, Defendant


Richey.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHEY

Introduction

 Now before the Court is a petition filed by Steptoe & Johnson ("S & J") for attorneys' fees and costs arising out of its representation of plaintiff in the above-entitled suit. Upon consideration of Steptoe & Johnson's petition, the supporting and opposing legal memoranda, the oral arguments by counsel, and the underlying law, the Court concludes that Steptoe & Johnson is entitled to $ 46,489.00 in attorneys' fees and $ 1,985.94 in costs. *fn1"

 Background

 The genesis of this suit is an administrative complaint that plaintiff, a former employee at the Department of Energy, filed on December 27, 1979, alleging that she received unfair and hostile treatment because of her sex. The Department of Energy rejected this complaint in a Notice of Proposed Disposition issued on August 21, 1981.

 Thereafter, on October 6, 1981, plaintiff filed a second administrative complaint, this time alleging that she had been subjected to further discrimination and additional reprisal actions after filing her initial charges. By letter dated December 29, 1981, plaintiff was notified that the agency refused to hear her new complaint because it largely reiterated the earlier charges. She appealed this rejection to the EEOC Office of Review and Appeals. The EEOC found that the agency had erred in refusing to consider plaintiff's second complaint. Thereafter, the EEOC held extensive hearings on both of plaintiff's complaints during several days in December, 1982.

 On July 18, 1984, the EEOC examiner issued a decision rejecting plaintiff's sex discrimination claim as well as her constructive discharge claim. The Examiner did, however, find that certain actions by plaintiff's co-workers were designed to coerce plaintiff into dropping her charges of discrimination, and these actions were tacitly approved by agency management. As such, the Examiner found for plaintiff on her retaliation claim and awarded her $ 777.32 in attorneys' fees. The agency did not appeal that ruling.

 After receiving the EEOC decision, plaintiff filed this suit pro se. Her complaint charged defendant with sex discrimination, reprisal, and constructively discharging her, all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e et seq. Steptoe & Johnson entered the scene on August 27, 1985 when the Court appointed the firm to represent plaintiff. Amongst S & J's first tasks was the filing of an amended complaint on plaintiff's behalf.

 On March 17, 1987, thirteen days before trial was to begin, S & J filed a motion for partial summary judgment on plaintiff's reprisal claim; S & J argued that the EEOC's determination of reprisal was binding on the agency in light of the agency's failure to appeal the decision. Since S & J did not file this motion until just before trial, the Court did not have an opportunity to consider the motion until after the trial's conclusion.

 After trial, the Court granted plaintiff summary judgment on her reprisal claim; the Court, however, ruled in favor of defendant on plaintiff's remaining claims for sex discrimination and constructive discharge. See Noble v. Herrington, C.A. 85-1507 (D.D.C. Feb. 16, 1988). *fn2"

 On April 12, 1988, S & J filed a petition for fees and expenses, in which it seeks $ 65,000 in fees and $ 17,000 in expenses. S & J arrives at a fee award in the sum of $ 65,000 by reducing the number of hours S & J lawyers and paralegals spent on the case from 2,500 to 2,100, billing those hours at the rates S & J attorneys would have billed paying clients at the time the services were rendered, and reducing that sum over 70 percent to account for the limited degree of success plaintiff achieved.

 In many ways, Steptoe & Johnson's petition for attorneys' fees is simple. Defendant does not dispute that plaintiff was a prevailing party, and plaintiff accepts the reality that she prevailed only to a limited degree. Moreover, defendant does not question S & J's representations concerning the number of hours it spent on the case or the billing rate that S & J has employed in calculating its fees. The sole bone of contention is over the proper methodology for reducing the lodestar fee so as to account for plaintiff's limited degree of success.

 There is "no precise formula" for adjusting a lodestar fee downward to account for a prevailing party's limited success; the Court must exercise its "equitable judgment" in making this discretionary determination. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 (1983). In general, the Court's method for making this adjustment will depend upon whether plaintiff's successful and unsuccessful claims involve "a common core of facts" or "related legal theories." Id. at 434-35. Where the facts and legal theories underlying various claims are interrelated, "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." Id. at 435. As such, in those kinds of cases, 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." Id. Cases involving ...


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