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HANSSON v. NORTON

March 30, 2004.

MARIAN K. HANSSON, Plaintiff,
v.
GALE NORTON, Secretary of the Interior, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BATES, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Marian Hansson ("Hansson") seeks an award of attorneys' fees and costs incurred in arriving at a settlement of her discrimination complaint against the Department of the Interior. Her case poses a question that is as yet unresolved in this Circuit: whether a party who achieves a favorable administrative resolution of a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5 ("Title VII"), may bring an action in federal court for the sole purpose of recovering attorneys' fees and costs incurred in the administrative process. The Secretary of the Interior ("the Secretary") has moved to dismiss Hansson's complaint on the ground that the action does not state a substantive Title VII claim, and thus this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. In her cross-motion for summary judgment, Hansson argues that her suit is within the Court's jurisdiction as an "action brought under" Title VII, and that the fees and costs she seeks are reasonable and supported by ample documentation.

  BACKGROUND

  Hansson was at all relevant times a curator of American Indian art at the Bureau of Indian Page 2 Affairs, a subdivision of the Department of the Interior. She is sixty-one years old and of Kiowa ancestry. After consulting with counsel, in November 2001 she filed an informal Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, alleging that she had suffered and was suffering discrimination on the basis of her age and national origin. Pl's Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4. She filed a formal complaint through counsel on December 26, 2001, and additional informal complaints on January 24 and April 12, 2002. Beginning on January 31, 2002, and for several months, Hansson's counsel negotiated with the EEO Director at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and others in an attempt to resolve Hansson's grievances.

  The parties ultimately reached a settlement. A Resolution Agreement, signed on June 28, 2002, awarded Hansson substantially all the relief she sought, Pl's Mot. at 5-6, including reassignment to a different supervisor, an updated job description with specific assignments, specified office space and resources, expungement of a reprimand from her record, a new performance plan, and compensatory damages of $6,500 for "stress, humiliation, and emotional pain and suffering related to the incidents alleged in the resolved complaints of discrimination." Compl. Ex. 1 ¶ 8(1). It further provided:
By executing this Resolution Agreement, Complainant withdraws and dismisses, with prejudice, her complaint of discrimination identified above, and any other allegation, complaint, grievance, or other action she has filed or could have filed and agrees not to institute, file or otherwise initiate or cause to be instituted, filed or initiated on her behalf, any complaint or other action, including civil court litigation, against the Agency, its bureaus, offices, agents or employees which has or could have been filed by her through the date of execution of this Resolution Agreement.
Id. ¶ 5. In addition to resolving Hansson's formal and informal complaints, the Resolution Agreement included a fee shifting arrangement: Page 3
 
The Agency shall pay reasonable attorney's fees and costs to Complainant's attorney in accordance with the EEOC regulations at 29 C.F.R. § 1614.201(e)*fn1. . . . Complainant's attorney will file with the Agency a verified statement of attorney's fees and costs and supporting Affidavit within 30 days of the date of execution of this Resolution Agreement. (A preliminary statement was already submitted to the Agency on June 24, 2002.) The Agency will then have 60 days from the date of the attorney's filing within which to issue a decision on the claim for attorney's fees and costs, but will also have the right to negotiate an amount with the attorney at any time within the 60-day period. The Agency agrees to make any payment on this claim to the attorney within 90 days of the attorney's filing.
Id. ¶ 8(m). Finally, the Resolution Agreement set forth a procedure for resolving disputes:

  The parties agree that should the Agency fail to honor its obligations as set forth in this Resolution Agreement for any reason not attributed to acts or conduct by the Complainant, the provisions outlined in 29 C.F.R. § 1614.504*fn2 shall govern. If the Complainant believes that Page 4 the Agency has failed to comply with the terms of the Resolution Agreement, the Complainant shall notify the EEO Director, in writing, of the alleged noncompliance within 30 days of when the Complainant knew or should have known of the alleged noncompliance. The Complainant may request that the terms of the Resolution Agreement be specifically implemented or, alternatively, that the complaints be reinstated for further processing from the point processing ceased.

 Id. ¶ 11.

  Hansson's attorneys submitted an itemized statement of fees and costs totaling $37,077.94 on July 27, 2002. On September 12, 2002, the Secretary issued a final decision regarding attorneys' fees and costs, awarding Hansson $8,959.44. Compl. Ex. 2. The remaining $28,1 18.50 in submitted fees and costs was disallowed on several grounds. First, the Secretary declined to pay all fees submitted for services performed by one attorney and one law clerk because Hansson's documentation had allegedly failed to provide adequate evidence that either was associated with her counsel's law firm. See id. at 8. Second, noting that "fees are not compensable in connection with legal services performed on age discrimination claims and reprisal claims based on age discrimination claims," id. at 4 (citing Palmer v. General Servs. Admin., 787 F.2d 300 (8th Cir. 1986)), the Secretary reduced by 50% the total fee award payable to Hansson's two principal attorneys. Hansson's proposed fee arrangement did not, said the Secretary, distinguish between the amount of time each attorney had spent on Hansson's age discrimination claims as opposed to her national-origin discrimination claims. Finally, the Secretary disallowed certain itemized fees for various reasons, including (1) that some fees were duplicative or excessive, (2) that some had been submitted for non-compensable pre-complaint activities, and (3) that some were accompanied by vague task summaries. See id. at 5-8. Page 5

  The final decision letter indicated that Hansson had various appeal rights. On the one hand, she could appeal the final decision to the EEOC within thirty days, or within 180 days of the filing of her complaint. Id. at 9. If Hansson elected to appeal the decision to the EEOC, said the letter, she could ultimately seek review of the EEOC's decision in federal district court. See id. at 10. Alternatively, the letter provided that "[i]n lieu of an appeal to the [EEOC]," Hansson could "file a civil action in an appropriate United States District Court within ninety (90) calendar days of [her] receipt of the Commission final order."*fn3 Id. at 10.

  Rather than proceed with an EEOC appeal, Hansson filed this action on October 16, 2002, alleging that (1) the Secretary's final decision to pay less than one-fourth of Hansson's requested attorneys' fees was arbitrary, capricious, and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) ("Section 706(k)"); (2) the Secretary's award of attorneys' fees is unreasonable in violation of the Resolution Agreement; and (3) the Secretary's final decision letter constituted an improper deferral of decision-making Page 6 authority from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.*fn4

  ANALYSIS

  A. Applicable Legal Standard

  A motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) should not prevail unless a plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of her claim which would entitle her to relief. Kowal v. MCI Commun. Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994); see also Beverly Enters., Inc. v. Herman, 50 F. Supp.2d 7, 11 (D.D.C. 1999). At this juncture, the plaintiff enjoys all favorable inferences that can be drawn from the alleged facts. See EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). That notwithstanding, the Court has an "affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority," and the plaintiff bears the burden of pleading a claim within the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction. Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F. Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001); see also Pitney Bowes, Inc. v. United States Postal Serv., 27 F. Supp.2d 15, 18 (D.D.C. 1998). The Court may consider material other than the allegations of the complaint in determining whether it has ...


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