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Dunlap v. Spec Pro, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 18, 2014

TONYA DUNLAP, Plaintiff,
v.
SPEC PRO, INC., a foreign corporation, Defendant.

ORDER

PHILIP A. BRIMMER, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees [Docket No. 75] filed by plaintiff Tonya Dunlap.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 16, 2011, Ms. Dunlap filed this action against defendant Spec Pro, Inc. ("Spec Pro"). Docket No. 1. Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, Ms. Dunlap alleged (1) discrimination on the basis of sex, (2) retaliation for participating in protected activity, and (3) reckless and wanton gender discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981a. Docket No. 1 at 2-3. Ms. Dunlap sought damages for back pay, front pay, loss of earning capacity and future incapacity, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and punitive damages. Id. at 3. The Court dismissed Ms. Dunlap's retaliation claim on summary judgment, finding:

Given that Ms. Dunlap does not establish that Spec Pro treated her any differently than other similarly situated employees, she does not show that Spec Pro's reason for her termination was pretextual. Instead, the undisputed evidence establishes that she was given the full extent of her short-term disability benefits, Spec Pro transitioned her to long-term disability because of the weight bearing restrictions, and she did not re-apply for a position with Spec Pro. Based on the foregoing, Ms. Dunlap fails to raise any genuine inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions with Spec Pro's legitimate non-discriminatory reason for termination and no reasonable jury could conclude that Ms. Dunlap's termination was retaliatory.

Docket No. 64 at 23 (citations omitted). On April 8-11, 2013, Ms. Dunlap's hostile work environment claim was tried to a jury. Docket Nos. 70-73. The jury found in favor of Ms. Dunlap on her claim that she was subject to a hostile or abusive work environment because of her sex based on the conduct of her co-workers. Docket No. 73-1 at 1. However, on Ms. Dunlap's claim that she was subject to a hostile or abusive work environment based on the conduct of her supervisors, the jury found in favor of Spec Pro. Id. The jury awarded Ms. Dunlap $1.00 in nominal damages and did not award her compensatory or punitive damages. Id. at 2.

On April 26, 2013, Ms. Dunlap filed the instant motion. Docket No. 75. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), Ms. Dunlap seeks $70, 661.70 in attorney's fees. Id. at 2. Spec Pro argues that, because the jury awarded Ms. Dunlap nominal damages, Ms. Dunlap is not entitled to an award of attorney's fees or, in the alternative, that Ms. Dunlap's award of attorney's fees should be reduced accordingly. Docket No. 77 at 7.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Ms. Dunlap's Failure to Prove Compensatory Damages

In actions brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee...." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). "Congress intended to permit the... award of counsel fees only when a party has prevailed on the merits of at least some of his claims." Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 758 (1980).[1] "[A] plaintiff who wins nominal damages is a prevailing party" for purposes of awarding attorney's fees under Tile VII. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 112 (1992). The " degree of the plaintiff's success' does not affect eligibility for a fee award.'" Id. at 114 (quoting Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Ind. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 789 (1989)). Thus, where Ms. Dunlap achieved a judgment in her favor for nominal damages, the Court finds that Ms. Dunlap is a prevailing party entitled to reasonable attorney's fees.

Once plaintiff has "crossed the statutory threshold' of prevailing party status, " a district court must ensure that an award of attorney's fees is warranted. Tex. State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 789-90. The "technical' nature of a nominal damages award... does bear on the propriety of fees awarded." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114. In the Tenth Circuit, a district court's discretion to entirely deny attorney's fees to a prevailing party is narrow. Phelps v. Hamilton, 120 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 1997). However, the prevailing party's award request for attorney's fees must be evaluated based upon: "(1) the difference between the judgment recovered and the recovery sought; (2) the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed; and (3) the public purpose of the litigation." Id. (citing Farrar, 506 U.S. at 121-22 (O'Connor, J., concurring)). "When a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, ... the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all." Id. at 115.

The Court first turns to the "degree of success obtained, '" which is "the most critical factor' in determining the reasonableness of a fee award." Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436). Where, as here, plaintiff's claims for relief were based upon a common set of facts and "related legal theories, " the district court should "focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. Ms. Dunlap's complaint did not make a specific monetary demand, although she requested back pay, front pay, loss of earning capacity and future incapacity, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and punitive damages. See Docket No. 1 at 3. The dismissal of Ms. Dunlap's retaliation claim eliminated her request for back pay and front pay, leaving the jury to consider whether Ms. Dunlap proved non-economic and punitive damages. See Docket No. 64 at 23. The fact that the jury ultimately awarded only $1.00 in nominal damages suggests that some reduction in the requested attorney's fees is appropriate, especially where Ms. Dunlap's retaliation claim did not survive summary judgment.

However, the Tenth Circuit has recognized that a lack of success in proving damages is not dispositive where other interests are implicated. See, e.g., Phelps, 120 F.3d at 1132 (finding that, where plaintiffs prevailed on only one of four claims, declaratory judgment in plaintiffs' favor overturning state statute as unconstitutionally vague "does not weigh in favor of characterizing the plaintiffs' victory as merely technical or de minimis "); Koopman v. Water Dist. No. 1 of Johnson Cnty., Kan, 41 F.3d 1417, 1421 (10th Cir. 1994) (reversing denial of attorney's fees because plaintiff's nominal damages award benefitted other employees by placing defendant on notice that its termination proceedings were constitutionally inadequate). The Court finds that this is just such a case. At trial, there was significant testimony describing the general nature of the work environment at Spec Pro. Spec Pro's human resources investigator said of Ms. Dunlap's workplace, "everyone was voluntarily participating in unwelcome conduct or misconduct." Docket No. 80 at 7, p. 412:20-21. The evidence presented at trial suggested that this environment persisted for a significant period of time before Spec Pro took corrective action. Spec Pro claims that, by failing to prevail on her claim of supervisor sexual harassment, Ms. Dunlap did not show that Spec Pro's management level employees contributed to the hostile work environment. Docket No. 77 at 5-6. The jury's verdict on Ms. Dunlap's supervisor sexual harassment claim, while rejecting a claim that her supervisors sexually harassed her, does not indicate that the jury found that Spec Pro's management level employees were unaware of the existence of a hostile work environment. See Docket No. 73-2 at 12. Rather, by finding in Ms. Dunlap's favor on her claim of co-worker sexual harassment, the jury necessarily found that management level employees knew or should have known of the hostile work environment present at Spec Pro and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action. See id. at 10. Although Spec Pro claims that the work environment was eventually corrected, Ms. Dunlap's victory benefits future employees by placing Spec Pro on notice that it must maintain a workplace free from sexual harassment. Moreover, this case was filed and tried to a jury in less than two years and, as such, was not unnecessarily protracted in relation to the relief obtained. See Brandau v. State of Kan., 168 F.3d 1179, 1182 (10th Cir. 1999); cf. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 116 (O'Connor, J., concurring) (noting that 10 years of litigation and two appeals yielding one dollar in damages was unnecessarily protracted litigation). The Court finds that this factor is neutral.

The second factor examines the "extent to which the plaintiff[] succeeded on [her] theory of liability." Phelps, 120 F.3d at 1132. Although Ms. Dunlap's retaliation claim did not survive summary judgment, she succeeded on her hostile work environment claim. See Brandau, 168 F.3d at 1182 ("although [plaintiff] lost her retaliation and constructive discharge claims, " verdict in plaintiff's favor on sexual harassment claim was significant legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed). Spec Pro argues that Ms. Dunlap's failure to prevail on her claim of supervisor sexual harassment indicates only minimal success. Docket ...


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