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Roane v. Frankie's Bar & Grill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 27, 2018

KLANCIE A. ROANE, Plaintiff,
v.
FRANKIE'S BAR & GRILL, a/k/a Frankie's Inc., n/k/a Frankie's Inc. dissolved May 27, 2016, FRANKIE D. PATTON, and KATHLEEN PATTON, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES

          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Klancie A. Roane's Motion for Attorney's Fees, wherein she requests an award of $108, 780.00 in fees. For the following reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's motion and awards $55, 219.50 in fees.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff initiated this case in late 2016, alleging Title VII claims of discrimination and retaliation against Defendants Frankie's Bar and Grill, Frankie Patton, and Kathleen Patton. (Doc. # 4.) This Court dismissed Plaintiff's retaliation claim on summary judgment in October 2017. (Doc. # 36.) Claims of a hostile work environment and pregnancy discrimination were then tried to a jury on April 16-18, 2018. (Doc. ## 53- 55.) The jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on her pregnancy discrimination claim but not on her claim of a hostile work environment. (Doc. # 58 at 1.) The jury also awarded Plaintiff $500 in back pay, but reduced the award by $499 based on Plaintiff's failure to mitigate those damages, resulting in a net compensatory damage award of $1. (Id. at 1-2.) The jury did not award emotional distress or punitive damages. (Id.)

         Pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e)-5(k), Plaintiff now requests $108, 780.00 in fees for the work of her attorney, Andrew Brake, on her case. Defendants object to Plaintiff's request, contending that (1) Plaintiff is not entitled to recover fees because she is not the prevailing party in this case and, (2) even if she is entitled to fees, the amount requested should be reduced based on her limited success. (Doc. # 69). Defendants also argue that the hours Plaintiff's attorney expended and his billable rate are unreasonable. The Court addresses each dispute in turn.

         II. PLAINTIFF'S DEGREE OF SUCCESS

         A. PREVAILING PARTY

         1. Law

         “To determine whether a prevailing party achieved enough success to be entitled to an award of attorney's fees, ” the district court must assess the “relevant indicia of [plaintiff's] success.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 122 (1992) (O'Connor, J., concurring); see also Phelps v. Hamilton, 120 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir.1997) (adopting Justice O'Connor's framework); Brandau v. State of Kansas, 168 F.3d 1179, 1181 (10th Cir. 1999) (applying the framework to an employment discrimination case). To examine the indicia of success, the court examines (1) the difference between the judgment recovered and the judgment sought, i.e. whether the recovery was “merely technical or de minimis”; (2) “the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff prevailed”; and (3) “the public purpose served” by the litigation. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 117 (O'Conner, J., concurring); Gudenkauf v. Stauffer Commc'ns, Inc., 158 F.3d 1074, 1078 (10th Cir. 1998).

         “No one factor is necessarily controlling; nor should all three factors necessarily be given equal weight.” Barber v. T.D. Williamson, Inc., 254 F.3d 1223, 1233 (10th Cir. 2001). The bottom line is that “all three factors should be given due consideration but ultimately it is within the discretion of . . . the district court to determine what constitutes a reasonable fee given the particular circumstances.” Id.

         2. Analysis

         Evaluating these factors and Tenth Circuit case law applying them, the Court finds that Plaintiff has achieved enough success to support an award of attorney fees as the prevailing party in this litigation.

         With respect to the first Farrar factor, the Court considers the nominal difference between the amount Plaintiff sought and the damages she recovered in the context of the entire litigation. In this case, Plaintiff requested just over $10, 000.00 in back pay and an unspecified amount in emotional distress and punitive damages. Her ultimate award was $1. Although this difference could indicate that “the “litigation accomplished little beyond giving the [plaintiff] the moral satisfaction of knowing that a federal court concluded that [her] rights had been violated in some unspecified way, ” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 117 (O'Conner, J., concurring), the difference is remarkably distinct from the corresponding difference in Farrar. There, the Supreme Court declined to award fees in part because the plaintiff sought $17 million and recovered only $1 in nominal damages. Moreover, unlike in Farrar, where the litigation which was drawn out over ten years and two appeals, Plaintiff's litigation in this case was not protracted. Koopman v. Water Dist. No. 1 of Johnson Cty., Kan., 41 F.3d 1417, 1421 (10th Cir. 1994) (finding a small recovery insignificant where litigation was not protracted nor the claims for damages extravagant). Further, in mixed motive cases, like this one, the Tenth Circuit has repeatedly held that attorney fee statutes support an award of fees to the prevailing party “notwithstanding the lack of a damages award.” Gudenkauf v. Stauffer Commc'ns, Inc., 158 F.3d 1074, 1081 (10th Cir. 1998). Thus, the Tenth Circuit often deems a plaintiff prevailing despite an award of only nominal damages, as occurred Brandau, 168 F.3d at 1182, where the Plaintiff sought 21 months of back pay and $50, 000 in non-economic damages but achieved only a nominal recovery of $1. Thus, despite Plaintiff's limited financial success, the Court does not find that her victory was “merely technical or de minimis.” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 122 (O'Conner, J., concurring).

         The second factor-i.e., “the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiff claims to have prevailed, ” id. at 121-“goes beyond the actual relief awarded [which is the focus of the first factor] to examine the extent to which the plaintiff[ ] succeeded on [her] theory of liability.” Barber v. T.D. Williamson, Inc., 254 F.3d 1223, 1231 (10th Cir. 2001). Even where a plaintiff loses on more claims than she wins, courts have found her to prevail where she succeeds on her primary theory of liability. E.g., Brandau, 168 F.3d at 1182 (affirming the district court's decision that the plaintiff succeeded on a significant legal issue because, although she lost her retaliation and constructive discharge claims, she prevailed on her primary claim of sexual harassment); Phelps, 120 F.3d at 1132 (“That the plaintiffs prevailed on only one of their four underlying claims itself does not diminish the reasonableness of awarding some attorney's fees.”). That is precisely what occurred in this case: Plaintiff lost on her retaliation and hostile work environment claims, but she succeeded on her primary theory of liability-pregnancy discrimination. The Court therefore finds that Plaintiff “succeeded on a ‘significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit [she] sought in bringing suit.'” Brandau, 168 F.3d at 1182 (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)).

         With respect to the third and final Farrar factor-the public purpose served by the litigation-the Tenth Circuit has explained, “a public goal is accomplished if the plaintiff's victory encourages attorneys to represent civil rights litigants, affirms an important right, puts the defendant on notice that it needs to improve, and/or provokes a change in the defendant's conduct.” Barber, 254 F.3d at 1232. Because the jury, after weighing all the evidence presented at trial, found that Defendants had discriminated against Plaintiff based on her pregnancy, the Court cannot conclude that no public purpose was served. The jury instead affirmed an important civil right and put Defendants and others on notice of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. In so concluding, the Court rejects Defendants argument that, because Defendant Frankie's Bar & Grill no longer exists, no public purpose was served by the jury's discrimination finding. To begin, Defendant Frankie's Bar & Grill does exist, albeit under new management, and Defendant Frankie Patton continues to operate another restaurant. Deterring future discrimination by these Defendants therefore remains an issue for this Court to consider. Moreover, the Tenth Circuit has adopted a broad approach to the third factor, noting that consideration of the “public goal” accomplished extends beyond just the plaintiff and defendant in the case to a consideration of the “basic rights for [other] employees” in similar circumstances. Koopman, 41 F.3d at 1421. “[W]hat is controlling is plaintiff's vindication of her civil rights and of important rights of her co-workers.” Brandau, 168 F.3d at 1183.

         Having given all three Farrar factors due consideration, the Court, in its discretion, finds that Plaintiff has achieved enough success to be entitled to an award of ...


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