Doe v. University of Connecticut, Docket No. 3:20cv92 (MPS), 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21267 (D. Conn. Feb. 4, 2021)
02/09/2021In December 2019, John Doe was found responsible for sexual misconduct and suspended for two years. Doe then successfully moved for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”), and the Court ordered UCONN to reinstate John Doe for the upcoming spring semester. Shortly thereafter, the parties settled, and judgment was entered when the Court granted the parties’ consent order. The consent order vacated the findings and sanctions against Doe, and required UCONN to hold a new hearing with increased due process protections. Doe then moved for attorney’s fees under § 1988(b) to recover fees for: 1) the first underlying administrative process phase; 2) preparation of the lawsuit and its eventual settlement; 3) Doe's petition for reasonable attorney fees and costs; and 4) Doe's representation on rehearing.
To recover attorney’s fees under § 1988(b), the plaintiff must be the “prevailing party.” The Supreme Court has given the term "prevailing party" a "generous formulation," under which a plaintiff who succeeds "on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit" is considered a prevailing party. Through the settlement, Doe was able to obtain much of the relief he sought in his TRO and Amended Complaint, including removing adverse references from his transcript, and affording Doe a new hearing with more equitable procedures — one that ultimately resulted in his being found not responsible for sexual misconduct. Ultimately, this allowed him to graduate from college on schedule. As such, Doe was the prevailing party and was entitled to attorney’s fees.
The amount of attorney’s fees recoverable is determined by the reasonableness of the fees requested. Here, Doe’s attempt to recover fees for the underlying administrative process was denied. § 1983 does not require a plaintiff to exhaust their remedies before filing a lawsuit in federal court. Additionally, the underlying disciplinary proceeding served as a basis for the §1983 claim. As such, the time spent defending Doe in the school disciplinary proceedings were not part of an "action or proceeding to enforce the provisions of section ... 1983,” and Doe could not recover attorney’s fees stemming from those proceedings. While Doe may have been able to recover for discrete portions of work in such proceedings that were useful and necessary to advance Doe's § 1983 claim, Doe failed to identify any such discrete portions of work.
Because Doe did not prevail on his contract claims, UCONN moved to reduce Doe’s fee recovery by 75 percent, to reflect the fact that Doe did not prevail on 3 out of 4 claims. While Doe’s success was limited to his due process claims, the Court did not give equal weight to each of the claims. Instead, the Court noted that the bulk of the attorney’s time was spent on pursuing the due process claim. Furthermore, as discussed above, Doe’s success on his due process claim was enough to obtain most of the relief he sought. Rather than reduce Doe’s fees by 75 percent, the Court only reduced Doe’s fees based on the billing entries that related to pursuing the contract-based claims.
The Court assumed for purposes of this ruling that, in general, post-judgment fees incurred for administrative proceedings that result from the judgment are compensable under § 1988. Accordingly, the Court granted Doe attorney’s fees for time spent defending Doe in the second disciplinary hearing. Finally, Doe was able to recover the fees associated with filing this petition for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Generally, the fee award for preparing and defending a fee application must fall within a range from eight to twenty-four percent of the total award for the total time spent on the case. Doe’s request fell within this range, so the Court granted the requested fees.
Doe had originally requested an award for attorney's fees and costs in the amount of $105,590.11. This was based in part upon 218.2 hours of attorney time at $450 per hour. The Court reduced the fee award to 150.4 hours at $400 per hour, for a total of $60,160.00 in attorney's fees and $3035.11 in costs.CATEGORY: Civil Litigation