PIURKOWSKI v. GOGGIN

3:01CV302(sru).

2004 | Cited 0 times | D. Connecticut | July 6, 2004

RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

Defendants, Michael Googin ("Googin"),1 Fred Spagnolo("Spagnolo"), James Eagan ("Eagan"),2 Nicholas DeMatteis("DeMatteis"), Frank Koshes ("Koshes"), Timothy Kluntz("Kluntz"), Lawrence Smith ("Smith"), Robert Jones ("Jones") andAnthony Appicella ("Appicella")3 (collectively "thedefendants"), have moved pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for anaward of attorneys' fees in their favor as prevailing parties inan action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff StanleyPiurkowski ("Piurkowski") initially filed his complaint onFebruary 28, 2001, naming all of the aforementioned individualsexcept defendant Eagan, alleging primarily a constitutional claimarising from the unreasonable execution of a search warrant. Piurkowski amendedhis complaint on October 6, 2001, to include an additional claimagainst Eagan, specifically that Eagan stole $4,000 fromPiurkowski's home while executing the warrant in question.

On September 30, 2002, the defendants filed a motion forsummary judgment. On May 12, 2003, the motion was denied in opencourt. The case proceeded to trial on October 6, 2003. That sameday, the court granted motions for judgment in favor ofdefendants Googin, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, andAppicella. During his case in chief, Piurkowski moved to dismissclaims against Eagan on grounds of mistaken identity. On October8, 2003, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the remainingdefendants, Spagnolo and Jones. For the following reasons, thecourt will award attorneys' fees in the amount of $2,100 in favorof defendants Googin, Eagan, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith,and Appicella.

Standard for Motions for Attorneys' Fees

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, "the court, in its discretion,may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's feeas part of the costs. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Althoughprevailing plaintiffs in civil rights cases may recoverattorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 as a matter of course,prevailing defendants seeking to recover attorneys' fees mustmeet a higher standard. Oliveri v. Thompson, 803 F.2d 1265,1272 (2d Cir. 1986). The distinction between the standards servesboth to accommodate plaintiffs whose constitutional rights havebeen violated and to deter frivolous litigation. ChristiansburgGarment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978); see alsoLamson v. Blumenthal, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24785 (D. Conn.2003). The Supreme Court established in the landmark decision ofChristiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC that in order for aprevailing defendant to collect attorneys' fees under Title VII,such defendant must show that "the plaintiff's action wasfrivolous, unreasonable or without foundation . . . or that theplaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so."Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 422. The Supreme Courtformally adopted the Christiansburg standard for cases broughtunder 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14(1980).

Under the Christiansburg standard, the decision to award feesto a defendant is "entrusted to the discretion of the districtcourt. . . ." Parker v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.,260 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir. 2001). Although the district court mustfactor into its decision the procedural history of the case,considering whether or not the case survived motions for summaryjudgment and motions for a directed verdict, such inquiry is notdispositive of a motion for attorneys' fees. See Perry v. S.Z.Restaurant Corp., 45 F. Supp.2d 272, 274 (S.D.N.Y. 1999);Dangler v. Yorktown Central School, 777 F. Supp. 1175, 1178(S.D.N.Y. 1991); Steinberg v. St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel,583 F. Supp. 421, 424 (S.D.N.Y. 1984).

District courts are authorized to consider a plaintiff'sargument and evidence at trial when assessing whether or not alawsuit is frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation. TheSecond Circuit has upheld a district court's decision to grantattorneys' fees to prevailing defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1988on grounds that the plaintiff failed "to make any showing ofevidentiary support for his claim. . . ." Gerena-Valentin v.Koch, 739 F.2d 755, 761 (2d Cir. 1984); see also Doehr v.DiGiovanni, 8 F. Supp.2d 172, 174 (D. Conn. 1998). [EDITORS' NOTE: THIS PAGE IS BLANK.] Discussion

The defendants argue that Piurkowski's lawsuit was entirelyfrivolous and that Pirukowski and his counsel should have knownthat it was. Piurkowski's counsel conducted no discovery in thiscase. He took no depositions and served no written discoveryrequests. Although Piurkowski survived the defendants' motion forsummary judgment, he did so without submitting an affidavit insupport of his opposition to that motion. The names of defendantsin this lawsuit appear to have been gleaned from the policereport and supplemented with an identification of Eagan thatPiurkowski obtained from a bartender. It is not clear thatPiurkowski or his attorney conducted any additional inquiry intowho actually executed the search warrant at issue.

Defendants note, in particular, that Piurkowski and his counselwere made aware that defendant Eagan could not have been party tothe incidents prompting this lawsuit, but proceeded with the caseagainst him nonetheless. They allege that both prior to and atthe start of trial, Piurkowski's attorney, John Williams, wasinformed that Detective James Eagan was neither working on thenight of the search in question, nor present at Piurkowski's homeduring the search. Piurkowski proceeded with the case againstEagan, moving to dismiss him from the case only after trial waswell underway. Piurkowski has not responded to this allegation inhis papers.

Apart from his own thin testimony, Piurkowski producedvirtually no evidence at trial to substantiate any of his claims.Piurkowski provided no evidence other than his supposition tosupport the allegations that Eagan (or any other defendant) stole$4,000 from his home or that the defendants acted in concert withone another while executing the valid search warrant in his home.Piurkowski acknowledged in testimony that he did not witnessanyone take money from his home, but added Eagan's name to the complaint because he saw an individual at abar, who appeared to be of the same physical build as an officerwho had searched his home, and a bartender at the bar identifiedthe man as Eagan. It was only during Piurkowski's own testimonyon the stand that he acknowledged that he had improperly accusedEagan. He then decided to accuse Spagnolo of the theft withoutoffering any additional evidence supporting this new allegation.

After reviewing the defendants' motion, the plaintiff'sresponse and the trial evidence, I find that Piurkowski's lawsuitwas unreasonable and without foundation with regard to defendantsGoogin, Eagan, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, and Appicella.An award of attorneys' fees is appropriate because Piurkowski wasunable to provide any evidence to substantiate his claims againstthese defendants. Attorneys' fees are inappropriate, however, infavor of Spagnolo and Jones because Piurkowski presented evidencesufficient to withstand a motion for directed verdict with regardto claims against those two individuals.

The Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of imposingattorneys' fees on plaintiffs who bring unfounded lawsuits basedon insufficient factual and legal premises. Christiansburg, 434U.S. at 420. Piurkowski has brought just such a case.

Calculation of the Award

In order to calculate the relevant amount of attorneys' fees,the court must determine the relevant lodestar amount, which isdetermined by multiplying "the number of hours reasonablyexpended on the litigation . . . by a reasonable hourly rate."Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see alsoQuaratino v. Tiffany & Co., 166 F.3d 422, 424-25 (2d Cir.1999). This rate should be supported by "evidence supporting the hours worked and ratesclaimed." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Notably, the defendantshave not provided the court with such evidence, and thus are notin full compliance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d). Rule 54(d)(2)(B)requires the moving party to "state the amount or provide a fairestimate of the amount sought."4 Accordingly, I willcalculate the fee award based on my own observations of the caseand familiarity with prevailing billing rates.

A determination of reasonable attorneys' fees requiresconsideration of rates for similar services by similarly skilledattorneys. See Anderson v. City of New York, 132 F. Supp.2d 239,243 (S.D.N.Y. 2001). Also relevant to a proper calculationof attorneys' fees is consideration of the need to "fulfill thedeterrent purpose of the statute, but [] not cause financial ruinto the plaintiff[]." Faraci v. Hickey-Freeman Co.,607 F.2d 1025, 1029 (2d Cir. 1979). Piurkowski, however, has offeredlittle guidance on the subject, making no representations abouthis ability to pay. Based on circumstantial evidence from thetrial, it appears that Piurkowski earns at best a modest income.

A fair rate for lawyers with expertise and experience similarto defense attorney, Michelle Holmes, is at the very least $150per hour.5 Piurkowski's trial was conducted over thecourse of two days, or approximately fourteen hours, includingtravel from the Hartford area. Fourteen hours at $150 per hourbrings the total cost of Holmes' services for the trial to$2,100. This amount does not compensate Holmes for the entirety of the services she performedon behalf of her clients, but is a fair sum in light of thedenial of the defendants' motion with regard to Jones andSpagnolo and because of defendants' failure to provide the courtwith an attorneys' fees affidavit in support of their motion.See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 ("Where the documentation ofhours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the awardaccordingly.").

For the aforementioned reasons, the defendants' motion forattorney fees (doc. # 81) is GRANTED. Piurkowski shall payattorneys' fees of $2,100 to be split among Googin, Eagan,DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, and Appicella.

It is so ordered.

1. "Michael Goggin" is elsewhere referred to as "MichaelGoogin" in the plaintiff's papers. It appears that his name isactually spelled "Googin."

2. "James Eagan" is elsewhere referred to as "James Egan" inthe plaintiff's papers. It appears that his name is actuallyspelled "Eagan."

3. Piurkowski did not list the first name of defendants,DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, Jones or Appicella in hiscomplaint. The first names are taken from defendants' briefs.

4. The defendants did estimate fees in an amount of $20,000,but never substantiated that estimate.

5. Judges in the District of Connecticut have consideredhourly rates of between $250 and $300 reasonable for attorneyswith a great deal of expertise in their legal field. Factorsrelevant to determining an appropriate rate of compensationinclude the size of the law firm, the national or local characterof the practice, and the size and prevailing hourly rates of thelocality where the practice is located. See e.g., ConnecticutState Department of Social Services v. Thompson, 2003 U.S. Dist.LEXIS 18987, 14-18 (D. Conn. 2003).

RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

Defendants, Michael Googin ("Googin"),1 Fred Spagnolo("Spagnolo"), James Eagan ("Eagan"),2 Nicholas DeMatteis("DeMatteis"), Frank Koshes ("Koshes"), Timothy Kluntz("Kluntz"), Lawrence Smith ("Smith"), Robert Jones ("Jones") andAnthony Appicella ("Appicella")3 (collectively "thedefendants"), have moved pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for anaward of attorneys' fees in their favor as prevailing parties inan action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff StanleyPiurkowski ("Piurkowski") initially filed his complaint onFebruary 28, 2001, naming all of the aforementioned individualsexcept defendant Eagan, alleging primarily a constitutional claimarising from the unreasonable execution of a search warrant. Piurkowski amendedhis complaint on October 6, 2001, to include an additional claimagainst Eagan, specifically that Eagan stole $4,000 fromPiurkowski's home while executing the warrant in question.

On September 30, 2002, the defendants filed a motion forsummary judgment. On May 12, 2003, the motion was denied in opencourt. The case proceeded to trial on October 6, 2003. That sameday, the court granted motions for judgment in favor ofdefendants Googin, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, andAppicella. During his case in chief, Piurkowski moved to dismissclaims against Eagan on grounds of mistaken identity. On October8, 2003, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the remainingdefendants, Spagnolo and Jones. For the following reasons, thecourt will award attorneys' fees in the amount of $2,100 in favorof defendants Googin, Eagan, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith,and Appicella.

Standard for Motions for Attorneys' Fees

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, "the court, in its discretion,may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's feeas part of the costs. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Althoughprevailing plaintiffs in civil rights cases may recoverattorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 as a matter of course,prevailing defendants seeking to recover attorneys' fees mustmeet a higher standard. Oliveri v. Thompson, 803 F.2d 1265,1272 (2d Cir. 1986). The distinction between the standards servesboth to accommodate plaintiffs whose constitutional rights havebeen violated and to deter frivolous litigation. ChristiansburgGarment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978); see alsoLamson v. Blumenthal, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24785 (D. Conn.2003). The Supreme Court established in the landmark decision ofChristiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC that in order for aprevailing defendant to collect attorneys' fees under Title VII,such defendant must show that "the plaintiff's action wasfrivolous, unreasonable or without foundation . . . or that theplaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so."Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 422. The Supreme Courtformally adopted the Christiansburg standard for cases broughtunder 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14(1980).

Under the Christiansburg standard, the decision to award feesto a defendant is "entrusted to the discretion of the districtcourt. . . ." Parker v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.,260 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir. 2001). Although the district court mustfactor into its decision the procedural history of the case,considering whether or not the case survived motions for summaryjudgment and motions for a directed verdict, such inquiry is notdispositive of a motion for attorneys' fees. See Perry v. S.Z.Restaurant Corp., 45 F. Supp.2d 272, 274 (S.D.N.Y. 1999);Dangler v. Yorktown Central School, 777 F. Supp. 1175, 1178(S.D.N.Y. 1991); Steinberg v. St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel,583 F. Supp. 421, 424 (S.D.N.Y. 1984).

District courts are authorized to consider a plaintiff'sargument and evidence at trial when assessing whether or not alawsuit is frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation. TheSecond Circuit has upheld a district court's decision to grantattorneys' fees to prevailing defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1988on grounds that the plaintiff failed "to make any showing ofevidentiary support for his claim. . . ." Gerena-Valentin v.Koch, 739 F.2d 755, 761 (2d Cir. 1984); see also Doehr v.DiGiovanni, 8 F. Supp.2d 172, 174 (D. Conn. 1998). [EDITORS' NOTE: THIS PAGE IS BLANK.] Discussion

The defendants argue that Piurkowski's lawsuit was entirelyfrivolous and that Pirukowski and his counsel should have knownthat it was. Piurkowski's counsel conducted no discovery in thiscase. He took no depositions and served no written discoveryrequests. Although Piurkowski survived the defendants' motion forsummary judgment, he did so without submitting an affidavit insupport of his opposition to that motion. The names of defendantsin this lawsuit appear to have been gleaned from the policereport and supplemented with an identification of Eagan thatPiurkowski obtained from a bartender. It is not clear thatPiurkowski or his attorney conducted any additional inquiry intowho actually executed the search warrant at issue.

Defendants note, in particular, that Piurkowski and his counselwere made aware that defendant Eagan could not have been party tothe incidents prompting this lawsuit, but proceeded with the caseagainst him nonetheless. They allege that both prior to and atthe start of trial, Piurkowski's attorney, John Williams, wasinformed that Detective James Eagan was neither working on thenight of the search in question, nor present at Piurkowski's homeduring the search. Piurkowski proceeded with the case againstEagan, moving to dismiss him from the case only after trial waswell underway. Piurkowski has not responded to this allegation inhis papers.

Apart from his own thin testimony, Piurkowski producedvirtually no evidence at trial to substantiate any of his claims.Piurkowski provided no evidence other than his supposition tosupport the allegations that Eagan (or any other defendant) stole$4,000 from his home or that the defendants acted in concert withone another while executing the valid search warrant in his home.Piurkowski acknowledged in testimony that he did not witnessanyone take money from his home, but added Eagan's name to the complaint because he saw an individual at abar, who appeared to be of the same physical build as an officerwho had searched his home, and a bartender at the bar identifiedthe man as Eagan. It was only during Piurkowski's own testimonyon the stand that he acknowledged that he had improperly accusedEagan. He then decided to accuse Spagnolo of the theft withoutoffering any additional evidence supporting this new allegation.

After reviewing the defendants' motion, the plaintiff'sresponse and the trial evidence, I find that Piurkowski's lawsuitwas unreasonable and without foundation with regard to defendantsGoogin, Eagan, DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, and Appicella.An award of attorneys' fees is appropriate because Piurkowski wasunable to provide any evidence to substantiate his claims againstthese defendants. Attorneys' fees are inappropriate, however, infavor of Spagnolo and Jones because Piurkowski presented evidencesufficient to withstand a motion for directed verdict with regardto claims against those two individuals.

The Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of imposingattorneys' fees on plaintiffs who bring unfounded lawsuits basedon insufficient factual and legal premises. Christiansburg, 434U.S. at 420. Piurkowski has brought just such a case.

Calculation of the Award

In order to calculate the relevant amount of attorneys' fees,the court must determine the relevant lodestar amount, which isdetermined by multiplying "the number of hours reasonablyexpended on the litigation . . . by a reasonable hourly rate."Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see alsoQuaratino v. Tiffany & Co., 166 F.3d 422, 424-25 (2d Cir.1999). This rate should be supported by "evidence supporting the hours worked and ratesclaimed." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. Notably, the defendantshave not provided the court with such evidence, and thus are notin full compliance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d). Rule 54(d)(2)(B)requires the moving party to "state the amount or provide a fairestimate of the amount sought."4 Accordingly, I willcalculate the fee award based on my own observations of the caseand familiarity with prevailing billing rates.

A determination of reasonable attorneys' fees requiresconsideration of rates for similar services by similarly skilledattorneys. See Anderson v. City of New York, 132 F. Supp.2d 239,243 (S.D.N.Y. 2001). Also relevant to a proper calculationof attorneys' fees is consideration of the need to "fulfill thedeterrent purpose of the statute, but [] not cause financial ruinto the plaintiff[]." Faraci v. Hickey-Freeman Co.,607 F.2d 1025, 1029 (2d Cir. 1979). Piurkowski, however, has offeredlittle guidance on the subject, making no representations abouthis ability to pay. Based on circumstantial evidence from thetrial, it appears that Piurkowski earns at best a modest income.

A fair rate for lawyers with expertise and experience similarto defense attorney, Michelle Holmes, is at the very least $150per hour.5 Piurkowski's trial was conducted over thecourse of two days, or approximately fourteen hours, includingtravel from the Hartford area. Fourteen hours at $150 per hourbrings the total cost of Holmes' services for the trial to$2,100. This amount does not compensate Holmes for the entirety of the services she performedon behalf of her clients, but is a fair sum in light of thedenial of the defendants' motion with regard to Jones andSpagnolo and because of defendants' failure to provide the courtwith an attorneys' fees affidavit in support of their motion.See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 ("Where the documentation ofhours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the awardaccordingly.").

For the aforementioned reasons, the defendants' motion forattorney fees (doc. # 81) is GRANTED. Piurkowski shall payattorneys' fees of $2,100 to be split among Googin, Eagan,DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, and Appicella.

It is so ordered.

1. "Michael Goggin" is elsewhere referred to as "MichaelGoogin" in the plaintiff's papers. It appears that his name isactually spelled "Googin."

2. "James Eagan" is elsewhere referred to as "James Egan" inthe plaintiff's papers. It appears that his name is actuallyspelled "Eagan."

3. Piurkowski did not list the first name of defendants,DeMatteis, Koshes, Kluntz, Smith, Jones or Appicella in hiscomplaint. The first names are taken from defendants' briefs.

4. The defendants did estimate fees in an amount of $20,000,but never substantiated that estimate.

5. Judges in the District of Connecticut have consideredhourly rates of between $250 and $300 reasonable for attorneyswith a great deal of expertise in their legal field. Factorsrelevant to determining an appropriate rate of compensationinclude the size of the law firm, the national or local characterof the practice, and the size and prevailing hourly rates of thelocality where the practice is located. See e.g., ConnecticutState Department of Social Services v. Thompson, 2003 U.S. Dist.LEXIS 18987, 14-18 (D. Conn. 2003).

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