A federal judge in Pennsylvania granted most of the attorney fees requested after an employment discrimination case was resolved with a Rule 68 offer of judgment, despite the defense’s argument that one of the attorneys lacked experience in employment cases.
The plaintiff, Cynthia Chaney, sought $38,187.50 in fees and costs, which was contested by Pittsburgh-based vitamin maker HVL Inc. on the grounds that the rate and number of hours requested by her lawyer were excessive.
“Chaney’s fee request reflected the work of four individuals, but HVL only contests the rate of attorney Robert Bracken,” said U.S. District Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster of the Western District of Pennsylvania in Chaney v. HVL. “HVL argues that this requested $300 hourly rate is inappropriate given Mr. Bracken’s ‘dearth of experience’ in employment cases.”
Lancaster disagreed. He held that Bracken’s rate was commensurate with his level of experience in litigating employment law in the Pittsburgh area and reduced it by about $2,500.
Chaney had brought claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that her employer, HVL, had discriminated against her before firing her in violation of the federal acts.
“Both parties agree that the suit was characterized by a ‘limited damages profile,’” Lancaster said. Chaney accepted an offer of judgment for $25,000, not including attorney fees, which she could pursue separately.
Of the total 107 hours that Bracken billed, HVL objected to more than half, as well as nearly 20 hours billed by paralegals.
Lancaster agreed with Chaney that the 16 hours Bracken spent generating two pivotal documents—the charge of discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the complaint—were reasonable.
“The standard requires reasonableness, not the bare minimum effort required to complete a given task,” Lancaster said. “We will not disallow any of these hours.”
He did, however, reduce the number of hours spent on discovery. Bracken had spent 31 hours and a paralegal had spent 14 hours compiling discovery documents.
HVL argued that the bulk of the documents that Bracken reviewed and prepared were medical records not relevant to HVL’s requests, since it had already conceded that Chaney was disabled for the purposes of the FMLA.
However, HVL did contest Chaney’s status as a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA and asked for information about her medical history, Lancaster said.
“Chaney’s status as a qualified individual under the ADA represents a significantly different inquiry than whether she has a ‘serious medical condition’ as defined by the FMLA,” Lancaster said, citing the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s 2002 opinion in Peter v. Lincoln Technical Institute, which explains the difference.
Regarding three specific dates, totaling about 15 hours, Lancaster said, “because Chaney bears the burden to justify the hours expended, the 15 total hours attorney Bracken spent to review and produce documents and the 14 hours expended by his paralegal organizing and labeling those documents will be reduced by one-third. The remaining 16.3 hours Mr. Bracken spent on discovery-related tasks is reasonable and will not be reduced.”
Lancaster sided with Chaney on a couple of minor issues two entries of 0.1 hours for “inter-office communication between Mr. Bracken and a paralegal” and half an hour for a paralegal to hand-deliver Chaney’s charge to the EEOC.
HVL had argued that it was “inappropriate” for Bracken to submit the time he spent conferring with a paralegal and characterized the hand delivery as “needless,” according to the opinion.
“The hand delivery of crucial documents is not unusual, and the court will not penalize counsel for choosing not to mail the time-sensitive charge,” Lancaster said.
However, on another small charge, Lancaster nicked an hour and a half from the three hours that Chaney had submitted for a paralegal’s time for filing documents.
Lancaster agreed with HVL that Bracken didn’t need two hours to prepare for a Rule 16 conference and shaved an hour off of the submitted time.
“Given Mr. Bracken’s intimate involvement in this case, the court fails to see why it would require nearly two hours to prepare to discuss the case,” Lancaster said.
However, the judge did side with Chaney on the 5½ hours for Bracken’s preparation for mediation.
“Although the case did not settle as a result of mediation, the court takes alternative dispute resolution very seriously and is disinclined to penalize counsel for preparing for it adequately,” Lancaster said.
In total, Lancaster awarded Chaney $34,510 in attorney fees, a reduction of $2,420 from what she had sought, and $1,257.50 in costs, which weren’t contested.
Lancaster did a thorough analysis and “rendered a fair award,” said Bracken of Archinaco Bracken in Pittsburgh, who represented Chaney.
Joseph Quinn, of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Pittsburgh, represented HVL and couldn’t be reached for comment.