ALBANY – A federal judge awarded $132,217 in legal fees to attorneys for a woman whose car was seized by Albany police and held for more than a year in what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said was a violation of her constitutional rights.
Though cutting the billable hours from the “excessive” 739.7 sought by lawyers for plaintiff Constance Hines to 517.8, Northern District Judge Glenn Suddaby (See Profile) affirmed that Hines was the prevailing party in Hines v. City of Albany, 1:06-cv-1517. The city had contended that it won on 90 of the 91 claims Hines’ attorneys brought in the civil rights case.
Suddaby ruled that even if the city’s calculation is correct, city attorneys have no “legal support for their argument that a party who prevails on only a small percentage of her claims is not a prevailing party.”
Nor does the fact that Hines received a $10,000 award for damages out of the $600,000 she originally sought mean the plaintiff received a “minimal” award for which the judge should grant a minimum legal fees award, or none at all, as the city urged, Suddaby ruled.
“Here, given that plaintiff Constance Hines received $10,000 in damages from defendants and that this court as well as the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the city of Albany’s policy of holding seized property without affording a hearing was unconstitutional, the damages in this action cannot be classified as nominal,” Suddaby wrote.
Hines said her 2000 Cadillac Escalade was illegally seized by police following a raid and search of her home on April 29, 2006, by several officers who had an arrest warrant for her son, Prince Hines. Constance Hines said that although she and Prince Hines repeatedly told police on the scene that the Escalade was hers, it was nevertheless seized without a warrant and driven away.
Police said they had evidence that Prince Hines dealt drugs from the vehicle, a contention that the Hines family denied.
Subsequently, Constance Hines said she repeatedly contacted the city’s police department and the state attorney general’s office seeking the vehicle’s return.
In September 2006, then-Police Chief James Tuffey told Constance Hines that the Escalade was being held as part of a narcotics investigation by city police and the attorney general’s office. Tuffey told Hines that authorities intended to hold the vehicle “until said investigation is complete.”
The vehicle was finally returned 15 months after its seizure.
Hines filed a civil rights action, claiming constitutional violations for the seizure and impoundment of her car and for being improperly detained for eight hours on the day of the police raid.
In July 2011, Northern District Judge Neal McCurn ruled that police lacked probable cause to seize the Escalade and that Constance Hines should have received a hearing once she formally contested its impoundment. He also ruled that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.
Under a subsequent settlement, Constance Hines and her daughter, Marshay Hines, agreed to accept a $10,000 award on the unlawful seizure claim and to drop the unlawful detention claim.
The settlement allowed the city to appeal McCurn’s ruling to the Second Circuit with the understanding that the $10,000 would be voided if the appeals judges ruled against the district judge’s decision. But the Second Circuit upheld McCurn’s determination in 2013 in Hines v. Albany Police Dept. 2013 WL 1276559.
Phillip Steck, a state assemblyman from Albany, sought legal fees of $56,907 on behalf of himself and three other attorneys at Cooper Erving & Savage, the Albany firm where Steck is a partner.
Thomas Marcelle of Slingerlands, Steck’s co-counsel for Constance Hines and her daughter, sought $156,650.
Suddaby awarded $132,217 out of a total of $213,395 sought by the Hines’ lawyers.
Among the judge’s downward revisions were reductions in hours he deemed “somewhat excessive.” In other instances, Suddaby said attorneys filed for work that duplicated that of other attorneys. The judge also found that Marcelle should be paid at half his hourly rate for travel time instead of the full hourly rate.
Suddaby said it was appropriate to pay both Marcelle and Steck $275 an hour, significantly more than the $210 an hour rate in the Northern District reserved for experienced attorneys. Marcelle had sought $325 an hour; Steck asked for $275 an hour.
Suddaby noted that many judges have departed from the $210-an-hour standard when awarding legal fees in civil rights cases.
Under Suddaby’s calculations, Marcelle is due $92,881, Steck $15,708 and three other attorneys at Cooper Erving & Savage, Kimberly Finnigan, Jennifer Zegarelli and Clifford Rohde, a total of just under $23,000.
Stephen Rehfuss, a partner at Rehfuss, Liguori & Associates in Latham, argued for no fees or a minimal award on behalf of the city defendants.
Marcelle has become Albany County attorney since he worked on the Hines matter.