Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Jenkins v. The University of Minnesota

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 10, 2017

STEPHANIE JENKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA and TED SWEM, Defendant.

          JOSEPH A. LARSON, JOSEPH A. LARSON LAW FIRM PLLC, DAVID E. SCHLESINGER AND JANET M. OLAWSKY, NICHOLS KASTER, PLLP, FOR PLAINTIFF.

          THOMAS EDWARD HAYES, FOR DEFENDANT TED SWEM.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

          JOHN R. TUNHEIM CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff Stephanie Jenkins seeks a total of $801, 545.00 in attorneys' fees and $18, 954.73.00 in costs from Defendant Ted Swem following a favorable jury verdict on Jenkins's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. Swem opposes the motion, arguing that the requested fees are unreasonable and excessive. Considering all reasonableness factors, the Court will grant in part Jenkins's motion, awarding $305, 003.21 in attorneys' fees and $18, 954.73 in costs.

         Swem also moves for a new trial, arguing that the Court erred in deciding that Swem acted under the color of state law, rather than submitting the issue to the jury. Because the Court finds no error in its prior decisions, it will deny Swem's motion for a new trial.

         BACKGROUND

         Stephanie Jenkins filed this suit in July 2013, represented by attorney Joseph A. Larson, [1] against Swem, the University of Minnesota (the “University”), and two University employees. (See Compl., June 24, 2013, Docket No. 1.) Jenkins asserted various civil rights, constitutional, and tort claims based on Swem's sexual harassment and the University's alleged inaction regarding the reported harassment. (Id. ¶¶ 117-89.) Swem, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”), worked alone with Jenkins performing research in Northern Alaska when the advances were made. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22, 27, 32, 56.) The Court dismissed the claims against the University employees relatively early in litigation, leaving only the University and Swem as defendants. (Order for Dismissal with Prejudice, Jan. 24, 2014, Docket No. 85 (dismissing claims against Patricia Kennedy with prejudice)); Jenkins v. Univ. of Minn., 131 F.Supp.3d 860, 887 (D. Minn. 2015) (granting summary judgment on claims against David Andersen).

         After the Court denied Swem's motion for summary judgment on Jenkins's hostile work environment claim (Count VI), Swem filed an interlocutory appeal. (Notice of Interlocutory Appeal, Oct. 6, 2015, Docket No. 207.) At that time, Jenkins hired additional counsel - David E. Schlesinger and Janet M. Olawsky - with “appellate and trial expertise.”[2] (Aff. of Joseph A. Larson (“Larson Aff.”) ¶ 10, Apr. 11, 2017, Docket No. 327.) The Eighth Circuit affirmed the Court's decision and held Swem was not entitled to qualified immunity. Jenkins v. Univ. of Minn., 838 F.3d 938, 947-48 (8th Cir. 2016).

         In total, four counts remained at trial: hostile work environment against the University (Count V); hostile work environment against Swem (Count VI); intentional infliction of emotional distress against Swem (Count VII); and assault against Swem (Count IX). The Court dismissed Count IX at the close of trial. Then, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Jenkins on Count VI against Swem, but found in favor of Swem and the University on the remaining counts. (Special Verdict at 1-2, Mar. 17, 2017, Docket No. 316.) The jury awarded Jenkins $1.00 in damages. (Id. at 2.)

         On April 11, 2017, Jenkins moved for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 1983 and Rule 54(d)(1) and 54(d)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Jenkins requests $570, 617.50[3] in fees for Larson, $230, 927.50 in fees for Schlesinger and Olawsky, and $18, 914.73 in costs. (Larson Aff., Ex. 1 at 26; Aff. of David E. Schlesinger, Ex. 1 at 12, Apr. 11, 2017, Docket No. 328; Bill of Costs at 1, Apr. 11, 2017, Docket No. 332.) On April 25, 2017, Swem moved for a new trial as to liability only.

         ANALYSIS

         I. MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS

         A. Jenkins's Entitlement to Attorneys' Fees

         Under 42 U.S.C § 1988, a prevailing party in a § 1983 action may seek attorneys' fees and costs in order to provide “‘effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1558, at 1 (1976)). “[A] plaintiff ‘prevails' when actual relief on the merits of his [or her] claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). “[A] plaintiff who wins nominal damages is a prevailing party under § 1988.” Id. at 112.

         While Swem does not specifically contest that Jenkins was a prevailing party, Swem argues that Jenkins's victory was technical and that any attorneys' fees awarded would be unreasonable. To support his argument, Swem cites Milton v. Des Moines, 47 F.3d 944, 945 (8th Cir. 1995). In Milton, the Eighth Circuit found no abuse of discretion where a district court denied a plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees following a nominal damages award. Id. at 945-47. The Eighth Circuit explained that “[w]hen a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.” Id. at 945 (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 115). But the court also noted that this principle is not absolute, and “the technical nature of a nominal damages award . . . goes to the reasonableness of the fee award . . . [and] the most critical factor in determining the reasonableness of a fee award is the degree of success obtained.” Id. at 946 (alteration in original) (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 114).

         Here, the Court finds that Jenkins's victory is not merely technical because it fundamentally changed the relationship between Jenkins and Swem. Swem has maintained, and the presumption throughout litigation is, that Swem's conduct was not impermissible under § 1983. However, the jury's verdict in this case confirms that Swem's conduct was illegal, which changes the relationship between the parties. Preventing sexual harassment to enable broad participation of all genders in the workforce is an important public goal. See City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 579 (1986) (“Regardless of the form of relief he [or she] actually obtains, a successful civil rights plaintiff often secures important social benefits that are not reflected in nominal or relatively small damages awards.”). The jury's judgment that Swem engaged in impermissible conduct is neither technical nor de minimis. Accordingly, although the Court will consider the degree of success in determining the reasonableness of the attorneys' fees, the Court rejects Swem's argument that Jenkins's victory was only technical or de minimis and did not entitle her to attorneys' fees in any amount.

         B. Determining Reasonableness.

         The district court has “broad discretion” in awarding attorneys' fees. Hanig v. Lee, 415 F.3d 822, 825 (8th Cir. 2005). “The starting point in determining attorney fees is the lodestar, which is calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by the reasonable hourly rates.” Id. (quoting Fish v. St. Cloud State Univ., 295 F.3d 849, 851 (8th Cir. 2002)). In determining the number of hours reasonably expended, “[t]he district court may attempt to identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or it may simply reduce the award to account for the limited success.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37.

         Reasonableness of the award depends on twelve primary factors laid out in the legislative history.[4] Id. at 430 n.3. However, “the most critical factor is the degree of success obtained.” Id. at 436. Accordingly, “the hours spent on the unsuccessful claim should be excluded in considering the amount of a reasonable fee.” Id. at 440. That said, plaintiffs are not precluded from seeking compensation for fees attributable to both successful claims and unsuccessful claims, instead the court asks whether “but for” the fees the success would have been possible. Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 838-40 (2011) (remanding to determine if incurred expenses would be necessary for both frivolous federal claims and non-frivolous state claims).

         Here, Swem does not specifically challenge the hourly rates that any attorney assessed or the application of the hourly rates in this case, and the Court finds the hourly rates to be reasonable. Swem, instead, challenges certain individual fees explicitly and also broadly contends that the fees are unreasonable and excessive. In light of Swem's arguments, the Court has broadly categorized each fee and will reduce the fee category, considering Swem's challenges and only awarding fees the Court finds were necessary for Jenkins's successful claim. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will reduce the requested fees as shown in the following charts:

Fees for Joseph A. Larson Firm PLLC

Pre-Nicholas Kaster PLLP Amount Requested

Post-Nichols Kaster PLLP Amount Requested

Total Awarded

Early Litigation

$188, 622.50

$38, 807.50

$72, 490.61

Swem Motions

$84, 550.00

$807.50

$42, 598.00

Appeal

$855.00

$76, 190.00

$61, 807.00

Trial

$4.417.50

$165.490.00

$54.723.80

Unclear/Unnecessary

$10, 877.50

$0.00

$0.00

TOTAL

I$289, 322.50

$281, 295.00

$231, 619.41

Fees for Nicholas Kaster PLLP

Amount Requested

Total Awarded

Early Litigation

$5, 450.00

$1.258.95

Swem Motions

$10, 350.00

$3, 622.50

Appeal

$19, 682.50

$13, 777.75

Trial

$195.445.00

$54, 724.60

TOTAL

$230, 927.50

$73, 383.80


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.