Smith v. Loudoun County Public Schools
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by District Judge James C. Cacheris on 01/17/2017. (mpha)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
ADONIA K. SMITH,
LOUDOUN COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS,
M E M O R A N D U M
Case No. 1:15cv956 (JCC/TCB)
O P I N I O N
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion
for Attorney Fees and Costs [Dkt. 129].
For the reasons that
follow, the Court will grant the Motion in part and award
Plaintiff $44,986.88 in fees with $3,131.82 in costs to Coffield
PLC, and $46,333.08 in fees with $7,346.00 in costs to Swick &
A detailed description of the facts of this case may
be found in the Court’s earlier Memorandum Opinion [Dkt. 59] on
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
As such, the Court
repeats here only what is relevant to its ruling on the instant
Plaintiff Adonia K. Smith is a deaf individual who,
from August of 2007 to June of 2010, served as a special
education teacher employed by Defendant Loudoun County School
During her tenure, Plaintiff became embroiled in
disputes with the school’s administration regarding the
accommodations provided for her disability.
On July 28, 2015,
Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant under the Americans with
Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq., contending that
(1) Defendant failed to reasonably accommodate her disability
during her employment; (2) Defendant discharged her in
retaliation for requesting accommodations; and (3) Defendant
discharged her for discriminatory reasons.
After the close of discovery, Defendant moved for
In a Memorandum Opinion [Dkt. 59], the Court
granted Defendant’s Motion as to Plaintiff’s retaliatory and
wrongful discharge claims, but denied it as to Plaintiff’s
failure to accommodate claim.
The latter claim was tried over
the course of five days, resulting in a hung jury.
thereafter, Plaintiff discharged her attorneys from the firm of
Swick & Shapiro.
Plaintiff then secured alternative counsel,
Timothy Coffield, who tried Plaintiff’s failure to accommodate
claim to a second jury.
This time, the jury returned a verdict
in Plaintiff’s favor, awarding $310.00 – an amount representing
the sum total of Plaintiff’s medical bills.
Plaintiff has since
appealed the Court’s ruling with respect to her retaliatory and
wrongful discharge claims.
Plaintiff now moves for an award of attorney’s fees
and costs in the following amounts: $44,986.88 in fees and
$3,143.06 in costs for Coffield PLC; $208,498.88 in fees and
$7,346.00 in costs for Swick & Shapiro PC; and $8,400.00 in fees
for an attorney who assisted Plaintiff at the administrative
stage of these proceedings before the EEOC.
II. Legal Standard
Under the ADA, “the court . . . in its discretion, may
allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney’s fee,
including litigation expenses, and costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 12205.
The Fourth Circuit has set out a three-step process
for determining a reasonable attorney’s fee.
First, the Court
should “‘determine the lodestar figure by multiplying the number
of reasonable hours expended times a reasonable rate.’”
v. Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir.2013) (quoting Robinson v.
Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 560 F.3d 235, 243 (4th Cir.2009)).
In determining what is reasonable, the Court should apply the
twelve factors enumerated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express
Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717–19 (5th Cir.1974).
McAfee, 738 F.3d at
Those factors are:
(1) the time and labor expended; (2) the
novelty and difficulty of the questions
raised; (3) the skill required to properly
perform the legal services rendered; (4) the
attorney’s opportunity costs in pressing the
instant litigation; (5) the customary fee
for like work; (6) the attorney’s
expectations at the outset of the
litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed
by the client or circumstances; (8) the
amount in controversy and the results
obtained; (9) the experience, reputation and
ability of the attorney; (10) the
undesirability of the case within the legal
community in which the suit arose; (11) the
nature and length of the professional
relationship between attorney and client;
and (12) attorneys’ fees awards in similar
Barber v. Kimbrell’s, Inc., 577 F.2d 216, 226 n.28 (4th Cir.
Generally, “[t]he Court need not address all twelve
. . . factors independently” as they are “subsumed” into the
initial evaluation of what constitutes a reasonable rate and
number of hours expended.
Wells Fargo Bank, Nat. Ass’n v.
Walls, No. 1:12-CV-664 LMB/IDD, 2013 WL 869902, at *2 (E.D. Va.
Mar. 4, 2013), aff’d sub nom. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Walls,
543 F. App’x 350 (4th Cir. 2013).
After making this initial determination, the Court
must subtract fees for time spent on unsuccessful claims.
McAfee, 738 F.3d at 88.
Finally, the Court should award a
percentage of the remaining amount depending on the extent of
the Plaintiff’s success.
Defendant first contends that Plaintiff’s Motion
should be denied without “detailed analysis,” as the amount
sought “shocks the conscience.”
Opp. [Dkt. 132] at 4.
Court declines to reject Plaintiff’s claimed fees out of hand.
Given the substantial briefing and two jury trials required to
bring these proceedings to a close, the Court is unsurprised
that the claimed amounts are significant.
Defendant next argues that Plaintiff is not entitled
to attorney’s fees in light of her limited success in this
Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint [Dkt. 6-1] sought
$300,000.00 in compensatory damages, back pay and benefits,
reinstatement in her position, and injunctive relief forbidding
Defendant from further discrimination against her.
above, Plaintiff’s recovery was ultimately limited to $310.00 –
the total amount reflected in medical bills she allegedly
incurred due to Defendant’s conduct.
“A prevailing plaintiff in an ADA action is generally
entitled to recover fees paid to an attorney unless special
circumstances render such an award unjust.”
Feldman v. Pro
Football, Inc., 806 F. Supp. 2d 845, 847 (D. Md. 2011).
“‘Plaintiffs may be considered ‘prevailing parties’ for
attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant
issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the
parties sought in bringing suit.’”
Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S.
103, 109 (1992) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433
“[A] plaintiff ‘prevails’ when actual relief on the
merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship
between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a
way that directly benefits the plaintiff.”
Id. at 111–12.
“That standard is satisfied by a ‘judgment for damages in any
amount, whether compensatory or nominal.’”
Mercer v. Duke
Univ., 401 F.3d 199, 203 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Farrar, 506
U.S. at 113).
Notwithstanding the above, “plaintiffs recovering only
nominal damages usually or often will not be entitled to an
award of attorney’s fees.”
Id. at 203.
In determining whether
a fee award is appropriate on nominal damages, courts consider
“‘the extent of relief, the significance of the legal issue on
which the plaintiff prevailed, and the public purpose served’”
by the litigation.
Id. at 204 (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 122
(O’Connor, J., concurring)).
As Plaintiff received a favorable jury verdict on one
of her claims and a corresponding award of damages, it is clear
that she is a “prevailing party” for purposes of 42 U.S.C.
See Mercer, 401 F.3d at 203.
claims that Plaintiff is not entitled to attorney’s fees because
the amount she recovered is so small as to be “nominal.”
support of this contention Defendant cites Black’s Law
Dictionary, the current edition of which defines “nominal
damages” as “[a] trifling sum awarded when a legal injury is
suffered but there is no substantial loss or injury to be
DAMAGES, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).
Here, however, the jury did find that Plaintiff
suffered a compensable injury.
The amount awarded, while small,
constituted 100% of the compensatory damages Plaintiff could
prove with documentary evidence.
“By their very nature,
compensatory damages are not nominal.”
Coles v. Deltaville
Boatyard, LLC, No. 3:10CV491-DWD, 2011 WL 6337619, at *4 (E.D.
Va. Dec. 19, 2011).
An award of nominal damages justifies the
denial of attorney’s fees because it signifies “failure to prove
an essential element of [a] claim for monetary relief.”
506 U.S. at 115.
The award of a small amount of compensatory
damages, on the other hand, does not so signify.
738 F.3d at 88 n.6 (noting the difference between nominal
damages and a small award of compensatory damages for purposes
of awarding attorney’s fees).
Accordingly, the relatively small
award here does not justify the outright denial of attorney’s
The Court therefore proceeds to calculate the lodestar
figure for Plaintiff’s attorneys.
According to his time logs, Plaintiff’s attorney
Timothy Coffield spent 175.389 hours on this litigation.
Defendant quibbles with minor aspects of his billing, but
ultimately points to no time improperly billed.
Mr. Coffield’s time records, the Court finds that 175.389 is a
reasonable number of hours to have expended on this litigation.
Mr. Coffield entered his appearance in this case two months
before the start of trial.
In the short time that followed, he
familiarized himself with a voluminous record, prepared his
case, and tried Plaintiff’s remaining claim over the course of
four days. This was a substantial undertaking, and one which Mr.
Coffield executed with diligence and efficiency.
Mr. Coffield submits an hourly billing rate of
$350.00, reduced to $200.00 per hour for travel.
not meaningfully contest this rate, and the Court finds that it
It is substantially below the $421.00 set by the
Legal Services Index (LSI) Laffey Matrix1 for attorneys of Mr.
Coffield’s experience and is adequately supported by the
Declaration of Nicholas Woodfield [Dkt. 129-6].
rate is plainly warranted under the Johnson factors.
Plaintiff’s claim was at least moderately novel and complex; as
Mr. Coffield points out, it presented a question not squarely
addressed by existing case law.
Mr. Coffield demonstrated
“The Laffey Matrix is used as a guideline for
reasonable attorneys’ fees in the Washington/Baltimore area.”
Galvez v. Am. Servs. Corp., No. 1:11cv1351 (JCC/TCB), 2012 WL
2522814, at *5 n.6 (E.D. Va. June 29, 2012). The Court notes
that there are two formulations of the Laffey Matrix: the LSI
model and the more conservative U.S. Attorney’s Office model.
See Salazar v. D.C., 991 F. Supp. 2d 39, 47 (D.D.C. 2014). Mr.
Coffield cites to the LSI model, which several judges have found
to more accurately reflect the cost of legal services in this
region. See id. at 47-48.
admirable skill in mastering both the law and the case’s
substantial record in a very short time.
Moreover, Mr. Coffield
agreed to take what was a relatively unattractive case, as
demonstrated by Plaintiff’s difficulty in securing alternative
As a solo practitioner, Mr. Coffield incurred
substantial opportunity costs by doing so.2
The Court notes as
well that, had Mr. Coffield not taken on the case, Plaintiff
intended to try the case herself.
His appearance therefore
served to streamline these proceedings considerably.
Multiplying 166.03 hours by Mr. Coffield’s hourly rate
of $350, and adding to that 9.36 hours of travel at a rate of
$200 per hour, results in an amount of $59,982.50 ($58,110.50 +
Moving on to the second step of the analysis, Mr.
Coffield billed no time on unsuccessful claims; he entered this
case when only Plaintiff’s single successful claim remained.
such, there is no time to deduct from the total above.
Finally, the Court turns to what fee adjustment is
warranted in light of Plaintiff’s relatively low recovery.
Court notes that, when Mr. Coffield entered this case, the
Defendant suggests that it doubts Mr. Coffield
incurred substantial opportunity costs because Defendant’s
counsel defended several other cases during the pendency of this
action. Defendant’s counsel, however, is a partner at a law
firm with numerous other attorneys and, the Court assumes, a
support staff. Mr. Coffield is a solo practitioner who must
handle every aspect of every case personally.
relief Plaintiff sought had narrowed considerably.
relief available to her at trial was compensatory damages for
While the amount the jury ultimately
awarded Plaintiff was small, it constituted 100% of her
documented damages stemming from emotional distress.
clear that Plaintiff would have liked to recover more, but a
relatively small award was always a likely and – as Plaintiff
notes, see Mem. in Supp. of Mot. [Dkt. 129] at 14 – halfexpected result at the point Mr. Coffield entered this case.
The Court notes as well that the value of a judgment
in a civil rights case is not measured solely in terms of the
Fees are regularly awarded in such cases
that reflect not only what an attorney accomplished for his or
her client, but for the broader public.
For example, in Marsal
v. East Carolina University, No. 4:09-CV-126-FL, 2012 WL 3283435
(E.D.N.C. Aug. 10, 2012), the plaintiff – a college professor –
filed suit claiming that she had been denied tenure and
terminated for discriminatory reasons.
A jury returned a
verdict partially in her favor, but awarded no damages or
See id. at *1.
The court, in light of the
“plaintiff[‘]s limited success, . . . the general
proportionality considerations . . . regarding the public
purpose advanced by the litigation, [and] the novelty of the
claims,” awarded a fee of $50,205.98 – a figure reflecting a
downward departure of fifty percent from the actual accrued
On the other hand, in Layman Lessons, Inc. v. City of
Millersville, Tenn., 550 F. Supp. 2d 754, 765 (M.D. Tenn. 2008),
the court found that no reduction was warranted, notwithstanding
the failure of the Plaintiff to obtain monetary and injunctive
relief, given that the plaintiff’s primary goal had been simply
to vindicate its rights.
The facts of this case fall somewhere in between
Marsal and Layman Lessons.
litigation was significant.
The public purpose served by this
While perhaps not groundbreaking,
the verdict in this case represents – so far as the Court can
tell – a high water mark with respect to the accommodations the
ADA requires schools to provide deaf teachers.
points out, no case before has required that an employer make
available an interpreter on a daily basis for a deaf employee’s
The result achieved in this case may
therefore inure to the benefit of the deaf community.
notes further that, at trial, Defendant contended that this case
arose from Plaintiff’s quest to vindicate her beliefs regarding
the importance of American Sign Language.
The verdict in this
case may therefore be seen, at least in part, as a vindication
of those beliefs.
On the other hand, the amount Plaintiff ultimately
recovered was small.
“Although a substantial disproportionality
between a fee award and a verdict, standing alone, may not
justify a reduction in attorney’s fees, a lack of litigation
McAfee, 738 F.3d at 94.
After Mr. Coffield
entered his appearance, Plaintiff established Defendant’s
liability on the claim that she brought to trial and recovered
all of her documented damages.
She did not, however, convince
the jury to award additional damages for intangible pain and
It is clear that Plaintiff pinned her hopes of a
more substantial recovery on doing so.
As such, it is clear
that the measure of her success at trial was not complete.
In light of the foregoing, the Court finds that
Plaintiff’s suggested reduction for lack of litigation success
of 25% is reasonable.
The Court will therefore award Coffield
PLC $44,986.88 in attorney’s fees.
Moving on to Plaintiff’s former attorneys from Swick &
Shapiro, P.C., Mr. Swick claims attorney fees in the amount of
$118,248, consisting of 227.4 hours at a rate of $520 per hour.
Ms. Renaud claims fees totaling $159,750.50, consisting of 351.1
hours at a rate of $455 per hour.3
The Court notes that it may award fees to these
attorneys, notwithstanding the fact that they were discharged
prior to Plaintiff’s victory at trial. “Serving as counsel of
record at trial is not a prerequisite to the recovery of fees.
The issue, simply, is whether services were performed which
contributed to claimant’s success in the lawsuit.” Mammano v.
Pittston Co., 792 F.2d 1242, 1245 (4th Cir. 1986).
It is difficult to determine the reasonableness of
The proposed hourly rates are consistent with
the conservative USAO Laffey Matrix and with the rates permitted
in other similar cases.
These rates are further supported by
the skill of the attorneys in question, who took on a complex
and relatively unattractive case, complicated further by their
The hours billed, however, do not appear
to fully account for the claims Plaintiff brought and lost or
the remedies she sought and failed to obtain.
therefore progresses to the second stage of the analysis.
As discussed above, Plaintiff originally brought
claims for retaliatory discharge, wrongful discharge, and
failure to accommodate her disability.
The Court granted
summary judgment against Plaintiff on the former two claims.
Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint [Dkt. 6-1] sought $300,000.00 in
compensatory damages, back pay and benefits, reinstatement in
her position, and injunctive relief forbidding Defendant from
further discrimination against her.
The Court’s rulings
narrowed Plaintiff’s available relief to compensatory damages
for emotional distress.
In short, what began as fairly broad
litigation was winnowed down to a single claim for a single form
of relief after the close of discovery.
Plaintiff may only
recover fees for work related to that solitary successful claim.
McAfee, 738 F.3d at 88.
The time sheets submitted by Ms. Renaud and Mr. Swick
account for “lost claim time” by deducting seemingly arbitrary
amounts from the various time entries.
Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud
have submitted no explanation as to their reasoning, and the
methodology behind their approach is opaque.
For example, it is
not clear why Mr. Swick deducted the same amount of time – a
half hour – from the time billed for the depositions of Ellen
McGraw, Michelle Kovach, and Mary Kearney when those depositions
varied in length from 2.2 hours to 4.5 hours.
The number of
hours deducted also appears unduly conservative.
Notwithstanding the fact that two-thirds of the original claims
and all but one of the available remedies were pared away, Mr.
Swick and Ms. Renaud never deduct more than half of the time
spent on a given task, and usually substantially less than that.
The Court recognizes that attorney’s fees need not be
reduced for time spent developing a “common core of facts”
shared by successful and unsuccessful claims.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 435 (1983).
To some extent, there
exists such a common core in this case.
At the same time,
claims for retaliatory discharge and wrongful termination
require a plaintiff to prove very different facts than a failure
to accommodate claim.
Ultimately, Mr. Swick deducts only 28.9 out of 268.48
hours (10.8%) and Ms. Renaud 108 out of 483.8 hours (22.3%) for
time spent on unsuccessful claims.
Neither deducts time spent
on other unsuccessful endeavors that did not contribute to Mr.
Coffield’s eventual success in the second trial, such as the
failed settlement negotiations that would eventually prompt
Plaintiff to discharge Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud.
notes as well that some the entries are vague and include block
Having reviewed the time sheets submitted by Mr. Swick
and Ms. Renaud, as well as the record in this case, the Court
finds it appropriate to reduce the compensable hours billed by
those attorneys by half.
The Court therefore finds at the
second step in the fee analysis that Mr. Swick should be
credited with having accrued $59,124 in fees, consisting of
113.7 hours at a rate of $520, and Ms. Renaud should be credited
with having accrued $79,875.25 in fees, consisting of 175.55
hours at a rate of $455 per hour.
With respect to the third step in the fee analysis,
Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud are differently situated relative to
On the one hand, Mr. Coffield relied upon their
work to obtain a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor.
Had Mr. Swick
and Ms. Renaud not spent a significant amount of time developing
this case, their client would not have succeeded at all.
On the other, Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud were not
Plaintiff’s attorneys when she succeeded.
Indeed, they did not
achieve any significant success for Plaintiff with the exception
of staving off summary judgment on a single claim.
time Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud were Plaintiff’s attorneys, the
Court granted summary judgment against Plaintiff on most issues
in the case, and the trial on the only remaining issue resulted
in a hung jury.
Plaintiff then refused to settle the case and
discharged Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud.
Had Mr. Coffield not
entered the case, it seems quite likely that neither they, nor
their client, would have recovered anything in this litigation.
In short, Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud were instrumental
to, but did not directly obtain, their client’s eventual jury
As discussed above, that verdict has substantial value
but is still small – particularly as compared to what was sought
during the time that Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud represented
In light of the foregoing, a substantial reduction
for “lack of litigation success,” McAfee, 738 F.3d at 94, is
warranted in calculating Mr. Swick and Ms. Renaud’s fees.
Court will therefore further reduce the fee award to both Mr.
Swick and Ms. Renaud by two thirds.
Accordingly, the Court
finds that Mr. Swick is entitled to fees totaling $19,708.00 and
Ms. Renaud is entitled to fees totaling $26,625.08.
Finally, Plaintiff seeks reimbursement for $8,400.00
in attorney’s fees paid to Jill Sege, an “administrative
attorney” who assisted Plaintiff with her claim before the EEOC.
There is scant information regarding the services Ms. Sege
provided in Plaintiff’s Motion.
Indeed, Defendant represents
that this is the first it has heard of Ms. Sege.
Ms. Sege never
entered an appearance in this case, and is licensed to practice
only in Maryland.
The Court has little basis to determine the
reasonableness of her hourly rate or the number of hours she
devoted to Plaintiff’s claim.
It is unclear how much of her
work related to Plaintiff’s successful claim and how much to
other legal theories later rejected by this Court.
Court notes that the time sheet submitted by Ms. Sege appears to
reflect billing practices that are substantially less rigorous
than the Court is willing to accept; nearly all time billed is
rounded to the nearest hour.
For those reasons, the Court will,
in the exercise of its discretion, deny reimbursement of
attorney’s fees paid to Ms. Sege.
Turning to the matter of costs, Plaintiff seeks costs
in the amount of $3,131.82 for Coffield PLC.
proper and well supported.
These costs appear
The only unaddressed objection
Defendant raises pertains to Mr. Coffield’s decision to stay at
the Westin, a hotel across the street from the courthouse, which
Defendant characterizes as “very expensive.” The Court notes
that many – if not most – attorneys who do not reside nearby but
practice in this Court stay at the Westin.
The hotel appears to
have charged Mr. Coffield a discounted rate of $161.11 per night
The Court cannot say that this was so unreasonable a
choice of lodgings that this cost should not be taxed to
The Court therefore finds that Plaintiff is entitled
to $3,131.82 in costs for Coffield PLC.
Finally, Plaintiff seeks $7,346.00 in costs for Swick
& Shapiro PC.
These costs likewise appear proper and well
The only objection Defendant raises is to the
decision of Plaintiff’s counsel to employ the services of a
certified ASL translator for client meetings.
represents that cost-free alternative means of communication
were employed at times, but that the use of a certified ASL
interpreter was sometimes necessary to establish effective
The Court will not second-guess that
Indeed, the reasonableness of determination is
supported by the jury verdict in this case.
The Court will
therefore award Plaintiffs costs for Swick & Shapiro PC in the
amount of $7,346.00.4
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant
Plaintiff’s Motion in part and award Plaintiff $44,986.88 in
fees and $3,131.82 in costs to Coffield PLC, and $46,333.08 in
fees and $7,346.00 in costs to Swick & Shapiro, PC.
The Court would be remiss not to note that some
arguments advanced by Defendant’s counsel appear little better
than ad hominem attacks on Plaintiff’s counsel. See, e.g., Opp.
[Dkt. 132] at 14. Such arguments are not helpful.
An appropriate order will issue.
January 17, 2017
James C. Cacheris
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
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