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Philly City Worker Denied $360K in Fees in $1 Verdict

August 5, 2019 | Posted in : Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Reduction / Fee Denial, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Law 360 story by Matt Fair, “Philly City Worker Denied $360K Attorney Fees on $1 Award” reports that a federal judge ruled that a $1 verdict won by a Philadelphia municipal employee on claims she was retaliated against for complaining about alleged workplace discrimination did not entitle her to receive legal fees from the city.  U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert said the damages won by Deanna Pierce, a social worker who said she was discriminated against when she was denied a promotion three years ago, represented just a nominal victory that did not support her claim that the city cover nearly $360,000 in legal fees incurred as she litigated her case.

"Pierce's nominal damages award is presumptively a technical victory that does not merit an award of attorneys' fees," the court ruled.  Pierce filed suit in December 2017 alleging that her Native American heritage had been used against her as she was denied three promotions over the course of three years.  She ultimately withdrew claims related to one of the promotions, and the court granted summary judgment in connection with a second.

Her case went to trial in January as Pierce looked to convince jurors that the city had looked to fill a position as a human services program administrator specifically with a Hispanic candidate.  She also accused the city of creating a hostile work environment — including by denying her overtime approval and lunch breaks — when she complained about the purportedly discriminatory hiring practices.

A jury ultimately sided with the city on the discrimination claim, but awarded damages of $1 on Pierce's retaliation claim.  Based on the verdict, Pierce went on to file a motion asking that the city be required to pay some $360,000 in fees and another nearly $30,000 in costs under a federal statute allowing the prevailing party in a civil rights case to recoup their expenses.

In deciding whether to grant the request, Judge Pappert pointed to U.S. Supreme Court precedent stating that a nominal damage verdict doesn't necessarily bar a fee award to a prevailing party, but that it bears upon the propriety of such an award.

Under the high court's precedent, Pappert said, the "degree of success obtained" by the prevailing party was the most critical factor in determining the propriety of a fee award.  But given that the award came after all of Pierce's other claims had been dismissed, and that she had sought as much as $2.75 million to settle the case in advance of trial, Judge Pappert said that granting her motion for fees was inappropriate.  "The court must give primacy to the disparity between damages sought and awarded, and this weighs heavily against awarding attorneys' fees in her case," he said.