A plaintiff’s petition for more than $65,000 in attorneys’ fees stemming from a federal civil rights case against members of the Philadelphia Police Department has been denied by a federal judge, with the jurist only agreeing to doll out $1,800 in costs.
U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, denied Phillip Anderson’s motion for attorneys’ fees and interest following the conclusion of a three-day jury trial that began in federal court back on July 25, 2012 against Philadelphia Police Officers Adrian Ryan and Gerald Rahill, the record shows.
The plaintiff was suing the two cops over allegations that they left him bruised and battered following a June 22, 2010 encounter at the corner of 9th and Erie Streets in Philadelphia.
Anderson claimed he was waiting for the bus when the two officers suddenly, and without provocation, pinned the plaintiff against a wall with their car, and beat him with their “night sticks and fists,” the plaintiff’s complaint had alleged.
Anderson also claimed to have been sprayed in the eyes with Mace and shocked with a Taser gun.
The plaintiff later claimed that a copy of the police citation that was prepared by the defendants contained factual inaccuracies.
Anderson subsequently filed a 13-count lawsuit against the officers claiming a whole host of civil rights violations.
The City of Philadelphia and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey were initially named as codefendants in the lawsuit, but Anderson withdrew all counts against them prior to trial, according to the record.
Following the trial, the jury found against Anderson on the federal claim of use of excessive force and on the state law claim of assault and battery, although jurors found in favor of the plaintiff on a Fourth Amendment claim of unreasonable seizure and on the state law claim of false arrest.
The jurors, however, only awarded Anderson $1 in nominal damages, concluding that while the officers had used excessive force, Anderson didn’t suffer any injury.
Nevertheless, as the prevailing party, Anderson initially requested $82,00 in attorneys’ fees, but the District Court only ended up awarding the plaintiff fees in the amount of $2,259.
The plaintiff appealed the matter to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and that panel remanded the case back to the lower court, which then determined that no attorneys’ fees were appropriate in this case, reversing its earlier ruling.
Citing case law, Slomsky, the District Court judge, wrote that while it is undisputed that Anderson is the prevailing party, the jury’s award of nominal damages “is a presumptively technical victory that does not merit an award of attorneys’ fees.”
Slomsky noted that while the plaintiff, in his initial lawsuit, sought more than $150,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages, Anderson eventually withdrew the claims against both the city and police commissioner, “thereby dropping all allegations of racial discrimination on a department-wide level.”
“Thereafter, despite making claims for compensatory and punitive damages of hundreds of thousands of dollars against Officers Ryan and Rahill, the jury awarded him only $1 in nominal damages, a considerable difference in amount under any analysis,” Slomsky wrote.
The judge, again citing case law, further wrote that while the jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff on his Fourth Amendment claims was a vindication of his constitutional rights, “every civil rights case in which the plaintiff prevails on the merits vindicates some right, [and therefore] it cannot be the case that the mere vindication of rights alone suffices to distinguish those cases in which the presumption of no fee is overcome.”
Slomsky also disagreed with Anderson’s contention that his verdict serves as an “important public purpose,” by serving notice to “thousands of innocent minority men and women that are routinely stopped based upon so-called anonymous tips, that they can get relief in federal court.”
(The police write-up had stated that officers went to the scene after receiving a report of a man holding a knife to his own throat).
The judge wrote that it is unclear whether the Fourth Amendment violation was due to race or to the mishandling of a discrete emergency situation, since the jury verdict slip is silent on the issue.
Without such clarity, Slomsky wrote, “the litigation does not advance the ‘public purpose’ relief on by Anderson, who is a Hispanic male.
It is for this reason, the judge wrote, that he was denying Anderson’s motion for attorneys’ fees and interest.
Slomsky did award Anderson the $1,800 in costs, however, writing that the plaintiff was entitled to it due to the fact that he was the prevailing party in a civil rights action.