• October 20, 2017

Plaintiff’s lawyers, Joseph Larson, David Schlesinger, and Janet Olawsky might be both crying and celebrating after the award of $305,000 in legal fees for their lawsuit brought on behalf of Stephanie Jenkins.

They might cry because they sought $818,000 in legal fees and costs and the Court awarded them less than half.

They might celebrate because a jury awarded their client a verdict of one dollar ($1.00) in the sexual harassment case they brought against the University of Minnesota and Mr. Ted Swem.

“The most critical factor” in determining an appropriate fee award is “the debris degree of success obtained.”

In case readers are curious, above is the breakdown of fees requested and fees awarded (Judge Tunheim awarded 100% of costs requested (certain limited out-of-pocket expenses and not lawyers’ fees)).

On the one hand, Minnesota Litigator takes exception and disagrees with several of the court’s reductions. In particular, the “haircut” for attorneys’ fees at trial seems extreme. The notion that one can tease out fees for the one claim Plaintiff won on versus those she did not win on seems to miss the point of how trials (and juries) work. Also, the claim that Plaintiff “failed to prove damages regarding her claim” also seems slightly misguided. She did not persuade the jury that she suffered compensable damages to be sure. But the suggestion that she “failed to prove damages” seems a little strong.

We all know that Plaintiff’s case would have had many different outcomes if tried before several juries.

And a win is a win.

On the other hand, we speculate that Judge Tunheim might have seen the case somewhat differently from the jury because he did apply a 305,000:1 ratio of fees to recovery. That would be unlikely if he viewed Plaintiff’s case as trivial (as the jury might have concluded?). (Maybe the jury thought that Mr. Swem’s conduct was unlawful but sincerely believed that Ms. Jenkins suffered little or no legally compensable damages. Maybe we should take the verdict at face value. We will never know the route the jury took to reach their result.)

The bottom line is that Judge Tunheim clearly “gets it” when it comes to our society’s (and our legislators’) recognition of our appalling social circumstances: the far-too-common harassment of women by men based on sex.

[T]he 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.

So, on balance, we applaud the result and congratulate the Plaintiff’s counsel.

The Jenkins lawsuit highlights the critical importance of the particular trial judge in terms of outcome in civil litigation. We have little doubt that judges other than U.S. District Court Chief Judge John R. Tunheim (D. Minn.) would have come out differently on this fee petition and, possibly, very differently.

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