CHICAGO (CN) - A federal judge must explain why she halved an award of attorneys' fees to $70,000 for counsel who successfully fought an Illinois nursing home that fired a woman who reported sexual harassment by some of the residents, the 7th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Danielle L. Pickett, a former dietary aide and housekeeper for the Sheridan Center, had filed suit after she was fired, claiming the nursing home retaliated against her for complaining that residents had asked for sexual favors and inappropriately touched her while she was cleaning their rooms.
In June 2006, one resident allegedly cornered her and groped her. She declined to file a police report after she was assured that the offending resident would be forced to leave.
Rather than removing the resident, the Sheridan Center reassigned Pickett. When she met again with the center's administrator, Pickett claims she was yelled at and left the center in tears. She then exited the building while still on the clock.
When Pickett called the next day to clarify her job status, she was told that "it was best she part ways with the company."
A jury awarded Pickett $65,000 and the 7th Circuit affirmed the award in June 2010.
Pickett was represented in her Title VII retaliation claims by Ernest T. Rossiello & Associates. Rossiello sought almost $132,000 in attorney's fees, billing $593 per hour.
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer reduced the award to $70,000, a calculation based on 175 billable hours at $400 per hour. No evidentiary hearings were held, despite numerous requests by Pickett and Rossiello.
But the 7th Circuit overturned the decision Thursday, ruling that the court had abused its discretion.
"Although we appreciate the District Court's desire to limit the substantial fees that Rossiello stands to recover from this case, we conclude that the district court looked to certain impermissible considerations in calculating the fee award," Judge Joel Flaum wrote for a three-member panel.
Pallmeyer should have held hearings before making her own determination of the proper hourly rate, and she should have given a clearer explanation of how she arrived at an hourly rate of $400, the court held.
The judges concluded with a caution against overlitigating the fee question. "Although we conclude that the district court abused its discretion in certain aspects of its fee determination, we do not intend to signal a retreat from the significant deference that we accord to a district court's fee award, and we remain of the view that a fee petition 'should not result in a second major litigation,'" Flaum wrote.