Pittsboro must pay officer more than $70K after wiretapping verdict

A Pittsboro law enforcement officer who won a $15,000 damages award on a claim that police officials were illegally recording his conversations has also been awarded more than $70,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

However, the $70,292.77 that Matt Stumm will recover from the town of Pittsboro and now-retired Police Chief Christi Patterson falls short of the $97,364.27 he requested.

Stumm, along with officers Jason Stumm and Brian Helmer, sued the Hendricks County town, Patterson, assistant police chief Maj. Scott King and Plainfield police Capt. Carrie Weber for violations of their Fourth Amendment rights and the Federal Wiretap Act. The plaintiffs alleged Patterson and King installed a camera in the lobby of the Pittsboro Police Department, recorded private conversations between Matt, Jason and Helmer, then improperly used the recordings in an investigation into Matt. Weber helped conduct the investigation and reviewed the recordings.

A jury found in Matt’s favor on his claims as to Patterson and the town, awarding him $15,000 in damages. He then sought the additional $97,364.27 in costs and attorney’s fees.

Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson granted Matt’s request for $1,249.27 in costs, rejecting the defendants’ argument that those costs should be reduced because Matt was not a prevailing party, or because he was only one of three plaintiffs. However, Magnus-Stinson did reduce the costs by $28, which all parties agreed was a cost for service of summonses and subpoenas that was erroneous.

But the chief judge made more significant reductions to Matt’s request for attorneys’ fees, which initially totaled $88,200 for attorney Jeffrey McQuary and $7,887 for attorney Alexander Van Gorp.

Matt recovered $64,770 in fees incurred by McQuary, with Magnus-Stinson making reductions for billed entries that the defendants classified as “clerical work.”

“The Court agrees that the tasks … are not compensable at Mr. McQuary’s market rate,” the chief wrote. “However, they are not merely clerical in nature, as they included document preparation, review, and organization suited for a paralegal. Accordingly, the Court declines to completely strike these hours from the fee calculation, and instead will reduce the hourly rate for these hours to $100, which it believes to be a reasonable market rate for paralegal services.”

Magnus-Stinson also reduced McQuary’s fees by 25% to account for time spent on three groups of unsuccessful claims: those brought by Helmer, those brought against Weber and those unsuccessfully brought by Jason at trial.

The fees requested for Van Gorp’s services were also reduced, this time by 50%, with Magnus-Stinson noting “Mr. Van Gorp’s participation in the trial presentation was limited to the relatively short examination of only one witness.”

“In addition, the Court acknowledges that he began working on the case shortly before the trial, and much of his role in the trial was that of an observer,” the chief continued. “Hours spent training or gaining experience are generally not billed to private clients and should not be included in a fee award.”

However, the court declined to make further reductions for “limited success.”

“Matt Stumm, individually, did not achieve ‘limited success’ in the way Defendants suggest,” she wrote. “The jury agreed that his rights were violated by the recording and use of his personal conversations, even if only two of the four named Defendants were the proper parties against whom such rights could be vindicated. Furthermore, although he received damages in an amount lower than what he demanded, his $15,000 reward nonetheless was substantial given the absence of specific compensatory damages.”

Earlier in the proceedings, Helmer’s claims were dismissed on summary judgment after the court determined “he had not produced sufficient evidence that his conversations had been recorded.” Likewise, the claims against Weber were dismissed “because there was no evidence showing that she knew that the recordings she reviewed were illegally obtained.”

Jason proceeded to trial on the Fourth Amendment and wiretap claims against Pittsboro, Patterson and King, but the jury did not return a verdict in his favor.

The case is Matthew W. Stumm v. Town of Pittsboro and Christi Patterson, 1:17-cv-4296.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}