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JONES v. UNITED STATES DEA

October 14, 1993

WILLIE L. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS A. WISEMAN, JR.

 This case is now before the court on plaintiff's application for attorneys' fees. Because Mr. Jones is a prevailing party on a claim substantially related to his civil rights claims, and because the DEA collaborated with police officers who were acting under the color of state law when Mr. Jones' civil rights were violated, the court concludes that an award of fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 is in order.

 I

 The facts of this case have twice been set out before and thus will not be belabored here. See Jones v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Admin., 801 F. Supp. 15 (M.D. Tenn. 1992) (Jones I); Jones v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Admin., 819 F. Supp. 698 (M.D. Tenn. 1993) (Jones II). Most pertinent to this proceeding is the ultimate conclusion reached as to the merits of the case: the government failed to meet its burden of proving probable cause for the institution of forfeiture proceedings and so Mr. Jones' funds were to be returned to him. See Jones II, 819 F. Supp. at 724. As a result of this ruling, Mr. Jones now seeks attorney fees in the sum of $ 117,595 under either the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, or the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412. If the court sees fit to award fees, the government requests additional time to respond to the specific amount of fees requested by plaintiff.

 II

 A. Fees Under § 1988

 Section 1988 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code provides that:

 
in any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, title IX of Public Law 92-318, or title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

 42 U.S.C.A. § 1988(b) (West Supp. 1993). To be a "prevailing party" within the meaning of this statute, a party need not necessarily win on the civil rights claim. Rather, "if the plaintiff has succeeded on 'any significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit,' the plaintiff has crossed the threshold to a fee award of some kind." Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92, 103 L. Ed. 2d 866, 109 S. Ct. 1486 (1989). To cross this threshold, "at a minimum, . . . the plaintiff must be able to point to a resolution of the dispute which changes the legal relationship between itself and the defendant." Id. at 792.

 Mr. Jones filed, as part of his complaint against the DEA and its affiliated officers, a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that his currency had been seized and forfeited in violation of his Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Therefore, Mr. Jones initiated an action specifically enumerated within § 1988 as a compensable action, and thus he may be entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees under § 1988 if he proves he prevailed on significant issue that achieved some of the benefits contemplated by filing this § 1983 claim, and if he proves this victory altered the legal relationship between himself and the defendants.

 Mr. Jones has amply proven his case. Clearly Mr. Jones prevailed on significant issues related to his § 1983 claims. The court, in both Jones I and Jones II, repeatedly made statements to the effect that the Drug Interdiction unit officers, and the DEA as approver of these officers' actions, had violated Mr. Jones' constitutional rights. Most notably in Jones II, the court explicitly declared that "officers of the Drug Interdiction Unit (DIU) seized [Mr. Jones'] currency in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights . . . ." Jones II, 819 F. Supp. at 700. Moreover, the court found that Mr. Jones' was frisked in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that Mr. Jones' was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment when Mr. Jones was asked to accompany the officers to the DIU office. See id. at 717-19. Each of these findings was crucial to the final determination that the government lacked probable cause for its forfeiture suit against Mr. Jones. Id. at 723. Thus in Jones II alone, Mr. Jones' constitutional claims under § 1983 were addressed, resolved in his favor, and were important to the ultimate resolution. Most importantly, Mr. Jones achieved at least some, if not all, of the benefits he hoped to achieve by filing his § 1983 claim when he was refunded his currency. *fn1"

 The ordered return of wrongfully forfeited funds clearly satisfies the "alteration of legal relationship" requirement. The government lost funds; Mr. Jones regained his funds. The change in relationship could not be dearer. Contrary to the government's contention, a substantive change in relationship between the parties occurred due to the court's § 1983-related rulings. Mr. Jones received more than just a declaratory judgment that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated Mr. Jones received $ 9,000 that had been illegally seized.

 With regard to Jones I, issues significantly related to the § 1983 claims were also resolved, and this resolution altered the relationship of the parties. The court found that the DEA acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and in abuse of its discretion in rejecting Mr. Jones' in forma pauperis petition and in refusing to waive its bond requirement for a forfeiture hearing. Jones I, 801 F. Supp. at 28. Accordingly, the summary forfeiture proceedings were inappropriate and a full hearing was in order. The court found that the DEA had abused its discretion under its own regulations, and so the constitutional questions need not be reached. Id. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mr. Jones' had prevailed under his Administrative Procedures Act ("APA") claim on the same set of facts crucial to his due process claims. Moreover, the relief achieved through the APA claim was partially identical to that sought through the constitutional claims--a hearing on the seizure and forfeiture (i.e., due process before property is permanently taken). It is just such situations for which the liberal "prevailing party" definition was intended, for Congress recognized that courts often will not reach constitutional issues when cases can be resolved without doing so. See Texas State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 790.

 The result in Jones I, like that result in Jones II, altered the relationship of the parties. Whereas before the court's decision, Mr. Jones had no further rights to contest the forfeiture, after the court's decision Mr. Jones' bond requirement was waived and a hearing on the forfeiture was set. This relief was more than nominal. Waiver of the bond requirement alone (the bond would have been $ 900) was of significant benefit to Mr. Jones, and the right to a hearing on the forfeiture gave Mr. Jones a right he previously had lost--the right to seek return of his $ 9,000. Cf. Krichinsky v. Knox County Schs., 963 F.2d 847, 850 (6th ...


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