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Monce v. Marshall County Board of Education

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Columbia Division

May 28, 2019

SHERRY MONCE, Plaintiff,
v.
MARSHALL COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION and JACKIE ABERNATHY, Defendants.

          NEWBERN MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          WILLIAM L. CAMPBELL, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         Pending before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Costs Including Attorneys' Fees (Doc. No. 101); Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Costs, and Expenses (Doc. No. 105); and Defendants' Motion Objecting to and Seeking Review of Clerk's Taxation of Costs (Doc. No. 112).

         For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Costs, and Expenses (Doc. No. 105) is GRANTED in part, and DENIED in part. The Court awards Plaintiff attorneys' fees in the amount of $ 75, 000 and approves the Clerk's taxation of costs in the amount of $4782.51. Defendants' Motion for Costs Including Attorneys' Fees (Doc. No. 101) and Motion Objecting to and Seeking Review of Clerk's Taxation of Costs (Doc. No. 112) are DENIED.

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff brought this action against Defendants Marshall County Board of Education and Jackie Abernathy, Director of Marshall County Schools, for deprivation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches arising out of two separate actions -- compelling Plaintiff to take two drug tests and requiring her to disclose her prescription medication. (Doc. No. 18). Plaintiff also claimed Defendants suspended her in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Tenured Teacher Act (“TTA”). (Id.)

         Prior to trial, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all Plaintiff's claims except the Fourth Amendment compelled drug tests claim. (Doc. No. 38). Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. granted summary judgment on the individual capacity claims against Defendant Abernathy under the ADA and the TTA, and denied the motion in all other respects. (Doc. Nos. 59, 60), The case was subsequently transferred to the undersigned Judge. (Doc. No. 64).

         This trial in this case began on December 11, 2018 and lasted four days. (Doc. Nos. 95, 96). On the first day of trial, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her Fourteenth Amendment claim. After both sides presented their evidence, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court denied the motion. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on the Fourth Amendment compelled drug tests claim, and on her claim she was suspended in violation of the TTA. (Doc. No. 96). The jury found in favor of Defendants on the Fourth Amendment claim relating to the disclosure of Plaintiff's prescription medication, and on her ADA claim. (Id.) The jury awarded Plaintiff one dollar on the Fourth Amendment drug tests claim, and $3, 640 on the TTA claim. (Id.)

         III. Defendants' Request for Attorneys' Fees

         Defendants seek attorneys' fees and expenses as the prevailing party on Plaintiff's ADA claim. Defendants base their claim for fees on the provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 12005, 12117, and 2000e-5(k).[1] “[W]hile prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to attorney's fees under [the Civil Rights Act] in all but special circumstances, prevailing defendants are entitled to attorney's fees much less frequently.” Smith v. Smythe-Cramer Co., 754 F.2d 180, 182 (6th Cir. 1985) (citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 417-18 (1978)). “[A] district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII case upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith.” Id.; see also Green v. City of Southfield, Michigan, 2019 WL 1716007, at *1 (6th Cir. Apr. 16, 2019); Hescott v. City of Saginaw, 757 F.3d 518, 529 (6th Cir. 2014). “[A] plaintiff may have an entirely reasonable ground for bringing suit even when the law or facts appear questionable or unfavorable at the outset.” Id. “Therefore, a plaintiff should not be assessed his opponent's attorney's fees unless the court finds the claim was groundless at the outset or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Id. An award of attorney's fees against a losing plaintiff in a civil rights action is “an extreme sanction, and must be limited to truly egregious cases of misconduct.” Id.

         Defendants argue they should recover one-third of their attorneys' fees because they prevailed on Plaintiff's ADA claim. Defendants contend Plaintiff's ADA claim was frivolous because she was not able to show the elements of a prima facie case at trial, and because Judge Crenshaw came very close to dismissing the ADA claim prior to trial. Plaintiff argues her ADA claim was not frivolous, and points out Defendants' unsuccessful efforts to dismiss the claim through a motion for summary judgment and a motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of proof at trial.

         The Court finds Defendants are not entitled to an award of attorney fees because the ADA claim was not frivolous or groundless. See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 417-18 (1978). Awarding fees to Defendants in this case would run counter to the concerns raised by the Supreme Court in Christianburg that district courts “resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his actions must have been unreasonable or without foundation.” 434 U.S. at 421-22. Here, although she did not prevail, Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to defeat Defendants' motion for summary judgment and to defeat Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of proof. As the Court said in denying the latter motion, a reasonable jury could have found in favor of Plaintiff on that claim. As such, based on the high standard for awarding attorneys' fees to prevailing defendants in discrimination cases, the Court finds Defendants are not entitled to attorneys' fees.

         IV. Plaintiff's Request for Attorneys' Fees

         Through her Motion, Plaintiff requests attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. Section 1988 as the prevailing party on her Fourth Amendment compelled drug tests claim. Section 1988 provides: “In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [section 1983], 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. . .” The purpose for fee-shifting in civil rights cases is to encourage the private enforcement of civil rights:

When a plaintiff succeeds in remedying a civil rights violation, we have stated, he serves ‘as a “private attorney general, vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority.' Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, 88 S.Ct. 964, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263 (1968) (per curiam). He therefore ‘should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee' from the defendant-the party whose misconduct created the need for legal action. Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 416, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978) (internal quotation marks omitted). Fee-shifting in such a case at once reimburses a plaintiff for ‘what it cos[t][him] to vindicate [civil] rights,' Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 577- 578, 106 S.Ct. 2686, 91 L.Ed.2d 466 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted), and holds to account ‘a violator of federal law,' Christiansburg, 434 U.S., at 418, 98 S.Ct. 694.

Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 833, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 180 L.Ed.2d 45 (2011).

         A plaintiff in a civil rights case need not succeed on every claim in order to be considered a prevailing party. Green Party of Tennessee v. Hargett, 767 F.3d 533, 552 (6th Cir. 2014). “Success on a single claim is sufficient to become a prevailing party.” Id. The Sixth Circuit has explained that a plaintiff “crosses the threshold to ‘prevailing party' status by succeeding on a single claim, even if he loses on several others and even if that limited success does not grant him the ‘primary relief' he sought.” McQueary v. Conway, 614 F.3d 591, 603 (6th Cir. 2010) (citing Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 790-91, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 103 L.Ed.2d 866 (1989) and Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111, 113 S.Ct. 566, 575, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992)). The Sixth Circuit has found a plaintiff to be a prevailing party “even where twelve of his fourteen claims were dismissed.” Woods v. Willis, 631 Fed.Appx. 359, 364 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing Berger v. City of Mayfield Heights, 265 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir.2001)). A plaintiff who wins nominal damages only is a prevailing party under Section 1988. Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. at 115- 16. “The significance of the relief obtained goes only to the amount of fees.” Id.

         Where the plaintiff's unmeritorious claims are based on different facts and legal theories than the meritorious claims, “a court must treat them ‘as if they had been raised in separate lawsuits, and therefore no fee may be awarded for services on the unsuccessful claim[s].'” Green Party., 767 F.3d at 552-53 (quoting Tex. State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 789). Where the plaintiff's meritorious and unmeritorious claims “'arise out of a common core of facts, and involve related legal theories, '” however, “a court should not exempt from its fee award the hours spent on the claims that did not succeed.” Id., at 553. In that case, however, the court should consider, “as its ultimate guide, ‘the degree of success obtained.'” Id.

         The jury ruled in favor of Plaintiff with regard to her Fourth Amendment claim involving the two compelled drug tests, and therefore, she is the “prevailing party” for purposes of Section 1988. In addition, Defendants do not appear to dispute that Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim arose out of a common core of facts and related legal theories as her other unmeritorious claims.

         Relying on Farrar v. Hobby, supra, Defendants argue Plaintiff is not entitled to any attorneys' fees, however, because she was awarded only nominal damages on her Fourth Amendment claim. In Farrar, the Supreme Court reversed an award of attorneys' fees to a plaintiff who had filed suit demanding $17 million from six defendants, and after 10 years of litigation, received only one dollar from one defendant. The Court held that, even though the plaintiff was a prevailing party, he did not deserve an award of attorneys' fees:

In some circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally ‘prevails' under § 1988 should receive no attorney's fees at all. A plaintiff who seeks compensatory damages but receives no more than nominal damages is often such a prevailing party. As we have held, a nominal damages award does render a plaintiff a prevailing party by allowing him to vindicate his “absolute” right to procedural due process through enforcement of a judgment against the defendant. Carey, 435 U.S., at 266, 98 S.Ct., at 1053. In a civil rights suit for damages, however, the awarding of nominal damages also highlights the plaintiff's failure to prove actual, compensable injury. Id., at 254-264, 98 S.Ct., at 1047-1052. Whatever the constitutional basis for substantive liability, damages awarded in a § 1983 action ‘must always be designed “to compensate injuries caused by the [constitutional] deprivation.'” Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S., at 309, 106 S.Ct., at 2544 (quoting Carey, supra, 435 U.S., at 265, 98 S.Ct., at 1053) (emphasis and brackets in original). When a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, see Carey, supra, at 256-257, 264, 98 S.Ct., at 1048-1049, 1052, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all. In an apparent failure to heed our admonition that fee awards under § 1988 were never intended to ‘produce windfalls to attorneys,' Riverside v. Rivera, ...

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