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Human Rights Defense Center v. Baxter County

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

August 15, 2019




         Currently before the Court is Plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center's ("HRDC") Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Costs, and Expenses (Doc. 117). The Court has also received Defendant Baxter County's Response in Opposition (Doc. 119), HRDC's Reply (Doc. 123), and the County's Sur-Reply (Doc. 126).[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court will DENY HRDC's motion for attorney's fees and order that each party bear its own costs.

         I. BACKGROUND

         After discovery closed in this case, both parties moved for summary judgment with respect to HRDC's First and Fourteenth Amendment claims. In resolving these cross-motions, the Court held that the First Amendment claim would go to trial. On HRDC's Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim, however, the Court split the 110 rejected HRDC mailings into three separate categories. The first category, and the only category on which HRDC prevailed, consisted of the four identified violations from HRDC's August 5, 2016 mailings, when the County rejected the mail without providing any reason for its rejection. The second category was reserved for mailings sent on January 6, January 12, May 12, and May 18 of 2017. For all of these mailings, HRDC was clearly put on notice as to the reason why the mailings were not being distributed to the inmates at the Jail. Finally, there was a third category consisting of mailings sent between September 2016 and January 2017. There was no evidence in the record whether the County provided a notification on these mailings as to why they were being rejected. Subsequent to that ruling, HRDC withdrew its procedural due process claims with respect to that category of mailings. So, to repeat, out of 110 separate mailings, the Court found that there were only four technical violations of HRDC's procedural due process rights.

         The remaining First Amendment claim and the issue of whether HRDC was entitled to damages for these aforementioned technical due process violations then proceeded to a three-day bench trial. Following a round of post-trial briefing, the Court issued its Memorandum Opinion and Order resolving these issues on April 25, 2019. In that order, the Court found in favor of the County on the First Amendment claim and additionally found that HRDC had not suffered any actual injuries from the earlier-identified due process violations. Because only an award of nominal damages was appropriate, the Court issued a Judgment that same day in the amount of $4 ($1 for each of the four discrete violations). The remaining claims were all dismissed with prejudice. (Doc. 105).

         Almost a full twenty-eight days later, HRDC filed what it termed a Motion to Amend/Correct Judgment (Doc. 106). It seems that, at some point during this intervening month, HRDC had discovered what it admitted was a simple clerical/scrivener's error: the Court, in its memorandum opinion and order and in the resulting judgment, had inserted an incorrect division number. The original documents bore the division number 5 (representing the Fayetteville division); the division number should have been 3, because this was a Harrison Division case. Apparently, this error had been repeated from earlier opinions in this case, and the error had not been previously identified by either the Court or any of the parties. Nevertheless, HRDC sought correction of this error. Because this was really much ado about nothing, [2] the Court simply corrected the division numbers on its orders, making no other changes. (Doc. 108). The following day, HRDC filed its Notice of Appeal (Doc. 109). Following the Court's order denying the motion to stay, HRDC filed the instant motion, requesting $145, 235 in attorney's fees and $11, 598.82 in costs and expenses.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, in a § 1983 action, "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." Although the statutory language is written permissively, the Supreme Court has clarified that, in the absence of special circumstances, "a district court not merely 'may' but must award fees to the prevailing plaintiff." Indep. Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 760-61 (1989). Thus, unless "special circumstances would render such an award unjust," Newman v. Piggie Park Enters., Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402 (1968), fees should be awarded. The reason, of course, is to fulfill the purposes behind § 1988 by ensuring '"effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). By providing a mechanism by which attorneys who take on civil rights claims can recover their fees should they prevail, Congress has incentivized the bar to take these cases in the first place. Nevertheless, although § 1988 presumptively entitles a prevailing party to a fee award, fee-shifting statutes like it "were not designed as a form of economic relief to improve the financial lot of attorneys," Pennsylvania v. Del. Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 565 (1986), and should "not produce windfalls to attorneys." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 897 (1976).


         After considering the parties' briefing and the history of this case, the Court finds that there are special circumstances here that would make an award of fees unjust. As such, it will deny HRDC's request for fees and will additionally order each party to bear its own costs. The Court makes this finding for several reasons.

         A. The Timeliness of HRDC's Fee Request

         Rule 54(d)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, unless a statute or court order provides otherwise, a motion for attorney's fees must be filed "no later than 14 days after the entry of judgment." Local Rule 54.1 preserves this fourteen-day deadline but also provides that "[i]n the event a post-trial motion is filed, this 14-day period shall not commence until entry of the order granting or denying the post-trial motion." Moreover, "[a] failure to present a timely petition for an award df attorney's fees may be considered by the Court to be a waiver of any claim for attorney's fees." Id.

         The parties, in both their briefing on the motion to stay as well as the motion presently before the Court, have vigorously disputed whether HRDC's motion, which was filed almost fifty days following the April 25 Judgment, is timely under these rules.[3]Technically speaking, HRDC is likely correct that the wording of the Local Rule provides that the 14-day window does not begin to run until the Court disposes of any post-trial motion. Nevertheless, the Court finds that the County also has a very good point about HRDC's diligence, or lack thereof, in filing a request for such fees. In short, the Court finds that HRDC's post-trial motion should not be allowed to extend a deadline that had otherwise long expired.

         To understand why, the Court need only describe the timeline of events. The Court's bench trial Opinion and the resulting Judgment were issued on April 25, 2019. Under usual circumstances, HRDC would have needed to file its motion for attorney's fees by May 9. It didn't. In fact, HRDC did not file anything on the docket in this case until a full two weeks after this May 9th deadline, in which it first sought to "amend" the judgment by correcting a scrivener's error.[4] That means that one of two things happened. Either HRDC did not discover this "error" that needed correcting until after May 9th- which indicates a lack of diligence in moving for attorney's fees initially. Or, it discovered this "error" before May 9th and consciously decided not to comply with the usual 14-day deadlines in Rule 54 and Local Rule 54.1 because it wanted to wait an additional two weeks to file a motion that would needlessly extend its deadline to file its fee petition. The Court finds that this too demonstrates HRDC's lack of diligence in seeking fees. After all, Rule 54 "does not require that the motion be supported at the time of filing with the evidentiary material bearing on the fees." ...

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