No Results? No Fees in Civil Rights Case
By Sara E. Costello, Litigation News Associate Editor – June 30, 2015

Attorney fee requests in civil rights cases must be tied to work that is necessary and obtains results, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit hammered home in People First of Tennessee v. Tennessee. In People First, the appellate court rejected $500,000 in fees awarded for work on a contempt motion and for the monitoring of a consent decree. While the appellate court praised People First’s work during the long-running litigation, it also made clear that consent decrees do not “bring a perpetual entitlement to fees.” The ruling, however, left open the question of whether fees can be obtained for post-judgment monitoring without a court order in the Sixth Circuit.

Civil Rights Litigation
In 1992, the United States filed suit against the State of Tennessee, alleging that it violated the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997a. Following a trial, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee concluded that the state violated the due-process rights of the residents of Arlington Developmental Center, a state-run home for the mentally disabled.

Subsequently, the district court entered a consent decree that barred the state from admitting new residents, mandated improved conditions, and ultimately required the state to place Arlington’s residents with new caregivers. The consent decree also made the state responsible for paying for a court-appointed monitor to oversee its compliance. Representing a class of Arlington’s residents, People First, a disability-rights organization, then intervened in the case.

People First’s Nineteenth Request for Fees
Following the entry of the consent decree, People First filed numerous unopposed applications for fees. As a result, it received approximately $3.6 million dollars from the state. In its nineteenth application for fees, under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, People First concentrated on a 2008 motion for contempt. The court held a hearing on the contempt motion, but it suspended the hearing to allow the parties to discuss settlement. People First also sought fees for the “general monitoring” it had completed.

Under § 1988, the “prevailing party” in a civil-rights lawsuit may be awarded a “reasonable attorney’s fee.” Although the state objected to the fee request, the district court concluded that People First was the prevailing party. The court, however, reduced the fees and expenses sought by People First. The state appealed the award of the attorney fees, and People First cross-appealed the reduction.

The Sixth Circuit Rejects Fees
Emphasizing the need to show a connection between the work performed by the party seeking fees and the results obtained, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s fee award. In making its ruling, the Sixth Circuit acknowledged that it is more difficult to determine if a party is entitled to fees when its fee request is based on work performed after a court grants relief. In that situation, a party’s work may not result in a new type of relief; rather it may sustain the relief that has already been granted.

The standard for considering fee awards for enforcing or defending a prior decree was set forth in Binta B. v. Gordon. The Binta B. court held that to obtain fees, a party must show that the work was necessary to enforce the prior decree, the work resulted in a court or agency order, and that the order “at least secured the plaintiff’s initial success in obtaining the decree.” Here, the Sixth Circuit concluded that People First had not shown that its work resulted in a court order, as the 2008 contempt motion was stricken from the docket and not renewed.

Similarly, the appellate court determined that People First should not be compensated for its “self-appointed” monitoring. In the Sixth Circuit’s view, People First’s efforts were not necessary to enforce the consent decree because the State had already paid a “monumental amount” to the court-appointed monitor. The appellate court cautioned that monitoring orders are “susceptible to excessive costs” and that it is important to remember that such fee awards are paid from public funds.

“Going forward, parties in the Sixth Circuit will have to carefully adhere to the Binta B. three-prong standard,” predicts Professor Sarah E. Ricks, Camden, NJ, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Section 1983 Subcommittee of the Civil Rights Litigation Committee. “That was a challenge for the plaintiffs in this case because the attorney work here took place before the Sixth Circuit decided Binta B.”

“People First’s request for fees was based on a contempt motion that was withdrawn,” says Eric E. Hudson, Memphis, TN, cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Mass Torts Committee. “In that case, it is very difficult to meet the standard because they never got a ruling on the underlying relief,” he suggests.

Obtaining Fees for Post-judgment Monitoring
In the Seventh Circuit, a party cannot be awarded fees for post-judgment monitoring if that work does not result in a court judgment or order. On the other hand, the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have held that fees can be obtained for post-judgment monitoring without a court order.

Here, “the existence of the court-appointed monitor allowed the Sixth Circuit to avoid ruling on that question,” Hudson contends. “An important lesson to take from the case is that when there is court-appointed monitoring, it is harder to justify a party’s own monitoring” and show that such work should be compensated, he explains.

Still, there are measures that parties may take to increase the likelihood that they will be able to obtain fees in such cases. “To ensure ‘prevailing party’ status in enforcement or monitoring of a decree, the plaintiffs may seek to include language in the consent decree itself stating that the plaintiffs should be considered prevailing parties for purposes of post-judgment monitoring,” Ricks says.

Keywords: attorney fees, prevailing party, consent decree, monitoring, Sixth Circuit

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