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Richardson v. Rhodes

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

September 8, 2014

LEE RICHARDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DONALD RHODES AND RONALD RHODES, Individually, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CARLTON W. REEVES, District Judge.

Before the Court are separate motions for attorneys' fees filed by Defendants Donald and Ronald Rhodes, Docket Nos. 84 and 86. Defendant Donald Rhodes supports his motion with a memorandum of authorities and reply brief, see, Docket Nos. 85 and 90, while Ronald Rhodes relies exclusively upon his motion and supporting affidavits. Docket No. 86. Plaintiff Lee Richardson opposes the motions with his responses, Docket Nos. 87 and 88. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the motions must be DENIED.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Lee Richardson filed suit in Hinds County Circuit Court on September 19, 2010, against twin brothers, Donald Rhodes, a sergeant with Hinds County Sheriff's Department, and Ronald Rhodes, an agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, along with John Doe members of the Hinds County Sherriff's Department, individually and in their official capacities, seeking damages under state law and under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 for violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.[1] Docket No. 1-1, at 35.

During the course of discovery, Richardson received an incident report prepared by Sergeant Christopher Moses of the Hinds County Sheriff's Department purportedly informing him of the identities of the only officers who were present at the traffic stop. Docket No. 10-1(Incident Report), at 1, ¶ 1. Although not identified in the incident report, Richardson always claimed that Donald and Ronald Rhodes were present and that they violated his constitutional rights. On the other hand, throughout the litigation and trial, Defendants maintained that they were not present at the alleged incident. In fact, they claimed further that they met Richardson for the first time at the pretrial conference held on June 14, 2013; therefore, it was not possible for them to have committed these acts. Following a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for Defendants.

The Defendants now bring these motions seeking attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988[2] in the amount of $55, 550.99.[3]

II. LEGAL STANDARD

For the district court to properly award a defendant attorneys' fees in a § 1983 action, the court must find that (1) the defendant is a prevailing party, and (2) that the plaintiff's claims are frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) (citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978)).

III. DISCUSSION

Having obtained a verdict in their favor, Defendants are prevailing parties. The question left for this Court to determine is whether Richardson's claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. In Christainsburg Garment Co., the Supreme Court held that 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." 434 U.S. at 421 (emphasis added). Moreover, a plaintiff can be assessed his opponent's attorney fees if the court finds that the plaintiff "continued to litigate after it clearly became so, " when the frivolous nature of a suit is not apparent from the outset. Id. at 422. This same standard applies in cases brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. See Hughes, 449 U.S. at 14. "The plaintiff's action, must be meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation." Id. The Fifth Circuit has explained that the reasonableness of a plaintiff's claims must be assessed as of the time of the filed suit. See Holloway v. Walker, 784 F.2d 1294, 1296 (5th Cir. 1986).

District courts are discouraged from engaging in post hoc reasoning - that is, since a plaintiff ultimately does not prevail, his case must have been meritless. "This kind of hindsight logic, " the Supreme Court has warned, "could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success." Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 421. See also, Hughes, 449 U.S. at 14 ("The fact that a plaintiff may ultimately lose his case is not in itself a sufficient justification for the assessment of fees."). Instead, when determining if a suit is frivolous, this Court is guided by factors such as "whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case, whether the defendant offered to settle, and whether the court held a full trial." Myers v. City of W. Monroe, 211 F.3d 289, 292 (5th Cir. 2000). The high standard applied to defendants under Section 1988 is designed to "ensure that plaintiffs with uncertain but arguably meritorious claims are not altogether deterred from initiating litigation by the threat of incurring onerous legal fees should their claims fail." Id., (quoting Aller v. N.Y. Bd. of Elections, 586 F.Supp. 603, 605 (S.D.N.Y.1984)).

A. Plaintiff's Prima Facie Case

Defendants argue that Richardson failed to establish a prima facie case, basing this contention on the fact that the jury, tasked with the responsibility of evaluating the evidence concerning the alleged constitutional violations asserted by the Plaintiff, deliberated and returned a verdict in favor of Defendants. Defendants bolster this argument by asserting that Richardson's claims lacked any evidentiary support and Richardson should be held accountable now for not explaining why he chose to pursue his claim against Defendants when they were not among the officers disclosed in the incident report.

This reasoning is misguided, and it belies the very principle undergirding plaintiff's obligation to present a prima facie case. A prima facie case is defined as "[a] party's production of enough evidence to allow the fact-trier to infer the fact at issue and rule in the party's favor." Black's Law Dictionary 1382 (10th ed. 2014) (emphasis added). The important question is not whether Plaintiff presented enough evidence during trial to effectively prove his ...


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