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Payne v. University of Southern Mississippi

United States District Court, Southern District of Mississippi, Southern Division

March 31, 2015

THOMAS PAYNE PLAINTIFF
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, et al. DEFENDANTS

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

KEITH STARRETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants’ Motions [198, 200] for attorney’s fees.

I. Background

The Court provided the factual background of this case in a Memorandum Opinion and Order [147] entered on February 21, 2014. See Payne v. Univ. of S. Miss., No. 1:12-CV-41-KS-MTP, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22052 (S.D.Miss. Feb. 21, 2014). On May 12-16, 2014, the Court presided over the jury trial in this matter. On May 16, 2014, after the close of Plaintiff’s case-in-chief, Defendants made a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50. The Court granted the motion in a bench ruling and entered a Final Judgment [195] in Defendants’ favor. On June 3, 2014, Defendants filed Motions for Attorney Fees [198, 200], which the Court now considers.

II. Defendants Gandy, Ledford, Nored, and Whitehead [200]

A. Title VII

“In any action or proceeding under [Title VII] the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Under Title VII, “a successful defendant can only recover . . fees if the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Autry v. Fort Bend Indep. Sch. Dist., 704 F.3d 344, 349 (5th Cir. 2013). Plaintiff does not dispute that Defendants were the prevailing parties.

“Title VII does not impose liability on individuals unless they are ‘employers.’” Grant v. Lone Star Co., 21 F.3d 649, 653 (5th Cir. 1994). Neither Gandy, Ledford, Nored, nor Whitehead were Plaintiff’s employer. Therefore, they could not be sued under Title VII, and “[t]hat fact was obvious from the outset.” Provensal v. Gaspard, 524 F. App’x 974, 977 (5th Cir. 2013). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s Title VII claims against them were frivolous, and they may recover attorney’s fees for the defense of those claims. Id. (where plaintiff sued individual who was not his employer, district court correctly determined that Title VII claim was frivolous).

B. Section 1988

In Section 1983 cases, “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Plaintiff does not dispute that Defendants were the prevailing parties. “[P]revailing defendants cannot recover § 1988 fees without demonstrating that the plaintiff’s underlying claim was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.” Merced v. Kasson, 577 F.3d 578, 595 (5th Cir. 2009). “When considering whether a suit is frivolous, a district court should look to 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). Ultimately, the Court “must ask whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful.” Stover v. Hattiesburg Pub. Sch. Dist., 549 F.3d 985, 997 (5th Cir. 2008).

1. Notice of Non-Renewal

Some of Plaintiff’s Section 1983 claims were premised upon his alleged termination, but Plaintiff was not terminated. As the Court noted in its Memorandum Opinion and Order [147] addressing Defendants’ dispositive motions, Plaintiff’s department and program was scheduled to be discontinued, but the decision was later rescinded. Plaintiff never experienced a break in employment until he resigned in December 2012. Regardless, Plaintiff repeatedly misrepresented to the Court that he was terminated, including in his initial Complaint. Therefore, the Court finds that all Section 1983 claims arising from the rescinded notice of non-renewal sent to Plaintiff in August 2010 were frivolous and wholly without foundation from the start of this litigation, and Defendants are entitled to fees for their defense of those claims.

2. Equal Protection

In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants “chastised” him “because [he] believed in praying and would pray for students or words to that effect.” In briefing on Defendants’ motions for summary judgment, Plaintiff argued that Defendants violated his constitutional right to equal protection under the law by treating him differently than other professors because of his religious beliefs. Plaintiff failed, however, to provide any evidence whatsoever that Defendants’ actions were because of his religion.

His equal protection claim was based on nothing but speculation and conjecture. Therefore, the Court finds that it was frivolous and wholly without foundation from the start of this litigation, and Defendants are entitled to fees for their defense of that claim.

3. All Other § 1983 Claims

The Court denies Defendants’ fee request with respect to fees incurred in defense of Plaintiff’s remaining Section 1983 claims.

C. Mississippi Litigation Accountability Act

Mississippi’s Litigation Accountability Act provides:
[I]n any civil action commenced or appealed in any court of record in this state, the court shall award, as part of its judgment and in addition to any other costs otherwise assessed, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs against any party or attorney if the court, upon motion of any party or on its own motion, finds that an attorney or party brought an action, or asserted any claim or defense, that is without substantial justification, or that the action, or any claim or defense asserted, was interposed for delay or harassment, or if it finds that any attorney or party unnecessarily expanded the ...

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