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Romain v. Marketa Garner Walters

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 8, 2017

MARKETA GARNER WALTERS, in her official capacity as Secretary, Department of Children & Family Services, Defendant-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before WIENER, DENNIS, and HAYNES, Circuit Judges.

          HAYNES, Circuit Judge:

         The district court determined that Plaintiffs in this matter were not prevailing parties and denied recovery of attorneys' fees. As discussed below, we REVERSE and REMAND.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Lisa Romain, Stacey Gibson, Joanika Davis, Schevelli Robertson, Jericho Macklin, Dameion Williams, and Brian Trinchard are residents of Louisiana who qualify for benefits under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program ("SNAP").[1] Plaintiffs relied on a state-wide waiver to meet the "work requirement, " which is one of many requirements an individual must meet in order to qualify for SNAP benefits. For at least the last eighteen years, the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services ("Department") consistently requested a waiver from the work requirement based on the high levels of unemployment in Louisiana. Defendant Marketa Garner Walters is the current Secretary of the Department.[2] Despite remaining eligible for the waiver, the Secretary did not apply for the waiver in 2015, which resulted in the waiver expiring on September 30, 2015. As a result of the waiver's expiration, approximately 62, 000 SNAP recipients became subject to the work requirement on October 1, 2015.

         The Department sent out letters in September 2015 to individuals who were previously covered by the waiver stating both that the recipient would be subject to the work requirement beginning October 1, 2015, and that the recipient's SNAP benefits would expire in three months unless they met the requirement. Starting on or around December 1, 2015, these same individuals began receiving notifications from the Department that their SNAP benefits were being changed or eliminated on January 1, 2016, due to their failure to meet the work requirement.

         Plaintiffs filed suit on December 18, 2015, arguing that the September letters discussing the waiver, the December notices reducing or terminating SNAP benefits, and the decision of Defendant to terminate SNAP benefits without individual investigations or fair hearings violated both Plaintiffs' due process rights and their rights under 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o). Their complaint sought both declaratory relief that Defendant's actions violated their rights under the aforementioned laws and injunctions staying Defendant from terminating their SNAP benefits. The complaint requested reasonable attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Plaintiffs simultaneously filed both a motion for class certification and a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

         On January 8, 2016, the parties filed a proposed stipulation and order of settlement ("Settlement Order") with the district court. The Settlement Order quoted a December 21, 2015 letter from then-Governor-Elect John Bel Edwards to the USDA stating his intention to extend the work requirement waiver statewide in 2016. Edwards's letter requested the USDA to work with the Department "to ensure that there is no gap in benefits until the waiver can be formally extended after I take office [on January 11, 2016], " and stated that "I am willing to work with your office and [the Department] to ensure these benefits are not cut off on December 31st."

         The Settlement Order contained three specific orders to the parties. First, in the event that the USDA granted a waiver, Defendant was ordered to (a) "[t]ake all steps necessary to ensure that SNAP benefits due for January 2016, are issued no later than January 22, 2016 in accordance with federal law and regulations"; (b) take steps to make sure the three-month work requirement limitation period did not commence for Plaintiffs and members of the class; and (c) issue notice to Plaintiffs and members of the class of the actions taken in conformity with the grant of the waiver and the Settlement Order. Second, if the USDA granted the waiver and Defendant complied with the above conditions, the complaint would be dismissed with prejudice. Third, in the event that the USDA did not grant the waiver in time to guarantee that Plaintiffs and members of the class received their January 2016 SNAP benefits, Plaintiffs could "restore the matter, " including their motions for injunctive relief, by filing a letter with the district court. The district court signed the Settlement Order on January 19, 2016.

         Counsel for Plaintiffs subsequently moved for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d). The motion requested $136, 253.25 in fees and $1, 888.57 in costs. Defendant opposed the motion, alleging that the fee request was excessive and unreasonable. Defendant also argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the fee request because Plaintiffs both had failed to exhaust state administrative remedies and were barred from suing Defendant under the Eleventh Amendment. The district court denied Plaintiffs' motion on the grounds that Plaintiffs were not the prevailing party under § 1988.

         II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

         The district court had jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' suit under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Shortly after the district court signed the Settlement Order, Governor Edwards applied for and received the waiver.[3] Given that the settlement conditions have been met, by resolving the fee dispute, the district court rendered "a decision . . . that ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment." Martin v. Halliburton, 618 F.3d 476, 481 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Henry v. Lake Charles Am. Press, LLC, 556 F.3d 164, 171 (5th Cir. 2009)). We therefore have jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs' appeal from the order on attorneys' fees under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

         The issues raised by Plaintiffs' appeal involve three standards of review. First, "[t]he characterization of prevailing party status for awards under fee-shifting statutes such as § 1988 is a legal question subject to de novo review." Dearmore v. City of Garland, 519 F.3d 517, 520 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Baileyv. Mississippi, 407 F.3d 684, 687 (5th Cir. 2005)). Second, a denial of § 1988 attorneys' fees is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Sanchez v. City of Austin, 774 F.3d 873, 878 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Dean v. Riser, 240 F.3d 505, 507 (5th Cir. 2001)). Finally, "this [c]ourt reviews the factual findings supporting the grant or denial of ...

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