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DePriest v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority

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

September 22, 2017




         Before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees and costs. For the reasons stated below, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. Background

         In March 2012, the parties and this Court entered into a Consent Decree regarding conditions at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility. Docket No. 75 at 5. The Decree's provisions, among other things, required Defendants to protect the Eighth Amendment rights of Walnut Grove inmates. See Docket No. 75-3 at 4 (requiring that inmates be “provided with reasonably safe living conditions and [be] protected from violence”). These provisions were originally set to expire in March 2017, but could be extended by this Court as it saw fit. Id. at 15.

         In August 2014, following two riots at Walnut Grove, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Enforcement and Modification of the Decree. Docket No. 106. That motion asked that this Court hold an evidentiary hearing to determine what, if any, new measures were necessary to enforce the Decree's Eighth Amendment protections. Id. at 1 (requesting whatever “additional remedial measures” were required to “provide reasonably safe living conditions and freedom from violence for the inmates at Walnut Grove”). In March 2015, Defendants responded by filing a Motion to Terminate Prospective Relief Granted by the Decree. Docket No. 129. That motion asked this Court to terminate the entirety of the Decree pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), alleging that there were “no current and ongoing violations” of any inmate rights at Walnut Grove. Id. at 2.

         In April 2015, this Court held the evidentiary hearing requested by Plaintiffs. Two months later, the Court issued an Order dispensing with both the Motion to Enforce and the Motion to Terminate. Docket No. 169. The Order found, on the basis of the evidence presented by Plaintiffs, that there were “current and ongoing violations of the Eighth Amendment” at Walnut Grove. Id. at 19. The Order tailored the Decree's prospective relief to those violations, eliminating some of the Decree's provisions while maintaining others. Id. at 30-31. The Order was effectuated by a Final Judgment. Docket No. 175. The Final Judgment denied Defendants' Motion to Terminate, and - pursuant to the Decree's terms - “extend[ed]” the remaining provisions of the Decree beyond their original expiration date. Id. at 1.

         Defendants promptly appealed the Order. Docket No. 172. Before the Fifth Circuit could render an opinion, Walnut Grove was closed, and the appeal was mooted. Docket No. 192. In September 2016, the Fifth Circuit dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, but held that this Court retained jurisdiction to rule on Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees and costs, Depriest v. Fisher, 669 Fed.Appx. 209 (5th Cir. 2016), which was filed shortly after the entry of the Order. Docket No. 171.

         In January 2017, Plaintiffs filed a supplemental motion for attorney's fees and costs. Docket No. 196. That motion requested an award for work performed on the Motion to Enforce, the Motion to Terminate, and all subsequent filings. Id. at 4-5. Plaintiffs calculate this award to be $587, 355.00. Docket No. 206.

         Defendants claim it would “shock the conscience” to grant Plaintiffs an attorney's fee award. Docket No. 198 at 1. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' fee request should be “denied outright” because the Order left Plaintiffs “in a worse, not better, position than they were [previously] in.” Id. at 2. In the alternative, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs are “not entitled to anything close” to the award they request because that award fails to be “reasonable.” Docket No. 198 at 26.

         II. Legal Standard

         In civil rights actions, a “prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover attorney's fees under [42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)] unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 708 F.2d 991, 998 (5th Cir. 1983). “We have interpreted this to mean that absent special circumstances, a prevailing plaintiff should be awarded section 1988 fees as a matter of course.” Id. (citation omitted and emphasis in original).

         To attain prevailing party status, “a plaintiff must (1) obtain actual relief, such as an enforceable judgment or consent decree; (2) that materially alters the legal relationship between the parties; and (3) modifies the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff at the time of the judgment or settlement.” Dearmore v. City of Garland, 519 F.3d 517, 521 (5th Cir. 2008) (quotation marks and citation omitted). If plaintiffs have already obtained relief granting them prevailing party status, that status will be extended to certain efforts aimed at enforcing the prior relief. Miller v. Carson, 628 F.2d 346, 348 (5th Cir. 1980). Such efforts are those that are “related to the enforcement” of the prior relief and have “contributed to the vindication of rights.” Id. Furthermore, a “plaintiff is entitled to an attorney's fee for [a mooted] appeal” when they are “a prevailing party” in the underlying action. Murphy v. Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist., 334 F.3d 470, 470-71 (5th Cir. 2003) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also Depriest, 669 Fed.Appx. at 210 (“a determination of mootness neither precludes nor is precluded by an award of attorneys' fees”) (citation omitted).

         Prevailing parties are entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee, which is typically calculated using the “lodestar” method. See McClain v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 649 F.3d 374, 381-82 (5th Cir. 2011). This method requires courts to multiply the hours a party “reasonably expended” by the “reasonable hourly rate for their services.” Id. (citations omitted). The lodestar method “yields a fee that is presumptively sufficient.” Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 552 (2010) (citation omitted).

         Courts may adjust the lodestar using the twelve Johnson factors, the “most critical” of which is the “degree of success obtained.” Abner v. Kan. City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 377 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Johnson v. Ga. Highway Express, 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974)). An attorney's fee award ruling should “explain how each of the Johnson factors affects its award, ” but “need not be meticulously detailed to survive appellate review.” In re High Sulfur Content Gasoline Prod. Liab. Litig., 517 F.3d 220, 228 (5th Cir. 2008).

         The PLRA imposes three additional limitations on fee awards in prison reform litigation. First, all fees must have been “directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of the plaintiff's rights.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1)(A). Second, the fees must be either “proportionally related to the court ordered relief” or “directly and reasonably incurred in enforcing the relief ordered.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1)(B). Third, the fees cannot be predicated upon hourly rates which exceed “150 percent of the hourly rate established” by 18 U.S.C.A. § 3006A, known as the Criminal Justice Act (“CJA”). 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(3).

         Courts disagree on what the “established” hourly rate is under the CJA for the purposes of this third requirement. Some courts use the maximum CJA rates approved by the Judicial Conference, while others use the rates budgeted for by Congress. See Batchelder v. Geary, No. C-71-02017 RMW, 2007 WL 2427989, at *4-5 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 22, 2007) (collecting cases). In the absence of binding precedent, this Court agrees with the majority of courts which have reached this issue, and finds it appropriate to use the CJA rate approved by the Judicial Conference. See, e.g., Hadix v. Johnson, 398 F.3d 863, 866-68 (6th Cir. 2005), Webb v. Ada Cty., 285 F.3d 829, 839 (9th Cir. 2002), Williams v. Taylor, No. 4:08CV163-SA, 2012 WL 12965714, at *2 (N.D. Miss. Dec. 3, 2012); but see Hernandez v. Kalinowski, 146 F.3d 196, 201 (3d Cir. 1998).

         III. Discussion

         The threshold question in this case is whether Plaintiffs have attained prevailing party status. If this is the case, the only remaining question regards the scope of the attorney's fee award to which Plaintiffs are entitled. Both questions are discussed below.

         A. Prevailing Party Status

         There is no real dispute that the 2012 Decree granted Plaintiffs prevailing party status. The Decree meets all three prongs of the test outlined in Dearmore. 519 F.3d at 521. First, the Decree constitutes “actual relief, ” as it is a consent decree. Id. Second, as evidenced by the extent of its terms, the Decree “materially alter[ed]” the legal relationship between Plaintiffs and Defendants. Id. Finally, as demonstrated by those terms' implementation, the Decree “modifie[d] the defendant's behavior” in a way that “directly benefitted plaintiffs at the time of its entry.” Id.

         What the parties dispute is whether this prevailing party status extends to Plaintiffs' subsequent efforts to enforce the Decree - namely, the work Plaintiffs expended on both the Motion to Enforce and the Motion to Terminate. For prevailing party status to extend to this work, that work must have (1) been “related to the enforcement” of the ...

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