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Shelton v. Louisiana State

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 26, 2019

ANA CHRISTINE SHELTON, in her capacity as both the Natural Tutrix of the minor children S.A. and T.A. and the Independent Administratrix of the Succession of Nelson Arce, deceased, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
LOUISIANA STATE; LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND CORRECTIONS; JOSEPH LOPINTO, in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Defendants - Appellees

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

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

          STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Ana Christine Shelton appeals the denial of attorneys' fees in her suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court held that Shelton is not entitled to fees because she recovered only nominal damages. We vacate the fee order and remand for the district court to reconsider whether special circumstances justify the denial of attorneys' fees in this case.

         I.

         This suit was originally brought by Nelson Arce, a deaf man on probation in Louisiana. According to the complaint, Arce had limited proficiency in written English and communicated primarily in American Sign Language (ASL). Arce's probation officer allegedly refused to provide a qualified ASL interpreter during their meetings and failed to explain the terms of probation in ASL. Arce alleged that he unintentionally violated his probation because he did not understand his probation conditions. As a result of this probation violation, Arce was sentenced to 90 days imprisonment in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center (JPCC). The JPCC allegedly failed to accommodate Arce's disability in multiple respects, including failing to interpret into ASL the Inmate Handbook detailing the jail's rules and regulations. After Arce was released, his probation officer again refused to provide a certified ASL interpreter during probation meetings.

         Arce sued the State of Louisiana and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that he suffered discrimination while on probation and while incarcerated at the Jefferson Parish jail because the defendants failed to provide auxiliary aids necessary to ensure effective communication.[1]Arce requested compensatory damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief. In October 2016, Arce moved for a preliminary injunction against the State of Louisiana requiring that it provide a certified ASL interpreter during his probation meetings. The parties then reached an agreement that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections would provide Arce with an ASL interpreter during all future meetings with his probation officer. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the motion for a preliminary injunction as moot.

         Arce passed away on May 9, 2017. Shelton-the administrator of Arce's estate and the mother of his children-was substituted as plaintiff. In light of Arce's death, the district court dismissed the claims for injunctive relief for lack of standing. Settlement negotiations were unsuccessful, and the parties proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found that both the State of Louisiana and Sheriff Lopinto discriminated against Arce in violation of the ADA, and that the discrimination was intentional. But the jury also found that Shelton did not prove that the discrimination caused injury to Arce. As a result, Shelton received no compensatory damages. The district court entered judgment in favor of Shelton and against Louisiana and Sheriff Lopinto, and awarded $1 in nominal damages as to each defendant.

         Shelton then moved for an award of attorneys' fees and costs. The district court recognized that Shelton is a prevailing party but held that "special circumstances justify the denial of attorney's fees" because Shelton sought primarily monetary relief and received only nominal damages. Shelton timely appealed.

         II.

         Under the ADA, a court "may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs." 42 U.S.C. § 12205. A district court's denial of attorneys' fees is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Sanchez v. City of Austin, 774 F.3d 873, 878 (5th Cir. 2014). "Factual determinations underlying the denial of fees are reviewed for clear error; legal conclusions . . . are reviewed de novo." Grisham v. City of Fort Worth, Tex., 837 F.3d 564, 568 (5th Cir. 2016).

         The ADA's fee-shifting provision is interpreted under the same legal standard as the similar provision in 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See No Barriers, Inc. v. Brinker Chili's Texas, Inc., 262 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir. 2001). Thus, a prevailing plaintiff in an ADA case "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Lefemine v. Wideman, 568 U.S. 1, 5 (2012) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983)). "We have held that given the strong policy behind § 1988 of awarding fees to prevailing plaintiffs, defendants must make an extremely strong showing of special circumstances to avoid paying attorneys' fees and that the discretion to deny § 1988 fees is extremely narrow." Pruett v. Harris County Bail Bond Bd., 499 F.3d 403, 417 (5th Cir. 2007) (quotations omitted). "A district court abuses this discretion if it applies an erroneous interpretation of special circumstances to justify denial of fees to an otherwise prevailing party." Grisham, 837 F.3d at 567-68 (quotation omitted).

         III.

         The district court held that special circumstances justify the denial of attorneys' fees to Shelton under Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992). In Farrar, the Supreme Court explained that, "[i]n some circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally 'prevails' under § 1988 should receive no attorney's fees at all." Id. at 115. "When a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an ...


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