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
LOUISIANA STATE; LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND CORRECTIONS; JOSEPH LOPINTO, in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Defendants - Appellees
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Louisiana
HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.
STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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
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).
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
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 ...