113 F.3d 1294 (1st Cir. 1997), 96-1612, Williams v. Hanover Housing Authority

Docket Nº:96-1612.
Citation:113 F.3d 1294
Party Name:Tashima WILLIAMS, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. The HANOVER HOUSING AUTHORITY, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:May 22, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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113 F.3d 1294 (1st Cir. 1997)

Tashima WILLIAMS, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,


The HANOVER HOUSING AUTHORITY, et al., Defendants, Appellees.

No. 96-1612.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 22, 1997

Heard Jan. 10, 1997.

Judith Liben, Boston, MA, with whom Ernest Winsor, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, were on briefs for appellants.

Bernard M. Ortwein, Marblehead, MA, for appellees.

Before STAHL, Circuit Judge, ALDRICH and CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judges.

LEVIN H. CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge.

At issue in this appeal is whether the plaintiffs in an action they brought under 42

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U.S.C. § 1983 1 are entitled to recover attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. 2 In the course of plaintiffs' § 1983 action, the district court determined an underlying state law issue in plaintiffs' favor. Because federal and state officials thereupon accepted the district court's interpretation--reversing a former interpretation challenged by plaintiffs--the § 1983 action became moot. The district court denied attorneys' fees, ruling that fees under § 1988 were improper as plaintiffs had vindicated no federal right. Williams v. Hanover Housing Auth., 926 F.Supp. 10 (D.Mass.1996). See also Williams v. Hanover Housing Auth., 871 F.Supp. 527 (D.Mass.1994). The court also declined fees as a matter of discretion. We conclude, notwithstanding plaintiffs failure to prevail on specifically federal grounds, that they are nonetheless prevailing parties under § 1988, and entitled to fees.


The disputed fees claim arises in the following circumstances. The plaintiffs-appellants were receiving federal housing subsidies under Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937, as amended. 3 In April of 1993, they brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Arlington and Danvers, Massachusetts, Public Housing Authorities (the "Authorities"), as well as against the Hanover, Massachusetts Public Housing Authority and the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"). 4 Plaintiffs-appellants alleged that the Authorities, with HUD's approval, were illegally and unconstitutionally preventing them from using their Section 8 subsidies for housing outside the geographical limits of the city or town within which the Authority issuing the subsidy was located. The Authorities are quasi-public entities established under Massachusetts law to administer federal and state housing programs. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 121B, § 1 et seq. (West 1986 & Supp.1996).

The Housing Act of 1937, which includes Section 8, sought to provide an adequate supply of housing for low income families by subsidizing their rent in the private market. 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(a) (West 1994). Section 8 allowed tenants wider geographical choice than did earlier programs, increasing opportunities to obtain dwellings in areas of less concentrated poverty. 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(r) (West 1994). 5 See also Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act, Pub.L. No. 101-625, § 551, 104 Stat. 4224 (1990); Housing and Community Development Act of 1987, Pub.L. No. 100-242, § 145, 101 Stat. 1852 (1988).

The Act leaves it up to the states, however, to determine the area within which a particular public housing authority may contract with landlords to furnish subsidized housing. HUD, the federal agency administering the Section 8 housing programs, provided in its

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regulations that the local public housing authorities will determine their own jurisdictional reach by reference to state law. See 24 C.F.R. § 882.103(a) (1995).

In 1977, HUD was presented with conflicting legal opinions from two different Massachusetts public housing authorities as to whether they could legally contract with private landlords outside their municipal boundaries. 6 HUD asked the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development ("EOCD"), the state agency that supervises local public housing authorities, to seek a legal opinion from the Massachusetts Attorney General. Instead, the EOCD provided its own legal opinion, which was that a Massachusetts public housing authority could not contract with private landlords outside its municipal boundaries, except by agreement with another local public housing authority. HUD and the Authorities accepted and followed the EOCD's opinion on this matter. The extent of a local authority's "jurisdiction" to provide subsidized housing took on added significance in 1992 when Congress amended the portability rules of the Section 8 housing programs. Plaintiffs say that the amendment forced them and others like them to seek rental units within the jurisdiction of a single authority. 7 Unless that authority could provide housing beyond its municipal limits, tenants like plaintiffs were curtailed in their mobility and choice of housing. Faced with this situation, plaintiffs sued in the district court under § 1983 in April of 1993, seeking a judicial determination of their right to use their Section 8 housing subsidies in any community within the Commonwealth. To expedite a decision, the parties agreed that the facts would be submitted as a case stated. See Continental Grain Co. v. Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Auth., 972 F.2d 426, 429 n. 7 (1st Cir.1992).

In contending that it was unlawful for HUD and the Authorities to restrict their Section 8 housing subsidies to the city or town in which the issuing Authority was located, the tenants alleged that the geographical restrictions violated 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(r)(1), the relevant HUD regulations, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They also alleged that the restrictions interfered with their constitutional right to travel under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Fearing the loss of their Section 8 subsidies if they could not immediately find housing within the municipal boundaries of the Authority that issued their respective Section 8 certificates, the plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction that would toll or freeze the subsidies' expiration dates. The need for preliminary relief ceased, however, when defendants agreed not to terminate the plaintiffs' subsidies while the case was pending.

After reviewing submissions and hearing arguments, the district court issued an oral opinion on September 9, 1993, followed by a written decision on December 12, 1994. See Williams, 871 F.Supp. at 527-35. The district court stated in both that, in its view, Massachusetts law permitted state public housing authorities to contract with landlords owning dwellings outside their municipal boundaries.

Less than a month after the district court's oral opinion, HUD issued a directive to the Massachusetts public housing authorities informing them that all Section 8 tenants could henceforth use their housing subsidies anywhere in the Commonwealth. HUD, as the district court later declared, Williams, 926

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F.Supp. at 12, treated the district court's ruling as an authoritative declaration of state law, superseding the contrary opinion of the EOCD. The Authorities also went along.

While the district court rendered its own opinion as to an authority's jurisdiction, it also certified the same question to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. 8 Before that court reached the matter, the district court withdrew its certification, in part because of certain changes in HUD's regulations. At a November 30, 1995 hearing in the district court to determine the status of the case, HUD assured the district court that, in spite of its changed regulations, 9 it would continue to instruct all Massachusetts public housing authorities to abide by the court's oral and written decisions issued in plaintiffs' § 1983 case. The district court thereupon dismissed the § 1983 action as moot and plaintiffs petitioned, unsuccessfully, for their attorneys' fees.


In its opinion denying to plaintiffs attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the district court stated that, to receive fees, the plaintiffs had to be prevailing parties in their § 1983 action. In that action, the court continued, plaintiffs claimed to have been deprived of "rights secured by federal statutes, regulations and the United States Constitution." Williams, 926 F.Supp. at 13. In the court's view, plaintiffs never became entitled to fees because the court never found that they "had a right under federal law to have the Authorities contract outside of their political boundaries for Section 8 housing." Id. Rather the import of the court's ruling was that state, not federal law allowed the Authorities to contract outside of their political boundaries. Id. As plaintiffs did not vindicate a federal right, the district court believed that § 1988 provided no right to fees.

The court also stated, as a separate ground for decision, that it would refrain from awarding attorneys' fees as a matter of discretion, even assuming plaintiffs could be said to have prevailed on a federal right.


In reviewing the district court's denial of fees, we turn first to its ruling that, because plaintiffs did not prevail on any of their federal claims, they are barred from receiving attorneys' fees under § 1988. We review this ruling de novo as it presents essentially a question of law, not the individualized considerations which lead us to apply a deferential review standard. See Domegan v. Ponte, 972 F.2d 401, 406 n. 8 (1st Cir.1992).

We think the district court's analysis is unsupported by Supreme Court precedent and that of this and other circuits. The clear tendency of the courts has been to apply the fees statute in a more practical and less restrictive way.

Section 1988 itself nowhere states that attorneys' fees can be awarded only to those who prevail on expressly federal grounds. To be sure, the statute specifies that fees are to be awarded only "in" any of the enumerated federal causes of action, including §...

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