265 F.3d 399 (6th Cir. 2001), 99-4490, Berger v. City of Mayfield Heights

Docket Nº:99-4490
Citation:265 F.3d 399
Party Name:SANFORD J. BERGER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT, v. CITY OF MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.
Case Date:September 07, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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265 F.3d 399 (6th Cir. 2001)

SANFORD J. BERGER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

CITY OF MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.

No. 99-4490

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 7, 2001

Argued: March 14, 2001

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Toledo. No. 94-02036--David A. Katz, District Judge.

Page 400

Bruce B. Elfvin, Barbara Kaye Besser, Amy S. Glesius, Elfvin & Besser, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant.

Leonard F. Carr, L. Bryan Carr, Carr, Feneli & Carbone, Mayfield Heights, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: Norris and Daughtrey, Circuit Judges; Zatkoff, District Judge[*].

OPINION

Martha Craig Daughtrey, Circuit Judge

This case is before us on appeal for the second time. The plaintiff, Sanford J. Berger, sued the City of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, and several individual defendants for violation of his constitutional rights in a dispute with the City concerning the maintenance of property that he owned in Mayfield Heights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and dismissed the plaintiff's action. On appeal, we reversed the district court's judgment, holding that the municipal ordinance

Page 401

under which Berger had been cited violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. On remand, Berger moved for attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court denied Berger's motion, holding that he had prevailed on "a simple constitutional challenge to the City's ordinance," not a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. Berger now appeals the denial of attorneys' fees, insisting that he is a "prevailing party" under § 1988. We agree, and we therefore conclude that the matter must be remanded for a determination of reasonable attorneys' fees.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A detailed history of this case can be found in our previous opinion. See Berger v. City of Mayfield Heights, 154 F.3d 621 (6th Cir. 1998). In relevant part, the facts reflected there indicate that plaintiff Berger and one of his neighbors got into a dispute concerning the maintenance of Berger's intervening vacant lot, which -- to the dismay of his neighbor -- he kept in a "natural state." The neighbor succeeded in soliciting the Mayfield Heights City Council to amend an ordinance to require owners of vacant lots with 100 feet or less of street frontage to "totally cut" their lots to a height of no more than eight inches. Not surprisingly, Berger's vacant lot contravened the ordinance, but he refused to comply with the City's demand to clear-cut his lot, resulting in his citation for a criminal violation.

In response to the citation, Berger sued the City and certain other defendants in a 12-count complaint. The first two counts alleged constitutional violations, as follows:

Count I: That the amended ordinance is not substantially related to the public health, safety, and welfare of the City, violates Ohio Rev. Code § 731.30, and is unreasonable and arbitrary, constituting a substantive due process violation under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Count II: That the amended ordinance is unconstitutional on equal protection grounds, because it treats similarly situated landowners differently, based solely on the square footage of their properties.

In the jurisdictional statement of his complaint, Berger predicated jurisdiction on the basis of "42 U.S.C. §§ 1982, 1983 and 1985 as well as 28 U.S.C. §§ 1343(3) and (4) and 2201 et seq." Berger sought relief, among other remedies, in the form of compensatory damages against the City; compensatory and punitive damages against the other defendants; an injunction against criminal prosecution for violation of the ordinance; a declaratory judgment that the ordinance violated the federal and Ohio constitutional Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses; and attorney's fees and costs. The district court granted a temporary restraining order against criminal prosecution, and the City consented to hold in abeyance the criminal prosecution and its manicure of Berger's vacant lot pending final resolution of the litigation. After the other defendants were either dismissed by Berger or found immune from liability, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the City on all counts of Berger's complaint.

On appeal, we reversed the grant of summary judgment to the City on Counts 1 and 2, finding, under a literal interpretation, that the ordinance violates both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and, under a less-constrained interpretation, that it violates the Equal Protection Clause. Berger, 154 F.3d at 625-26. Following remand to the district court, Berger petitioned for an award of attorneys' fees pursuant

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to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and the City filed a cross-motion for an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to § 1988 and 28 U.S.C. § 1927 and for sanctions against Berger pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. The district court denied both petitions.

DISCUSSION

A. § 1983 Claim

Berger argues that the district court erred when it denied him an award of attorneys' fees. Undergirding Berger's claim for fees is 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides: In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

We review the denial of attorneys' fees for abuse of discretion. Phelan v. Bell, 8 F.3d 369, 373 (6th Cir. 1993) (citing Perotti v. Seiter, 935 F.2d 761, 763 (6th Cir. 1991)). "Abuse of discretion is defined as a definite and firm conviction that the trial court committed a clear error of judgment." Logan v. Dayton...

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