554 F.3d 624 (6th Cir. 2009), 07-3602, Garner v. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court

Docket Nº:07-3602.
Citation:554 F.3d 624
Party Name:Anthony GARNER et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CUYAHOGA COUNTY JUVENILE COURT et al., Defendants-Appellees. Merrie M. Frost, Attorney-Appellant,
Case Date:January 22, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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554 F.3d 624 (6th Cir. 2009)

Anthony GARNER et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

Merrie M. Frost, Attorney-Appellant,

v.

CUYAHOGA COUNTY JUVENILE COURT et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 07-3602.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 22, 2009

Argued: Oct. 30, 2008.

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ARGUED:

Merrie M. Frost, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellants.

Charles E. Hannan, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Merrie M. Frost, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellants.

Charles E. Hannan, David G. Lambert, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellees. Richard Randolph Renner, Tate & Renner, Dover, Ohio, for Amicus Curiae.

Before CLAY, GILMAN, and ROGERS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

The appellants are 12 African-American employees of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile

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Court (the CCJC) and their attorney Merrie M. Frost. They appeal the district court's order imposing costs and attorney fees against them for maintaining frivolous discrimination claims long after those claims had clearly become groundless. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part the judgment of the district court, and REMAND the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Parties on appeal

The CCJC itself was neither a party below nor is a party to this appeal, even though this case has been styled Garner v. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court. Instead, the appellees are a number of the CCJC's administrators and supervisors who were sued in both their official and individual capacities. Because a suit against individuals in their official capacities is legally the same as a suit against the public entity employing them, they will be henceforth referred to as the CCJC. Numerous employees brought suit against the CCJC, alleging that it wrongfully terminated them in violation of Ohio law, that it violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that it retaliated against them for engaging in activities that are protected by law, such as the filing of a civil rights lawsuit. Some of the employees also claimed that the CCJC intentionally subjected them to emotional distress.

Not all of the original plaintiff-employees, however, are appellants in this case. The ones who have appealed are Spencer Bellamy, Sonja Colwell, Tiffanie Dennis, Anthony Garner, Shelley Isom, Terrance Jenkins, Heather McCollough, Monique Moore, Nathaniel Prather, Bruce Richardson, and Thomas Washington (collectively, the employees). This appeal does not concern the merits of the employees' claims because this court has already addressed those claims in a prior proceeding. See Garner v. Cuyahoga Cty. Juvenile Ct., 194 Fed.Appx. 279 (6th Cir.2006) (affirming the district court's order granting the CCJC's motion for summary judgment with respect to all of the claims raised by the employees), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1323, 127 S.Ct. 1915, 167 L.Ed.2d 567 (2007). Instead, the employees are contesting the district court's order holding them jointly and severally liable for the CCJC's attorney fees.

Attorney Frost is also named as an appellant. She contests the district court's decision to sanction her by holding her jointly and severally liable for the same award of attorney fees to the CCJC. For convenience, we will refer to the employees and Frost together as the " appellants."

B. Procedural background

The district court's opinion provides a comprehensive procedural history. That history will not be recounted here except to the extent relevant to this appeal.

1. The district court's summary judgment orders

Attorneys Merrie Frost and Timothy Ita independently filed, on behalf of their respective clients, a total of three separate lawsuits in state court against the CCJC. These cases were each removed to federal court on the basis of federal subject-matter jurisdiction and later consolidated. The consolidated federal complaint listed 14 plaintiff-employees and included the following counts: " termination in violation of Ohio's public policy," " employment discrimination in violation of Ohio Revised Code § 4112," " an equal protection violation brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983," " malicious conduct warranting a

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punitive damages award," and " intentional infliction of emotional distress, unlawful retaliatory discharge and discipline, civil conspiracy, and civil aiding and abetting." Garner, 194 Fed.Appx. at 280. The employees requested, among other things, compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $10 million. This court has previously described the motion practice that followed:

In July of 2003, CCJC filed a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings against Bellamy, Moore, and Washington, arguing that the federal claims raised by these three employees were barred by the statute of limitations because they had not been employed by CCJC within two years preceding the action. While this motion was pending, the discovery deadline was set for July 31, 2003. In September of 2003, CCJC filed a motion requesting that the district court increase the page limit for dispositive motions from 30 pages to 50 pages, which the court denied. Also in September of 2003-two months after the discovery deadline had passed-the plaintiffs requested leave to take an additional deposition, which the court also denied.

CCJC soon thereafter filed 11 motions for summary judgment, pertaining to all the employees other than Bellamy, Moore, and Washington. The employees filed an opposing memorandum accompanied by affidavits and exhibits. At a pretrial conference following the filing of the summary judgment motions and the response, the district court, on its own initiative, permitted the employees to file an additional memorandum in opposition to CCJC's summary judgment motions. They did so in December of 2003.

Also in December of 2003, CCJC sought a continuance of the trial date, originally set for January of 2004, in part due to the pendency of the dispositive motions. The district court agreed to set aside the January trial date. On December 31, 2003, the employees filed a motion to " update affidavits and exhibits" in response to CCJC's motions for summary judgment. The district court denied the employees' motion, reasoning that the deadline had long passed.

By March of 2005, the district court had granted summary judgment in favor of CCJC with respect to all of the employees, including Bellamy, Moore, and Washington.

Id. at 280-81.

Individual summary judgment orders, including more than 250 pages of discussion, were issued by the district court. All of the orders granted summary judgment in favor of the CCJC. This court affirmed the various orders on appeal, explaining as follows:

The district court held that Bellamy, Brown, Dennis, Garner, Isom, Lilly, Moore, Richardson, and Washington had failed to present any evidence to support their state and federal claims of racially motivated employment discrimination and retaliation. It further held that Colwell, Jenkins, McNear, McCollough, and Prather had failed to present sufficient evidence to support their claims. Aside from the differences between the failure to present any evidence and the failure to present sufficient evidence, the district court's summary judgment orders contain remarkably similar legal analysis.

Although the employees argue that the district court ignored or " changed" important evidence of racial discrimination on the part of CCJC, this contention is unsupported by the record. The district court engaged in a careful analysis of the facts as they pertained to each employee's

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claims, and it determined that the allegations of racial discrimination and other unlawful behavior were unfounded. In their brief, the employees continue to proffer the same assertions raised below, failing in almost all instances to cite to the record. Not only do the employees fail to base their allegations on facts in the record, they also fail to offer any relevant criticism of the district court's legal analysis.

Because the reasoning that supports summary judgment for CCJC has been clearly articulated by the district court in its thorough and well-written opinions, and because we are unpersuaded by the employees' argument that the court displayed favoritism and bias in rendering its procedural orders, the issuance by us of a detailed written opinion would be unduly duplicative.

Id. at 283-84 (emphases in original).

2. Imposition and calculation of costs and attorney fees on the employees

The CCJC subsequently sought to recoup the expenses associated with defending itself against the employees' claims in light of its successful summary judgment motions. It filed motions requesting an award of costs pursuant to Rule 54(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and sought attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

The district court granted the CCJC's motion for costs under Rule 54(d) in August 2005. In a separate order issued in March 2007, the court held 13 of the employees jointly and severally liable for those costs in the amount of $69,345.28. Those 13 employees are Bellamy, Brown, Dennis, Garner, Isom, Jenkins, Lilly, McCollough, McNear, Moore, Prather, Richardson and Washington. Because Colwell had filed for bankruptcy, she was excluded from this judgment. The employees have waived arguments relating to this award of costs. See Part II.C. below.

In an earlier order issued in October 2005, the district court had imposed attorney fees on 10 of the employees, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), for filing claims that were " frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation," and because " these employees should have dismissed their claims after discovery had shown that they were...

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