903 F.2d 131 (2nd Cir. 1990), 891, Koster v. Perales

Docket Nº:891, 1062, Dockets 89-9029, 90-9071.
Citation:903 F.2d 131
Party Name:Florence KOSTER, John Koster, Donna Koster, John Koster, Jr., Helen Koster, Janet Koster, Edward Koster, Patricia Weatherly, La Shonta Weatherly, Morris La Shonta Weatherly, Morris Weatherly, Christopher Weatherly and Terrel Weatherly, On behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Cesar A. PERALES, as Commissioner of the New
Case Date:May 10, 1990
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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Page 131

903 F.2d 131 (2nd Cir. 1990)

Florence KOSTER, John Koster, Donna Koster, John Koster,

Jr., Helen Koster, Janet Koster, Edward Koster, Patricia

Weatherly, La Shonta Weatherly, Morris La Shonta Weatherly,

Morris Weatherly, Christopher Weatherly and Terrel

Weatherly, On behalf of all others similarly situated,

Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Cesar A. PERALES, as Commissioner of the New York State

Department of Social Services, Francis T. Purcell, as

Executive of the County of Nassau, and Joseph A. D'Elia as

Commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Social

Services, Defendants,

Cesar A. Perales, as Commissioner of the New York State

Department of Social Services,

Defendant-Appellant, Cross-Appellee,

Francis T. Purcell, as Executive of the County of Nassau,

and Joseph A. D'Elia, as Commissioner of the

Nassau County Department of Social

Services,

Defendants-Appellees,

Cross-Appellants.

Nos. 891, 1062, Dockets 89-9029, 90-9071.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

May 10, 1990

Argued March 1, 1990.

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Christopher K. Hall, New York City, Asst. Atty. Gen. State of N.Y. (Robert Abrams, Atty. Gen. State of N.Y., Howard L. Zwickel, Asst. Atty. Gen., of counsel), for defendant-appellant-cross-appellee.

Gerald R. Podlesak, Mineola, N.Y., Deputy County Atty. of Nassau County (Robert W. Schmidt, County Atty. of Nassau County, of counsel), for defendants-appellees-cross-appellants.

Michael A. Cooper, New York City (Karen Patten Bogle, Sullivan & Cromwell, New York City, Leonard S. Clark, Robin Sparks, Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc., Hempstead, N.Y., Robert M. Hayes, O'Melveny & Myers, New York City, of counsel), for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before OAKES, Chief Judge, NEWMAN and WALKER, Circuit Judges.

WALKER, Circuit Judge:

Defendants Cesar A. Perales, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services ("State defendant" or "State commissioner"), Francis T. Purcell, Executive of the County of Nassau, and Joseph A. D'Elia, Commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Social Services ("County defendants"), appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Glasser, J.) awarding the plaintiff class attorney's fees to be satisfied jointly and severally by the defendants in their official capacities pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988. Because we agree with the district court that both the State and County defendants may be held liable for attorney's fees and because we find that the district court's imposition of joint and several liability was within its discretion, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

This appeal arises out of a class action brought in 1982 by the plaintiffs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 on behalf of homeless families in Nassau County. Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had failed to provide adequate emergency shelter to homeless families eligible for such shelter in violation of, inter alia, the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. Secs. 601, et seq., and various provisions of the New York Social Services Law. Specifically, the complaint alleged that the County defendants, acting under color of state law, denied plaintiffs emergency shelter and, in some cases, written notice of its decision not to provide such shelter in violation of the Social Security Act and the equal protection and due process clauses of the United States Constitution. Koster v. Webb, 598 F.Supp. 1134, 1136 (E.D.N.Y.1983). Plaintiffs charged the State defendant with "failure to insure that the state policy and practice of providing emergency shelter to homeless families is in effect in Nassau County." The amended complaint sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the defendants to provide "lawful emergency shelter to meet the plaintiffs' needs and to consider each and every request for emergency shelter and provide written notice of any denials thereof."

The district court denied the County defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, holding that the plaintiffs had stated a claim under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 for a right to emergency shelter under the Social Security Act, as well as pendent state law claims for similar relief under the New York Constitution and Social Services Law. Id. After considerable discovery, the State commissioner moved for summary judgment. While that motion was pending and after lengthy negotiations, the parties entered a stipulation

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of settlement approved by the district court on March 18, 1987.

The settlement agreement, which explicitly left the issue of attorney's fees unresolved, provides that "the County must act in response to an eligible family's request for emergency housing on the same day that the request is made; must ensure that the emergency housing provided meets certain minimum standards; must give prompt written notice of any decision of ineligibility; and must provide these services on a 24-hour day [sic] basis, seven days a week." Koster v. Perales, No. 82 Civ. 2892, slip op. at 2, 1989 WL 79482 (E.D.N.Y. July 11, 1989). In addition, it provides that the State commissioner shall supervise the County to assure that it complies with the agreement.

Upon application, the district court concluded that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988 and, as such, were entitled to attorney's fees. The court awarded plaintiffs $326,678.07 in fees against the defendants, jointly and severally. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

  1. Plaintiffs' Eligibility for Counsel Fees

    The State commissioner challenges the district court's conclusion that the plaintiffs prevailed against him, a condition precedent to any award of attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988. First, the State commissioner contends that the relief the plaintiffs obtained in the settlement bears no relationship to the claims raised or the relief sought in the complaint. Next, he argues that the plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because the settlement provides no benefits to plaintiffs other than those that the State is already obligated to provide under existing law. Finally, he maintains that his obligation to supervise the County's implementation of the State's emergency shelter policy does not raise a federal claim sufficient to support the jurisdiction of the federal court.

    Title 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988 provides, in pertinent part, that the court in its discretion may allow a "prevailing party" in a section 1983 action to recover reasonable attorney's fees. " '[P]laintiffs may be considered "prevailing parties" for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit.' " Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. School Dist., --- U.S. ----, 109 S.Ct. 1486, 1491, 103 L.Ed.2d 866 (1989) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir.1978)). At a minimum, the plaintiff must demonstrate a change in the legal relationship between itself and the defendant arising from the resolution of the lawsuit. Id. 109 S.Ct. at 1493. However, relief need not be judicially decreed in order to justify a fee award under Sec. 1988.

    A lawsuit sometimes produces voluntary action by the defendant that affords the plaintiff all or some of the relief he sought through a judgment--e.g., a monetary settlement or a change in conduct that redresses the plaintiffs' grievances. When that occurs, the plaintiff is deemed to have prevailed despite the absence of a formal judgment in his favor.

    Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760-61, 107 S.Ct. 2672, 2675-76, 96 L.Ed.2d 654 (1987) (citing Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 2575, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980)); see also McCann v. Coughlin, 698 F.2d 112, 128 (2d Cir.1983).

    In applying the prevailing party standard, it is helpful to identify the relief sought by the plaintiff and compare it with the relief obtained as a result of the suit. See Institutionalized Juveniles v. Sec'y of Pub. Welfare, 758 F.2d 897, 911 (3d Cir.1985) (citing Bonnes v. Long, 599 F.2d 1316, 1319 (4th Cir.1979), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 961, 102 S.Ct. 1476, 71 L.Ed.2d 681 (1982)...

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