Christina A. ex rel. Jennifer A. v. Bloomberg

Decision Date13 January 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-3698.,01-3698.
Citation315 F.3d 990
PartiesCHRISTINA A., by and through her Parent and Next Friend, JENNIFER A.; Patricia B., by and through her Next Friend, Hillary B.; Philip C., by and through his Parent and Next Friend, Robert C.; Shannan D., by and through her Parent and Next Friend, Melissa D.; Todd E., by and through his Parent and Next Friend, Sandra E.; Carl F., by and through his Next Friend, Hillary B., Appellees, v. Jeff BLOOMBERG, in his official capacity as Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Corrections; Owen Spurrell, in his official capacity as Superintendent of the State Training School at Plankinton, South Dakota, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

James E. Moore, argued, Sioux Falls, SD, for appellant.

Mark I. Soler, argued, Washington, DC, for appellee.

Before LOKEN, BEAM, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

BEAM, Circuit Judge.

Juvenile inmates at the South Dakota State Training School at Plankinton sued as a class to improve conditions at the facility. The inmate class claimed that actions of the school deprived them of their constitutional rights under both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and that the procedures used violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1487. At issue, among other things, were (1) the restraint methods used by the institution's employees, (2) the lengthy confinements to which inmates were subjected, (3) the provision (or lack thereof) of mental health services, (4) the training of staff, (5) the "arbitrary" method of discipline and punishment, (6) the presence of male staff members in the female shower area, (7) the monitoring of telephone calls and visits, and (8) the lack of special education courses for inmates who need additional educational assistance.

The parties notified the court that they were conducting settlement negotiations and later presented a settlement agreement for approval. Christina A. v. Bloomberg, No. 00-4036, slip op. at 2 (D.S.D. Dec. 13, 2000). After conducting a "fairness hearing" pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), id., the court approved the settlement agreement and dismissed the action without prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(2), retaining jurisdiction for the "purpose of enforcing the Settlement Agreement." Id. at 8. Although the court explicitly determined that the agreement was "fair, reasonable, and adequate," it incorporated none of the specific terms and conditions agreed upon by the parties in its opinion and order. Id.

The class then sought an award of attorney's fees and expenses, and the district court granted this request. The court held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") did not limit the amount of attorney's fees the class could receive and that the class was entitled to a fully compensatory fee and expense award because the settlement agreement had a positive impact on conditions at the facility, making the class a prevailing party. The class was awarded $302,617.50 in attorney's fees and $74,019.98 in costs and expenses, after the district court made appropriate reductions in the fee award.1 The Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Corrections and the Superintendent of the State Training School appeal the district court's award of fees and costs and expenses. For the reasons stated below, we reverse.

I. DISCUSSION
A. Prevailing Party Status

"[W]e review de novo the legal question of whether a litigant is a prevailing party." Jenkins v. Missouri, 127 F.3d 709, 713 (8th Cir.1997). Section 1988(b) of Title 42 of the United States Code allows the court to award reasonable attorney's fees to the "prevailing party." In this case, the issue of whether or not the inmate class is a prevailing party entitled to receive fees centers around a recent Supreme Court decision, Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc., v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001). In Buckhannon, the Court held that the "catalyst theory" of prevailing party2 status is no longer valid. Under the "catalyst theory," a party prevails if the lawsuit brought forth "voluntary change" by the defendant. 532 U.S. at 601, 121 S.Ct. 1835. The "catalyst theory" is inappropriate for the award of attorney's fees because "[i]t allows an award where there is no judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties." Id. at 605, 121 S.Ct. 1835. The Court determined that a legal change, rather than a voluntary change, in the relationship of the parties is required. Id. "A defendant's voluntary change in conduct, although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change." Id.

The Supreme Court specified that a judgment on the merits or a "settlement agreement[] enforced through a consent decree" is sufficient to meet this standard. Id. at 604, 121 S.Ct. 1835. In the present case, the debate is over the status of the settlement agreement and the court's role in enforcing it. The Court in Buckhannon stated that "[p]rivate settlements do not entail the judicial approval and oversight involved in consent decrees." Id. at 604 n. 7, 121 S.Ct. 1835. If the agreement between the inmate class and the institution is a private settlement, then it is clear from Buckhannon that the inmate class is not a "prevailing party" entitled to attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

We begin with an analysis of the district court's actions by way of ratification of the settlement agreement. Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that "[a] class action shall not be dismissed or compromised without the approval of the court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e). "In approving a class settlement, the district court must consider whether it is `fair, reasonable, and adequate.'" Van Horn v. Trickey, 840 F.2d 604, 606 (8th Cir.1988) (quoting Grunin v. Int'l House of Pancakes, 513 F.2d 114, 123 (8th Cir.1975)). The district court's review of the settlement agreement in this case essentially determined whether it was "fair, reasonable, and adequate" and was merely an exercise in compliance with Rule 23(e). This review fails to impose the necessary "imprimatur" on the agreement.

A class action settlement, like an agreement resolving any other legal claim, is a private contract negotiated between the parties. Nevertheless, Rule 23(e) requires the court to intrude on that private consensual agreement to ensure that the agreement is not the product of fraud or collusion and that, taken as a whole, it is fair, adequate, and reasonable to all concerned.

5 Moore's Federal Practice § 23.82[1] (3d ed.2000) (emphasis added). Although Rule 23(e) requires the district court to approve the class action agreement, it does not require the court to establish the terms of the agreement. Therefore, the district court's approval of the settlement agreement does not, by itself, create a consent decree, and the inmate class did not become a prevailing party under Buckhannon by this action of the trial court.

The appellants concede that the settlement agreement in this case is "something more" than a private settlement agreement because the district court retained jurisdiction to enforce it. However, the district court's enforcement jurisdiction alone is not enough to establish a judicial "imprimatur" on the settlement contract. The district court indicated that, although the settlement agreement was not a formal consent decree, "to read Buckhannon to require one particular form for resolving a dispute in order to become a prevailing party is to read the opinion too narrowly." Christina A. v. Bloomberg, 167 F.Supp.2d 1094, 1098 (D.S.D.2001). The court went on to say that the settlement agreement served essentially the same purpose as a formal consent decree since it changed the legal relationship between the parties by requiring the appellants to make specific improvements to the training school and by allowing the appellees to enforce the agreement in court. Id. at 1099.3 We disagree with this conclusion.

Buckhannon, as indicated, makes it clear that a party prevails only if it receives either an enforceable judgment on the merits or a consent decree.4 Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604, 121 S.Ct. 1835. A private settlement agreement is not enough.5 While a judge has the authority to enforce the terms of a consent decree, "noncompliance with a consent decree is enforceable by citation for contempt of court." Local No. 93, Int'l Ass'n of Firefighters v. City of Cleveland, 478 U.S. 501, 518, 106 S.Ct. 3063, 92 L.Ed.2d 405 (1986).6 This court has held that consent decrees are distinguishable from private settlements by the means of enforcement. "[C]onsent decrees ... are enforceable through the supervising court's exercise of its contempt powers, and private settlements [are] enforceable only through a new action for breach of contract." Hazen ex rel. LeGear v. Reagen, 208 F.3d 697, 699 (8th Cir.2000) (citing Benjamin v. Jacobson, 172 F.3d 144, 157 (2d Cir.1999)). We are convinced that the court's dismissal order of December 13, 2000, would not support a citation for contempt. As earlier noted, no specifically enumerated contract terms were incorporated into the court's order. We think that either party, if aggrieved, could institute a breach of contract action and, perhaps, in the district court assuming, without deciding, the continuation of federal court jurisdiction for such a case. "A voluntary dismissal without prejudice under Rule 41(a)(2) [as here] renders the proceedings a nullity and leaves the parties as if the action had never been brought." 8 Moore's Federal Practice § 41.40[9][b] (3d ed.1997). So, it is possible that the class could seek reinstatement of the dismissed action under the district court's...

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