Gay Officers Action League v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Decision Date07 March 2001
Docket NumberNo. 00-1983,00-1983
Parties(1st Cir. 2001) GAY OFFICERS ACTION LEAGUE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, APPELLEES, v. COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO, DEFENDANT, APPELLANT. Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Hector M. Laffitte, U.S. District Judge] [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Russell A. Del Toro, with whom Camelia Fernandez-Romeu and Del Toro & Santana were on brief, for appellant.

Suzanne B. Goldberg, with whom Judith Berkan, Berkan/Mendez, Ruth E. Harlow, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Colleen M. Meenan were on brief, for appellees.

Before Torruella, Chief Judge, Coffin, Senior Circuit Judge, and Selya, Circuit Judge.

Selya, Circuit Judge

In this bitterly-fought civil rights case, the district court awarded substantial attorneys' fees and ancillary expenses to a consortium of plaintiffs - the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), Carroll Hunter, Thomas Jeans, and Dr. Rosalina Ramos Padroo (collectively, the plaintiffs) 1 - against the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth appeals. Concluding, as we do, that the district court acted within its discretion in determining that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties with respect to a discrete claim in the underlying litigation, we affirm the finding that they were entitled to a fee award. Withal, we reduce the amount by nearly $40,000.

I. BACKGROUND

On June 19, 1995, the plaintiffs sued the Commonwealth for damages and equitable relief. 2 Invoking 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, they alleged, inter alia, that the Commonwealth violated their constitutional rights by (1) forbidding them from participating in an impromptu rally, (2) subjecting them to excessive force, (3) conducting an unlawful search of a gay bar, and (4) illegally videotaping a "Gay Pride" parade. Following a year of procedural wrangling and increasingly acrimonious discovery disputes, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to include, among other things, a claim that Regulation 29 - a police department regulation which made "associat[ing] with . . . homosexuals" violative of the code of conduct and exposed violators to official discipline - impugned the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.

In due course, the district court (a) granted summary judgment in the Commonwealth's favor as to all claims anent the rally, the use of force, the search, and the videotaping; (b) left for trial certain (subsequently settled) claims against individual officers; and (c) entered a judgment declaring Regulation 29 unconstitutional. The last ruling is the focal point of this appeal.

The Commonwealth did not take the court's repudiation of Regulation 29 lightly. It filed a detailed motion to alter or amend the judgment. The district court stood firm. At that point, the Commonwealth, instead of throwing in the towel, decided to rewrite Regulation 29. The revised regulation no longer singled out homosexuals in haec verba, but, rather, paved the way for disciplinary action against officers who "relate to or associate with persons of dubious reputation" (a group defined to include "anyone who engages in conduct that departs from the community's moral standards").

After the parties filed extensive briefs, the court rejected the revised regulation as an exercise in "crafty drafting" and a thinly- veiled effort to do by indirection what the court had prohibited the PRPD from doing directly. To insure against any future evasions, the court permanently enjoined the Commonwealth from punishing any police officer for associating with homosexuals.

Still unrepentant, the Commonwealth moved to vacate the injunction. After briefing and argument, the court demurred. This resolved the matter, as the Commonwealth chose not to appeal. The district court's decision on the merits thus ripened into a final judgment.

The plaintiffs thereafter petitioned for $209,122.67 in attorneys' fees and $21,294.92 in expenses. They accompanied the application with their attorneys' sworn statements, information concerning the attorneys' credentials, and a recasted version of the attorneys' contemporaneous billing records (which separated the work related to the extirpation of Regulation 29 from other work performed). The Commonwealth filed an opposition.

Taking up the question, the district court first ruled that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties. It next scrutinized each attorney's hours and, notwithstanding the lawyers' assurances that they had eliminated all time spent on unrelated issues, subtracted some additional hours. The court then adjusted the attorneys' customary billing rates to reflect local stipends for comparably qualified counsel and trimmed (or in some instances disallowed) various expense items. When all was said and done, the court determined that the plaintiffs deserved legal fees in the amount of $202,733.86, allocated as follows:

1. Attorney Judith Berkan - 93.1325 hours at $240 per hour and 1.112 hours at $265 per hour, for a total of $22,646.48.

2. Attorney Suzanne B. Goldberg - 416.75 hours at $240 per hour, for a total of $100,020.

3. Attorney Ruth E. Harlow - 123.45 hours at $240 per hour, for a total of $29,628.

4. Attorney Colleen M. Meenan - 224.175 hours at $225 per hour, for a total of $50,439.38.

The court also awarded the plaintiffs a total of $13,787.40 in expenses. This appeal followed.

We divide our ensuing discussion into three segments, one dealing with the standard of appellate review, the second with the plaintiffs' eligibility for a fee award, and the third with the dollars involved.

II. THE STANDARD OF REVIEW

In appeals involving the Fees Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, a reviewing court customarily defers to the trial judge, whose intimate knowledge of the nuances of the underlying case uniquely positions him to construct a condign award. See Coutin v. Young & Rubicam, Inc., 124 F.3d 331, 336 (1st Cir. 1997); Lipsett v. Blanco, 975 F.2d 934, 937 (1st Cir. 1992). Accordingly, our review here is for manifest abuse of discretion. E.g., Foley v. City of Lowell, 948 F.2d 10, 18 (1st Cir. 1991). Apart from mistakes of law - which always constitute abuses of a court's discretion, see United States v. Snyder, 136 F.3d 65, 67 (1st Cir. 1998) - we will set aside a fee award only if it clearly appears that the trial court ignored a factor deserving significant weight, relied upon an improper factor, or evaluated all the proper factors (and no improper ones), but made a serious mistake in weighing them. See Foster v. Mydas Assoc., Inc., 943 F.2d 139, 143 (1st Cir. 1991).

III. THE FACT OF THE AWARD

The Commonwealth's attack on the fact of the award hinges on its contention that the plaintiffs were not prevailing parties in the underlying litigation (and, thus, not entitled to recoup fees and expenses at all). The district court rejected this contention, and so do we.

Under the so-called "American Rule," litigants generally pay their own way. Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 247 (1975). Sometimes, however, Congress provides otherwise. The Fees Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, constitutes such a proviso. In regard to cases brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, the Fees Act states in pertinent part that "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." 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988(b). Although this fee-shifting provision is couched in permissive terminology, awards in favor of prevailing civil rights plaintiffs are virtually obligatory. See Stanton v. S. Berkshire Reg'l Sch. Dist., 197 F.3d 574, 576 (1st Cir. 1999) (explaining that the Supreme Court has interpreted section 1988 to require fees in favor of prevailing civil rights plaintiffs "save for rare cases"); Casa Marie Hogar Geriatrico, Inc. v. Rivera-Santos, 38 F.3d 615, 618 (1st Cir. 1994) (noting that prevailing civil rights plaintiffs are presumptively entitled to fee awards); see also Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87, 89 n.1 (1989). The threshold question, then, is whether the plaintiffs are prevailing parties within the purview of the Fees Act.

Typically, achieving prevailing party status requires a plaintiff to show that he succeeded on an important issue in the case, thereby gaining at least some of the benefit he sought in bringing suit. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir. 1978). Put another way, "a plaintiff 'prevails' when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992); accord Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989).

In this case, the plaintiffs "prevailed" in the sense that they secured declaratory and injunctive relief in their facial challenge to the constitutionality of Regulation 29. But obtaining equitable relief does not automatically confer prevailing party status for purposes of the Fees Act. See Tex. State Teachers, 489 U.S. at 792-93; Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U.S. 1, 3-4 (1988) (per curiam). An inquiring court always must make a qualitative inquiry into the import of the relief obtained, and the Commonwealth posits that the relief obtained here was so trivial that the plaintiffs cannot be deemed prevailing parties.

Insofar as this argument attempts to bundle the plaintiffs' Regulation 29 claim with their other (generally unsuccessful) claims, it lacks force. "[T]he degree of the plaintiff's success in relation to the other goals of the lawsuit is a factor critical to the determination of the size of a reasonable fee, not to eligibility for a fee award at all." Tex. State Teachers, 489 U.S. at 790 (emphasis omitted). Since the...

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