Jackson v. Inhabitants of Town of Searsport

Citation456 A.2d 852
Decision Date18 February 1983
CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)

Kathleen C. Caldwell (orally), Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc., Bangor, Sunenblick, Fontaine & Reben, Harold L. Lichten, Portland, for plaintiff.

Peter K. Mason (orally), Searsport, for defendant.


NICHOLS, Justice.

In a day when dockets, state and federal, abound with litigation invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, 1 this appeal presents the narrow question of whether it was appropriate for the Superior Court to deny such an award where a person had to resort to court action to obtain general assistance from his town.

We affirm the judgment below. We reach that result, however, for reasons other than those advanced by the Superior Court.

The Plaintiff, Hervey Jackson, of Searsport, on February 20, 1982, filed an application for general assistance with the Town of Searsport. The Town failed to grant or deny his application within twenty-four hours as required by 22 M.R.S.A. § 4504(3)(C) and Searsport's general assistance ordinance. 2

On March 5, 1982, the Plaintiff reapplied for general assistance. At that time he also requested a "fair hearing" on the Town's failure to act on his February 20, 1982, application. No such hearing was held, in apparent violation of both 22 M.R.S.A. § 4507 and the town ordinance. 3

On March 8, 1982, the Plaintiff filed a complaint in Superior Court (Waldo County) seeking from the Town and Ronald F. Handley, its then Town Manager and General Assistance Administrator, not only both declaratory and injunctive relief but also compensatory and punitive damages for the Town's failure to act on his application within the twenty-four hour statutory period. 4 The relief claimed was predicated on our general assistance statute, the Searsport ordinance, and the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. 5 To assert his constitutional claim the Plaintiff invoked 42 U.S.C. § 1983; 6 additionally, he sought attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

On April 26, 1982, the Superior Court held a consolidated hearing on the application for injunctive relief and on the merits pursuant to M.R.Civ.P. 65(b)(2), the Plaintiff previously having dismissed his damage claims. In an order entered four days later, the Superior Court (a) required the Town of Searsport to grant or deny the Plaintiff's applications by May 3, 1982; and (b) directed that a fair hearing be held within seven days, should the Plaintiff's applications be denied. This order did not specify whether the court was relying on state or federal grounds in granting this relief. The court also denied without explanation the Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees under section 1988. This timely appeal followed.

In denying the Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees under section 1988, it appears that the Superior Court treated this determination as a matter of judicial discretion. 7 Although on this appeal the parties have focused on the question of whether the reasons articulated by the court were legally sufficient to justify the denial of fees under section 1988, our inquiry proceeds on a more fundamental level, looking first at the scope of section 1988 and then at the nature of the Plaintiff's federal claim.

Section 1988
Awards in Pendent Claim Actions

Section 1988 allows a court to award attorney's fees to a "prevailing party" in an action under certain civil rights laws, including section 1983. Determining who constitutes a prevailing party for purposes of section 1988 has proven a difficult enough task when solely federal constitutional or statutory claims are asserted; 8 the difficulties compound when a federal claim and one or more state claims are combined in the same suit. 9

In an action, such as the case at bar, where a claim asserted under section 1983, is appended to state claims, a problem arises. Consistent with the sound judicial policy which favors nonconstitutional resolution of cases, 10 a court may prefer to rest its decision on state, rather than federal, grounds. The question then becomes whether the party has "prevailed" under section 1983, so as to allow an award of attorney's fees under section 1988.

If the "prevailing party" requirement of section 1988 were read strictly, it would not permit an award of attorney's fees unless a court actually passed upon a party's section 1983 claim and ruled on it in that party's favor. The legislative policy behind section 1988 of encouraging private enforcement of civil rights and the judicial policy of avoiding constitutional decisionmaking would work at cross purposes. 11

The drafters of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act acted to forestall this dilemma. The House Report noted that in a situation where a party joins federal and state claims and prevails only on the state claim, attorney's fees may be awarded if (1) the federal claim is substantial, and (2) the state claim arises out of a "common nucleus of operative fact." 12

The "substantiality" requirement has generated considerable debate. The federal claim must be a substantial one, Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 132, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 2576, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980); the requisite degree of substantiality is not so apparent. 13 This confusion notwithstanding, two principles are clear. A party who only asserts and prevails on a state law claim cannot recover attorney's fees under section 1988. Likewise, if that same party joins with his state claim a federal claim under section 1983 which is adjudicated to be without merit with respect to the award of attorney's fees he stands in no different position. 14 Bunting v. City of Columbia, 639 F.2d 1090, 1095 (4th Cir.1981); Bly v. McLeod, 605 F.2d 134, 139 (4th Cir.1979); Gumbhir v. Kansas State Board of Pharmacy, 231 Kan. 507, 517-23, 646 P.2d 1078, 1087-90 (1982), petition for cert. filed, 459 U.S. 1103, 103 S.Ct. 724, 74 L.Ed.2d 950, 51 U.S.L.W. 3199 (U.S. Sept. 9, 1982) (No. 82-427). See also Reel v. Arkansas Department of Correction, 672 F.2d 693, 698-99 (8th Cir.1982); Haywood v. Ball, 634 F.2d 740, 743 (4th Cir.1980); Bess v. Toia, 66 A.D.2d 844, 844-45, 411 N.Y.S.2d 651, 653 (N.Y.App.Div.1978).

To allow the assessment of attorney's fees under section 1988 when a meritless federal claim is asserted, in no way would promote the private enforcement of civil rights. Moreover, to require the award of attorney's fees merely because a meritless federal claim is tagged onto a valid state claim would create serious federalism problems.

In our state, as elsewhere in this country, the "American Rule" for attorney's fees is followed: each party pays the costs of his own lawyers. 15 Here the rule is: "Except for some kinds of tortious conduct, the Maine state courts have no authority to include attorney's fees as part of costs in the absence of statutory authorization or agreement of the parties." Thiboutot v. State, 405 A.2d 230, 238 (Me.1979), aff'd, 448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). See also Vance v. Speakman, 409 A.2d 1307, 1311 (Me.1979).

While the American Rule is not without its critics, 16 it remains the rule in our state, and it is an essential feature of our judicial process. To allow attorney's fees under section 1988 to parties who assert meritless federal claims along with valid state claims would in many cases effectively abrogate the American Rule. Any person with a claim founded in state law against a state or its subdivisions would have every incentive to interject a section 1983 claim into the action, regardless of its validity. We will not so easily infer as drastic an intrusion by Congress into the internal functionings of judicial systems of the several states. As we declared in Vance v. Speakman, "a statutory right to recover attorney's fees will be found only in the clearest kind of legislative language." 409 A.2d at 1311. If a federal claim under the civil rights laws has no merit, it cannot serve as the predicate for the imposition of attorney's fees simply because it is appended to a valid state claim. We must, therefore, decide if the Plaintiff in the case at bar had a meritorious claim under section 1983.

The Section 1983 Claim

Even as an award of attorney's fees under section 1988 is contingent on the existence of a substantial claim under section 1983, so recovery under section 1983 turns on the presence of a federal constitutional or statutory violation. See Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 4-8, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 2504-2506, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). In the case before us the Plaintiff alleged no federal statutory violation; his section 1983 claim rests solely on an asserted violation of his fourteenth amendment rights. Specifically, the Plaintiff contends that the Town of Searsport's failure to act on his general assistance application violated his right to procedural due process under the fourteenth amendment. 17

Procedural due process claims require a two-stage analysis. First, it must be determined if there has been a deprivation of an individual's life, liberty or property interests. Second, if such a deprivation has occurred, a determination must be made as to what process is due under the fourteenth amendment. Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 672, 97 S.Ct. 1401, 1413, 51 L.Ed.2d 711 (1977); Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481, 92 S.Ct. 2593, 2600, 33 L.Ed.2d 484 (1972); Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 571, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 2706, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972).

As the first stage of this analysis, then, we must decide whether the Town of Searsport deprived the Plaintiff of any "property" interest safeguarded by the fourteenth amendment. 18 It is helpful in this regard to carefully review the interaction between the Plaintiff and the Town up until the Plaintiff filed his complaint in Superior Court.

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