Run Corp. v. Box Elder County

Decision Date27 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 1:03-CV-00064 PGC.,1:03-CV-00064 PGC.
Citation416 F.Supp.2d 1254
PartiesRUN CORPORATION, a Utah corporation, Plaintiff, v. BOX ELDER COUNTY, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Utah

Larry S. Jenkins, Lance D. Rich, Salt Lake City, UT, for Plaintiff.

Michael W. Homer, Kathleen M. Liuzzi, John D. Luthy, Jesse C. Trentadue, Salt Lake City, UT, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ODER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION AND DENYING DEFEDANT'S MOTION FOR ATTONEYS' FEES AND COSTS

CASSELL, District Judge.

The parties in this zoning dispute have previously settled their claims and jointly moved to dismiss the suit. Both plaintiff RHN Corporation and the lone remaining defendant, Box Elder County, now move for their respective attorneys' fees and costs. Under controlling legal authority, no such costs or fees are appropriate. Accordingly, the court DENIES RHN's motion for attorneys' fees (# 51) and DNIES Box Elder County's motion for attorneys' fees (# 50).

BACKGROUND

RHN's claims arose out of Box Elder County's refusal to re-zone certain property. Specifically, RHN brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging that the Box Elder County Planning Commission violated a number of its constitutional rights by refusing to re-zone RHN's property. RHN originally named as defendants four individual employees of Box Elder County in their official capacities, as well as the Box Elder County Planning Commission, the Board of County Commissioners of Box Elder County, and Box Elder County itself. The court granted a motion to dismiss the individually named plaintiffs because "an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity."1 The court also granted a motion to dismiss the Board of County Commissioners and the Box Elder County Planning Commission because, as the defendants argued, "neither the Board of Box Elder County Commissioners nor the Box Elder County Planning Commission are separate legal entities independent of [the County]."2 This left Box Elder County as the only defendant. RHN and Box Elder County eventually stipulated to dismissal of the case after Box Elder County re-zoned the properties at issue in this case.

RHN now seeks attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b),3 because that statute "specifically permits the [c]ourt, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorneys fees and costs to a prevailing party in a civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.4 RHN claims that it is "a prevailing party because this suit was a significant factor in [the County] amending its zoning classifications of [RHN's] property and because [RHN's] claims were not frivolous or groundless and the County's action in re-zoning the property was not wholly gratuitous."5 RHN requests reasonable attorneys' fees in the amount of $34,397.50 and costs in the amount of $2,083.97.

In response, the County denies that fees for RHN are appropriate. It argues that, because of the settlement, there was never any judicial determination that RHN had meritorious claims and that the re-zoning of the property did not result from this lawsuit. Indeed, the County contends it should receive attorneys' fees and costs because it prevailed on both its motion to dismiss the named individual defendants and on its motion to dismiss defendants Board of County Commissioners of Box Elder County and the Box Elder County Planning Commission. Specifically, the County seeks $8,792.50 in reasonable attorneys' fees.

DISCUSSION
A. RHN's Attorneys' Fees and Costs Motion

The court begins with the relevant statute. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, states in part: "In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of ... [42 U.S.C. §] 1983 ..., 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."6 So it is clear that a "prevailing party in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action may be entitled to reasonable costs and attorneys' fees."7

Because the suit ended without a judgment on the merits, the pivotal issue here is whether RHN is a "prevailing party." "[T]o qualify as a prevailing party, a civil rights plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim. The plaintiff must obtain an enforceable judgment against the defendant from whom fees are sought, ... or comparable relief through a consent decree or settlement."8 And under the Supreme Court's "generous formulation of the term, plaintiffs 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 suit."9 "In short, 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."10

RHN observes that despite the lack of an actual judgment in its favor, a plaintiff may still be deemed a prevailing party where it has received the action it sought.11 Of course, "[r]espect for ordinary language requires that a plaintiff receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim before he can be said to prevail."12 But according to the Supreme Court's decision in Hewitt v. Helms, 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."13

RHN also cites Tenth Circuit case law for the proposition that if a defendant unilaterally undertakes an action that moots a suit, a plaintiff may still recover attorneys' fees.14 Under the "catalyst test" in the Tenth Circuit, "the party claiming `prevailing party' status [must] show: (1) the legal action [taken by the defendant] is causally linked to securing the relief obtained [by the plaintiff]; and (2) the defendant's conduct in response to the [suit filed by the plaintiff] was required by law rather than a gratuitous response to a frivolous or groundless action."15 The "catalyst test" presupposes an actual settlement agreement between the parties, however, especially because such a settlement agreement is said to "materially alter[ ] the legal relationship between the parties."16

RHN's overarching argument is that it is a "prevailing party" because the County took action in its favor and because all of the prongs of the "catalyst test" are satisfied. RHN contends that it had a settlement agreement with the County that it would dismiss its suit if the County rezoned the property. It is unclear to the court, however, as to whether a settlement agreement exists. It is clear that the parties stipulated to dismissal with prejudice after the County re-zoned plaintiffs property. RHN represents that it agreed to dismiss its lawsuit if the County re-zoned the property, but the court only has the general statements of the plaintiffs attorney to that effect.17 A document representing the settlement agreement between the parties is nowhere in the record. Absent such an agreement, the court analyzes the actual statements made by the parties. The Planning Commission meeting minutes do not support RHN's contention regarding settlement. Those minutes state that the "rezone was required to correct `several nonconforming uses in the area.'"18 Moreover, the minutes do not reflect litigation as the impetus for the rezoning decision. Instead, the minutes state that "[t]his re-zone is being initiated by the County (Box Elder) without an outside (or property owner) petition. There was a re-zone petition some time ago, but it was never acted upon and this process should take care of that action."19

Despite these proffered minutes, RHN maintains that the real reason for the rezoning was its lawsuit. The plaintiff's attorney's submitted affidavit states that "[i]n April, 2005, counsel for [the County] ... approached me and asked if [RHN] would be willing to drop its claims in this case if its property were re[-]zoned to allow it to be used for residential purposes."20 Such affidavit would appear to be strong evidence that RHN's actions were, at least in part, the catalyst for the re-zoning. RHN also argues that its lawsuit need not be the sole reason for County changing its behavior in order for the suit to be the catalyst for change.

RHN persuasively demonstrates how its suit might have been a catalyst in receiving its desired outcome. Due to the pending lawsuit and the timing of the County Commission meeting, RHN proffers a "sequence of events that demonstrates that this litigation was a `substantial factor' in motivating the County"21 to re-zone the property in question. RHN also has shown that the County's action was "required by law" through a legal memorandum and thus "satisfies the second prong of the catalyst test."22

The court questions, however, the viability of the "catalyst test" for prevailing party status on 42 U.S.C. § 1988 requests for attorneys' fees and costs after the Supreme Court's decision in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources.23 In Buckhannon, the Court analyzed the denial of attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2)24 and 42 U.S.C. § 12205.25 Although specifically discussing these two statutes, the Court noted that "[n]umerous federal statutes allow courts to award attorney's fees and costs to the `prevailing party,'" "26 and specifically discussed both 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 with regard to the `prevailing party' definitions."27 That Court also noted that any previous reliance on Hewitt for using the "catalyst theory" to determine "prevailing party" status for attorneys' fees was unavailing, because Hewitt "expressly reserved...

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  • Maxfield v. Henderson
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Utah
    • August 18, 2021
    ... ... Utah's 29 counties (“County Requirement”) ... (together, the “Provisions”). [ 14 ][ 15 ] Utah's Initiative ... [ 39 ] Id. (citing Key Tronic ... Corp. v. United States, 511 U.S. 809, 819 ... (1994)) ... [ 40 ] Towerridge, Inc. v ... [ 67 ] Id ... [ 68 ] Id. at 610 ... [ 69 ] RHN Corp. v. Box Elder ... Cty. , 416 F.Supp.2d 1254, 1261 (D. Utah 2006) ... [ 70 ] Buckhannon , 532 ... ...

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