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DEGRAFINREID v. RICKS

United States District Court, S.D. New York


May 4, 2004.

TERRY DEGRAFINREID, Plaintiff, -against- THOMAS RICKS, Superintendent of the Upstate Correctional Facility of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, et al., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT SWEET, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff Terry Degrafinreid ("Degrafinreid") has moved for an order awarding attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied without prejudice and leave is granted to renew his application upon a showing that the appropriate standard has been met.

Prior Proceedings and Background

  Degrafinreid commenced this action on September 3, 2003, alleging that on September 10, 2002, he was "viciously attacked" by certain Correction Officers who destroyed his hearing aids. (Complaint at 3.) The complaint names as defendants various officers and employees of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (collectively, the "Defendants"). It seeks relief in the form of, inter alia, an order finding Defendants in contempt for deliberate violation of the June 10, 1996 consent decree in Clarkson v. Coughlin, No. 91 Civ. 1792 (RWS) (the "Clarkson Consent Decree") and a preliminary injunction directing Defendants to implement new practices and procedures "to make certain that this plaintiff and all other deaf prisoners receive hearing aids and appropriate treatment under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]." (Complaint at 9.) By an order to show cause dated September 9, 2003, Degrafinreid moved for a preliminary injunction pursuant to Rule 65(a), Fed.R. Civ. P., seeking, inter alia, the provision of operable hearing aids and adequate batteries.

  By a consent order dated November 3, 2003 (the "Consent Order"), Degrafinreid's motion was granted "to the extent that the defendants are directed to provide . . . Degrafinreid with operable hearing aids and batteries forthwith." (Consent Order at 2.)

  Degrafinreid filed the instant motion on January 20, 2004. Oral arguments were held on March 24, 2004, on which date the motion was marked fully submitted.

 Standard

  Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b), a "prevailing party" may be eligible for a grant of attorney's fees at the court's discretion. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b) ("In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981A, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986 of this title, . . . 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. . . .")*fn1 A "prevailing party" is one who has succeeded in obtaining at least some portion of the benefit sought in bringing the lawsuit. See Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 603-04 (2001); Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 758 (1980) (per curiam) (noting that the legislative history of 42 U.S.C. § 1988 suggests that Congress intended to permit the interim award of counsel fees "`when a party has prevailed on the merits of at least some of his claims'"). In other words,

If the plaintiff has succeeded on "any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit," the plaintiff has crossed the threshold to a fee award of some kind. . . . Thus, at a minimum, to be considered a prevailing party within the meaning of § 1988, the plaintiff must be able to point to a resolution of the dispute which changes the legal relationship between itself and defendant.
Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Independent School District, 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989) (internal citations omitted); see also Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992) (holding that, "to qualify as a prevailing party, a civil rights plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim").

  To be considered a prevailing party, the party need not have succeeded on "the central issue" in the case, nor must the party "obtain the primary relief sought." See Texas State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 790-93; see also Carroll v. Blinken, 42 F.3d 122, 130 (2d Cir. 1994). Rather, it is enough if the party succeeded on any significant issue in the litigation and received "`actual relief on the merits of his claim [that] materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff,'" LeBlanc-Sternberq v. Fletcher, 143 F.3d 748, 757 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111-12), provided that the change in the legal relationship between the parties is judicially sanctioned. See Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, 532 U.S. at 605; Roberson v. Giuliani, 346 F.3d 75, 81 (2d Cir. 2003). Thus, both judgments on the merits and settlement agreements enforced through a court-ordered consent decree may "create the `material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties' necessary to permit an award of attorney's fees." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, 532 U.S. at 604 (quoting Texas State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 792-93).

  "Although a party can sometimes attain `prevailing party' status by obtaining temporary relief, it can do so only when the decision to grant such relief is on the merits." LaTrieste Restaurant v. Village of Port Chester, 188 F.3d 65, 71 (2d Cir. 1999); see also Haley v. Pataki, 106 F.3d 478, 483 (2d Cir. 1997) ("[A] decision to award attorney's fees requires an analysis of whether the party's relief, whether by injunction or stay, resulted from a determination of the merits."). When a party has received a stay or preliminary injunction but not a final judgment, for instance, attorney's fees may nonetheless be proper "if the court's action in granting the preliminary injunction [was] governed by its assessment of the merits." Haley, 106 F.3d at 483. No fees are warranted, however, if the court did not base its determination to award interim relief on the merits. See id.; see also LaTrieste Restaurant, 188 F.3d at 71 (declining to conclude that the temporary settlement of an injunction application renders the applicant a prevailing party where the agreements represented "mere procedural maintenance [s] of the status quo" rather than relief on the merits) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Christopher P. v. Marcus, 915 F.2d 794, 805 (2d Cir. 1990) (noting that "the procurement of a [temporary restraining order] in which the court does not address the merits of the case but simply preserves the status quo to avoid irreparable harm to the plaintiff is not by itself sufficient to give a plaintiff prevailing party status"). Similarly, a request for attorney's fees may be properly denied if a party's success is "de minimis or technical." LaRouche v. Kezer, 20 F.3d 68, 72 (2d Cir. 1994) (citing Texas State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 792).*fn2

  "A determination of whether a court's action is governed by its assessment of the merits `requires close analysis of the decisional circumstances and reasoning underlying the grant of preliminary relief.'" Haley, 106 F.3d at 483 (quoting LaRouche, 20 F.3d at 72 (internal quotation marks omitted)). Furthermore, if an injunction "is not clearly based on the merits, a court should not resolve the uncertainty in favor of a finding that plaintiff prevailed." Haley, 106 F.3d at 483.

 Discussion

  Degrafinreid seeks attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b) on the basis that he obtained the Consent Order, which directs Defendants to replace his hearing aids and batteries, and that the Consent Order represents "the first substantive victory we have had in six years of ceaseless litigation with [the New York State Department of Correctional Services]." (Kerson Aff., ¶ 7.) Defendants oppose Degrafinreid's motion on the grounds that Degrafinreid has not obtained any of the relief sought in the complaint because Degrafinreid was never without operable hearing aids and batteries. Defendants also argue that the Consent Order did not change the legal relationship between the parties, as it was purely technical in nature. Moreover, the Consent Order was issued, according to Defendants, with the understanding that its terms were already satisfied if Degrafinreid had operable hearing aids and batteries and it did not represent a finding that Defendants were in contempt of the Clarkson Consent Decree. Without delving into any of the circumstances or claimed understandings underlying the issuance of the Consent Order and not expressed in the body of the document, the Consent Order, on its face, embodies neither the resolution of one of the legal claims made in Degrafinreid's complaint, nor the disposition of Degrafinreid's motion for a preliminary injunction on the merits. If obtaining the Consent Order represented Degrafinreid's sole success in the litigation, it is doubtful that this alone could be said to have rendered him a prevailing party within the meaning of § 1988. See Texas State Teachers Ass'n, 489 U.S. at 792. If, however, Degrafinreid later succeeds on any significant issue in this litigation, obtaining relief on one or more of his claims on the merits in a manner that materially alters the legal relationship between the parties, his success in having obtained the Consent Order may be relevant to the degree of his overall success and the reasonableness of any award of attorney's fees. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983) (noting that "the most critical factor" in assessing the reasonableness of a fee award is "the degree of success obtained"); Green v. Torres, 361 F.3d 96, 99 (2d Cir. 2004) (same). Accordingly, Degrafinreid's motion is denied without prejudice and he is granted leave to renew his application for fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b) upon the papers submitted and upon satisfying the appropriate standard.

 Conclusion For the reasons set forth above, Degrafinreid's motion for attorney's fees is denied without prejudice and he is granted leave to renew his application for fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) upon a showing that the appropriate standard has been met.

  It is so ordered.


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