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Murphy v. Board of Education of the Rochester City School Dist.

March 10, 2006

DONALD MURPHY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

On July 10, 2003, this Court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants in this civil rights action against the Rochester City School District ("District"), the Rochester Teachers Association ("RTA"), and a number of individual defendants. In my summary judgment decision, 273 F. Supp.2d 292 (W.D.N.Y. 2003) (familiarity with which is assumed), I noted that the RTA had moved for attorney's fees, but I deferred deciding the motions until the appellate process had concluded. Id. at 327 n. 30. That has now occurred. On July 28, 2004, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed my summary judgment decision dismissing the complaint, "substantially for the reasons given by the district court." 106 Fed.Appx. 746, 747.

Both defendants, as prevailing parties, now move for an award of attorney's fees against plaintiff, Donald Murphy ("Murphy"), under the fee-shifting provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 2000e-5(k), and 12205. The District seeks $562,322 in fees; the RTA seeks $416,273.*fn1

This is--presumably--the last chapter in litigation between Murphy and defendants that was commenced over a decade ago. As noted in my summary judgment decision, 273 F. Supp.2d at 297, the case has grown from a simple employment dispute over one teacher's interschool transfer, into a gargantuan, broad-based campaign against an entire school system. Much of the blame for that can be laid at plaintiff's feet, for he, acting through his then-attorney, chose to use this action as a vehicle to launch a "virtual crusade" against defendants, id., in which every injustice, insult, or inconvenience, real or imagined, that Murphy believed he had suffered in his employment was alleged to be a violation of plaintiff's civil rights. It is because of that misuse of the judicial process that I grant, in part, defendants' motions for attorney's fees. Plaintiff, Donald Murphy, is hereby ordered to pay defendants a total of $270,000 for attorney's fees.

DISCUSSION

I. Attorney's Fees to Prevailing Defendants

General Standards Awarding fees to a prevailing defendant is not mandatory; the relevant statutes provide that such an award may be made within the discretion of the court. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) ("In any [civil rights action under] ... this title, ... the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party ... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs"); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) ("In any action or proceeding under this subchapter the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party ... a reasonable attorney's fee ... as part of the costs"); 42 U.S.C. § 12205 ("In any action ... commenced pursuant to this chapter, the court ..., in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party ... a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs").

In exercising that discretion, the Court is cognizant that the fee-shifting statutes serve a different purpose depending on whether plaintiff or defendant happens to be the prevailing party. Awards to prevailing plaintiffs are more common, both because a successful civil rights plaintiff has vindicated an important federal policy, and, conversely, because the defendant in such a case has violated federal law. See LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 143 F.3d 765, 769 (2d Cir. 1988) (explaining rationale behind policy of "routinely" awarding fees to prevailing plaintiffs in civil rights actions).

Although attorney's fees "are not so readily available to a prevailing defendant," id., such awards nevertheless serve an important purpose by serving as a deterrent to litigants who bring, or are contemplating bringing, frivolous lawsuits. Because of that deterrent effect, they also shield defendants from having to endure the burden and cost of defending against such frivolous litigation. See Andrade v. Jamestown Housing Auth., 82 F.3d 1179, 1193 (1st Cir. 1996) (noting that an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant must be substantial enough to "fulfill the deterrent purpose of § 1988 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) in discouraging plaintiffs from bringing frivolous claims"); Tancredi v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., No. 00Civ.5780, 2003 WL 22299203, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2003) ("Fees are awarded to prevailing defendants in civil rights cases principally to deter frivolous litigation") (citing Carrion v. Yeshiva Univ., 535 F.2d 722, 727 (2d Cir. 1976)).

In general, therefore, an award of attorney's fees in favor of a prevailing defendant is appropriate "only when the plaintiff's 'claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.'" Parker v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 260 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978)). "Application of this standard is entrusted to the discretion of the district court ... ." Parker, 260 F.3d at 111.

The import of Christiansburg and its progeny is that "reasonable attorneys' fees should be awarded to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII action found to have been unreasonable, vexatious or groundless unless there exist affirmative reasons for not doing so." Prate v. Freedman, 583 F.2d 42, 46 (2d Cir. 1978). Although a showing a bad faith on the part of plaintiff is not a prerequisite to a fee award, see American Fed'n of State, County and Mun. Employees, AFL-CIO (AFSCME) v. County of Nassau, 96 F.3d 644, 650 (2d Cir. 1996), if bad faith is present, "there will be an even stronger basis" for awarding fees to the defendant. Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422; accord Davidson v. Keenan, 740 F.2d 129, 133 (2d Cir. 1984).

II. Application to this Case

Applying those standards here, I think it is fair to say that if ever there were a case in which fees should be awarded to a prevailing defendant, this is it. From its inception, this case was meritless and without foundation. I also find that plaintiff continued to litigate the case not only up to the granting of summary judgment, but afterwards, when the groundless nature of the claims had become readily apparent. Furthermore, I find that plaintiff brought and pursued this litigation in bad faith, for the improper purpose of attacking the District and school administrators about matters ...


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