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Aron v. Becker

United States District Court, N.D. New York

November 10, 2014

MARIA ARON, Plaintiff,
v.
CARL F. BECKER, in his official capacity as the pistol licensing officer of Delaware County, New York, in his official administrative capacity as the County Judge of Delaware County, and in his individual capacity; CHRISTA SCHAFER, Clerk, Delaware County Board of Supervisors, New York, in her official and individual capacities; JOSEPH EISEL, Chairman, Delaware County Board of Supervisors, New York, in his official and individual capacities; SHARON O'DELL, County Clerk, Delaware County, New York, in her official and individual capacities; MARILYN L. OLSEN, Pistol Clerk, Delaware County, New York, in her official and individual capacities; RICHARD NORTHRUP, in his official capacity as Delaware County District Attorney; STATE OF NEW YORK; ANDREW CUOMO, in his official capacity as Governor and Chief Executive Officer of the State of New York, Defendants.

DECISION & ORDER

THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On September 22, 2014, the Court granted the defendants' Rule 12 motions and dismissed this action. See 09/22/14 Dec. & Ord., dkt. # 30.[1] Presently before the Court is a motion by Defendants Christa Schaefer, [2] Joseph Eisel, Sharon O'Dell, and Marilyn Olsen (collectively, the "County Defendants")[3] seeking attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and 42 U.S.C. § 12205. Dkt. # 32. Plaintiff, through counsel (dkt. # 37), and individually (dkt. # 39), [4] has opposed the motion. Plaintiff's counsel has also moved for leave to withdraw as Plaintiff's counsel. Dkt. # 41 The Court has considered all of the submissions, and all prior proceedings, in reaching its decision.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The longstanding "American Rule" is that parties are responsible for their own litigation costs, "including attorney's fees, regardless whether he wins or loses." Fox v. Vice, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2213, 180 L.Ed.2d 45 (2011); see Aly eska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247 (1975). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the Court may award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978); see also Fox, 131 S.Ct. at 2213 (discussing Christiansburg). If a "plaintiff assert[s] both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, " then a court may grant to a defendant only those fees "that the defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims." Fox, 131 S.Ct. at 2211.

A prevailing defendant need not establish that the matter was brought in subjective bad faith to be entitled to attorney's fees, Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421; Carter v. Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach, 759 F.3d 159, 163 (2d Cir. 2014), but "such a showing provides an even stronger basis for the award." Edwards v. Huntington Union Free Sch. Dist., 957 F.Supp.2d 203, 215 (E.D.N.Y. 2013)(internal quotations, alterations & citations omitted). In addition, attorney's fees can be awarded if the plaintiff continued to litigate a claim after it became clear that the claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. See LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 143 F.3d 765, 770 (2d Cir.1998).

As the Court explained in Christiansburg, in enacting § 1988, Congress sought to "protect defendants from burdensome litigation having no legal or factual basis." Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 420. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that "it is very rare that victorious defendants in civil rights cases will recover attorneys' fees." Sista v. CDC Ixis North America, Inc., 445 F.3d 161, 178 (2d Cir. 2006). Further, "in applying the standard for an award of attorney's fees to prevailing defendants, courts must take care not to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, [her] action must have been unreasonable or without foundation." Edwards, 957 F.Supp.2d at 215.

The fee shifting provision under 42 U.S.C. § 12205 of the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA") is similar to that under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See Parker v. Sony Pictures Entm't Inc., 260 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir.2001). Accordingly, in its discretion, the Court may award the prevailing party attorney's fees and costs in an ADA action if the claims were "frivolous, groundless, or... the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so." Id.

III. DISCUSSION - ATTORNEY'S FEES

The genesis of this case is Plaintiff's unsuccessful attempt to obtain a pistol license. Plaintiff was frustrated by the process which required her to go three times, while on crutches, to the Delhi Village Police Department's second-floor office to be fingerprinted. See generally Compl., dkt. #1; Pl. Opp., dkt. # 39, p. 2. Plaintiff's pistol license application was denied by Judge Becker. She felt the denial was wrong, in violation of her Second Amendment right to bear arms, and should be reviewed by another court. See generally Compl. Plaintiff also viewed the actions by the County Clerk's office employees as "harassment" imparted at the direction of Judge Becker. See generally Neroni Affirm.[5]

Regardless of the role that Judge Becker might have had in the underlying situation, the current motion is relative only to the claims against the County Defendants. They seek an award of attorney's fees for defending against Plaintiff's claims which, they contend, were meritless and "should never have been brought against them in the first place." Def. MOL, dkt. # 32, p. 4. Plaintiff's counsel argues, inter alia, that "[t]his lawsuit was brought in good faith, based on diligent research and factual investigation, in view of apparent and multiple constitutional injuries to the Plaintiff inflicted by Defendant Becker and County Defendants...." Neroni 10/24/14 Affirm., dkt, # 37-2, ¶ 39. Counsel contends that she had a justifiable basis to bring the action on behalf of "an elderly and disabled individual who was denied (1) her right under the 2nd Amendment, and (2) her right of access to her file under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment." Pl. MOL, p. 2. Counsel also argues that an award of attorney's fees against Plaintiff would be an "unconstitutional infringement upon Plaintiff's 1st Amendment rights based on Plaintiff's viewpoint and subject matter, and based on her opinions on matters of public concern." Pl. MOL p. 4. Plaintiff herself argues that she was only seeking to obtain a pistol license, that she felt the license denial was "unjustified, " and that she merely followed her attorney's advice "to start this lawsuit in the hope that I could get the license." Pl. Opp. dkt. # 39, pp. 1-2; see generally id.

The reasons and motives behind the lawsuit are not determinative. See Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) ( per curiam ) (finding that a claim can be meritless "even though not brought in subjective bad faith"); Gerena-Valentin v. Koch, 739 F.2d 755, 761 (2d Cir. 1984) (stating that fees may be taxed "without regard to the state of mind of either the plaintiff or his or her counsel"). Rather, the Court must determine whether the claims against the County Defendants were frivolous, unreasonable, or without basis.

Plaintiff's counsel's argument that an award of attorney's fees against Plaintiff would be an "unconstitutional infringement upon Plaintiff's 1st Amendment rights" is without merit. A plaintiff's right to access the courts is not infringed by an award of attorney's fees; it is only the financial burden of that exercise that is shifted when a plaintiff exercises that right by bringing frivolous, unreasonable, and/or baseless claims. Moreover, to accept this argument would be tantamount to finding that all frivolous, baseless, and unsupported legal claims could never be the basis of an attorney's fees award because all plaintiff's have a First Amendment right to access the courts and present their grievances.

a. First Cause of Action

The First Cause of Action, brought against Defendants O'Dell, Olsen, Becker and Eisel in their individual and official capacities, alleged ADA "denial of benefits" and retaliation claims. The law in the Second Circuit is clear that individuals cannot be liable under the ADA. Plaintiff's counsel does not challenge this proposition. Thus, to the extent that the Complaint asserts ADA claims against O'Dell, Olsen, and Eisel in their individual capacities, it is frivolous.

Plaintiff's counsel argues, however, that the County Defendants were not "prevailing parties" on the ADA claims because the Court "ignored the claim against County Defendants in their official capacities under the ADA." Pl. MOL, dkt. # 37, p. 5;[6] see also Neroni Affirm., ¶ 37 ("[T]here was no basis for dismissal of the ADA claim because it was allegedly only brought against individual County Defendants because the caption clearly said that the ADA claim was brought against the ...


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