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Arriola v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Frankfort

December 13, 2018

ANTONIO ARRIOLA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Gregory F. Van Tatenhove United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' request for an interim award of attorneys' fees. When a party succeeds on a civil rights claim, the Court has discretion to award the prevailing party attorneys' fees and litigation costs. Aside from a calculation error acknowledged by the Plaintiffs, the Court finds their request to be reasonable and appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees is GRANTED.

         I

         Plaintiffs in this matter are a certified class of current and former inmates in the care and custody of Defendants Commonwealth of Kentucky, Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC), and Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet (the Cabinet). In addition, Plaintiffs have named, individually, Defendant J. Michael Brown, former Secretary of the Cabinet; Defendant John Tilley, current Secretary of the Cabinet; Defendant LaDonna Thompson, former Commissioner of the KDOC; Defendant Rodney Ballard, current Commissioner of the KDOC; Defendant James Erwin, Deputy Commissioner of Adult Institutions; and Defendant Chris E. Cropp is employed in KDOC's Education Branch. [R. 6 at 3-4.]

         This matter was initially filed on September 11, 2012, in Franklin Circuit Court in Franklin County, Kentucky. [R. 14-1 at 1.] After years of discovery and failed mediation attempts, Judge Phillip J. Shepherd of Franklin Circuit Court certified Plaintiffs' class action on June 3, 2015. Id. at 2. Judge Shepherd concluded that the inmates were entitled to Educational Good Time (EGT) credit earned since July 15, 2011, and denial of such credit was a deprivation of their due process rights under the Kentucky Constitution and the United States Constitution. Id. Additionally, Judge Shepherd found Defendants' administration of the EGT program was arbitrary and capricious, and granted declaratory and injunctive relief to the Plaintiff class. Id. at 3. Upon removal, Defendants attempted to have Judge Shepherd's order vacated, but this Court found no reason to modify or dissolve that order. [R. 28.] This Court then ordered parties comply with Judge Shepherd's order, including requiring Defendants to hire an independent auditor to review KDOC's EGT records. Id.

         After this issue was decided in favor of the Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs moved for an interim award of attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). [R. 30.] The Court heard argument on the motion, at which time Plaintiffs emphasized the six-year duration of this litigation. [R. 50.] The Court took the motion under advisement and now grants the Plaintiffs' motion.

         II

         A

         Parties first disagree on whether Plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys' fees. Plaintiffs amended their complaint to add a claim for a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in December of 2017, giving this Court federal question jurisdiction over the matter. [R. 1; R. 6.] Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), a Court has discretion in certain civil rights cases, including those brought under § 1983, to allow the prevailing party reasonable attorneys' fees.

         To recover attorneys' fees, the party must be a “prevailing party.” § 1988(b). A “prevailing party” is one who succeeds on a significant issue “which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Farrar v. Hobby¸ 506 U.S. 103, 109 (1992) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). Here, Plaintiffs have already succeeded on the merits of the case: Judge Shepherd determined the Defendants had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner and granted the Plaintiffs declaratory and injunctive relief. [R. 14-1 at 3.] That Order remains in force, even after removal to Federal Court. [R. 28.] Plaintiffs have, therefore, achieved a benefit they sought by brining the suit, and they qualify as a “prevailing party” for purposes of § 1988.

         Defendants do not argue that Plaintiffs are the prevailing party. They contest, however, that because the Plaintiffs did not bring a § 1983 claim in their initial complaint, and instead added it in their Sixth Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs should only be allowed to recover attorneys' fees beginning in November 2017, the date of filing the Sixth Amended Complaint. [R. 42 at 3.] However, when a pleading is amended, and that amendment asserts a claim arising out of the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence from the original pleading, the amended pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 15(c). The Sixth Amended Complaint arises from the same conduct alleged in the initial complaint, and therefore, the Sixth Amended Complaint relates back to the date of the original pleading. [Compare R. 6 with R. 1-2.] The Court has not found, and Defendants have not provided, any authority to deny costs and fees when a plaintiff asserts a civil rights violation in an amended complaint rather than in the initial complaint.

         The parties also disagree to the extent the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) caps the amount of fees. Here, however, the PLRA provides no such cap. The PLRA permits an award of attorneys' fees to prisoners only if the fee was incurred proving actual violation of the prisoner's rights and authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 1988. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1)(A). Furthermore, the amount awarded for attorneys' fees must be proportionally related to the relief ordered by the Court or the fee must have been directly and reasonably incurred enforcing the ordered relief. § 1997e(d)(1)(B). When a monetary judgment is awarded by the Court to a prisoner, up to twenty-five percent of this judgment must be applied to attorneys' fees, with the remaining fees paid by the defendant if the award is no greater than 150% of the total judgment. § 1997e(d)(2). However, “if non-monetary relief is obtained, either with or without money damages, § 1997e(d)(2) would not apply.” Walker v. Bain, 257 F.3d 660, 667 n. 2 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Boivin v. Black, 225 F.3d 36, 41 n. 4 (1st Cir. 2000)).

         Plaintiffs requested damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief. [R. 6.] The Court has also granted Plaintiffs' declaratory and injunctive relief, finding Defendants' process to be arbitrary and capricious and ordering the completion of an independent audit. [R. 14-1; R. 28.] This non-monetary relief removes this matter from the confines of § 1997e(d)(2), and thus, no 150% cap exists here.

         Finally, arguments presented by the Defendants concerning the Eleventh Amendment also fail. The Supreme Court has previously rejected States' claims of immunity when a plaintiff seeks money under § 1988. See Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 131-133 (1980). “The Court has never viewed the Eleventh Amendment as barring such awards, even in suits between States and individual litigants.” Hutto v. ...


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