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James v. City & County of Honolulu

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

December 8, 2014

CHOON JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY AND COUNTY OF HONOLULU, Defendant

AMENDED[1] FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND TO GRANT PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR COSTS

Barry M. Kurren, United States Magistrate Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff Choon James' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Plaintiff's Motion for Taxation of Costs, both filed September 9, 2014. (Docs. 56, 58.) Plaintiff argues, inter alia, that she is the prevailing party in this action and requests an award of $55, 286.36 in attorneys' fees and $400 in costs. (Doc. 56 at 3; Doc. 72 at 15; Doc. 58 at 2.) After careful consideration of the Motions, the supporting and opposing memoranda, declarations, and exhibits attached thereto, and the record established in this action, the Court finds that Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this action. Accordingly, the Court recommends that the District Judge award Plaintiff $25, 407.68 in attorneys' fees and $400 in costs, for a total award of $25, 807.68. Thus, this Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, and that Plaintiff's Motion for Costs be GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

On August 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendant City and County of Honolulu (" Defendant" or " City") challenging the constitutionality of the City's " Stored Property Ordinance, " Bill 54 (2011), codified as Chapter 29, Article 19 of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu (" ROH"), which provides that the City may seize personal property left on public property after providing twenty-four hours written notice requiring its removal. (See Doc. 1 at 2, 5). Plaintiff's claims stem from Defendant's seizure of two signs Plaintiff erected on the property located at 54-282 Kamehameha Highway (" Property"). (See Doc. 1 at 3, 7-8.) Although Plaintiff is the legal owner of the Property, at all times relevant to this case, the Property was the subject of an ongoing eminent domain action in the First Circuit Court of the State of Hawaii, and prior to the City's removal of Plaintiff's signs from the Property, the City had obtained an Ex Parte Order of Possession (" Possession Order") pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statutes (" HRS") § 101-29.[2] (See Doc. 12 at 3, 5.) Plaintiff subsequently went to a City storage facility to retrieve her signs, but refused to sign the City's Release Form for fear that it could affect the pending state court action. (Doc. 32-2 at 2-3, ¶¶ 12-15.) Plaintiff sought injunctive relief and damages for alleged violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under Hawaii's constitutional counterparts, Hawaii State Constitution, Art. I, § § 2, 4-8. (Doc. 1 at 10-13.) Plaintiff also alleged various state law tort claims including trespass, conversion, replevin, negligence, and trespass to chattels. (Doc. 1 at 13-15.) On November 12, 2013, Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's Complaint, denying all of Plaintiff's allegations and maintaining that the Possession Order gave Defendant the exclusive right of possession of the Property, thus making Defendant's removal of the signs lawful. (See Doc. 12 at 3, 8.)

On June 25, 2014, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because " it is undisputed that the City has exclusive possession of the subject property, " and therefore, Plaintiff's claims, " which center solely on the City's entry onto the subject property and removal of signs from the subject property, fail as a matter of law." (Doc. 29 at 2.) Plaintiff also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on June 25, 2014, and argued that even assuming Defendant was authorized to seize the signs, an issue she otherwise disputes, Plaintiff is still entitled to summary judgment on several of her claims. (See Doc. 31 at 2-3.) Specifically, Plaintiff requested that the Court grant summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claim for replevin, order the immediate return of the two signs that were removed from the Property, and grant partial summary judgment as to: (1) Plaintiff's due process claims, declaring that the City's failure to provide Plaintiff with a hearing in regards to the removal and/or continued detention of her signs violated Plaintiff's due process rights; (2) Plaintiff's conversion claim, declaring that Defendant's act of damaging and/or detaining Plaintiff's signs constitutes conversion; and (3) Plaintiff's trespass to chattels claim, declaring that Defendant's act of damaging and/or detaining the signs for more than one year constitutes trespass to chattels. (Doc. 31 at 2-3.) With regard to the request for partial summary judgment, Plaintiff requested that the Court reserve the issue of damages for trial. (Id.)

Pursuant to an Order filed August 20, 2014, District Judge J. Michael Seabright denied the parties' motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 48.) With regard to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Judge Seabright found that although the City was awarded possession of the Property, genuine issues of fact existed as to whether the Possession Order granted the City exclusive possession of the Property and whether the City exercised exclusive possession of the Property at the time it removed Plaintiff's signs. (See Doc. 48 at 20-21.) With regard to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, Judge Seabright found, in relevant part, there was no real impediment to Plaintiff retrieving her signs, and thus, when viewed in a light most favorable to the City, Plaintiff failed to establish that she was entitled to a hearing to challenge the language of the City's Release Form. (See Doc. 48 at 26.) Judge Seabright further found Plaintiff was not denied a meaningful opportunity to seek compensation for the damage to her signs, and instead, she failed to avail herself of the process to submit a claim for such damages. (Doc. 48 at 26-27.) Based on these reasons, Judge Seabright found Plaintiff failed to establish that the City illegally used, abused, wrongfully detained, damaged, or deprived Plaintiff of her signs. (Doc. 48 at 28.)

Following Judge Seabright's Order denying the parties' motions for summary judgment, the parties agreed to settle their dispute. (Docs. 52, 63-1.) Under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, Defendant agreed to pay Plaintiff twenty-one dollars ($21.00) " in consideration" for Plaintiff releasing Defendant from " any and all claims . . . alleged in the Lawsuit." (Doc. 63-1 at 1-2, ¶¶ 5-6.) The Settlement Agreement specifically provides that no admission of liability is to be construed from the settlement, and instead, the settlement shall be considered " strictly as a compromise of contested claims." (Doc. 63-1 at 2, ¶ 7.) Under the Settlement Agreement, however, the Court " may consider the fact of settlement, payment and/or receipt of consideration and other terms of this Agreement to determine 'prevailing party' status" for purposes of attorneys' fees. (Doc. 63-1 at 2, ¶ 7.) The Settlement Agreement reserved Plaintiff's right to seek attorneys' fees and costs, and reserved Defendant's right to dispute Plaintiff's entitlement to and amount of fees and costs requested. (Doc. 63-1 at 2, ¶ 8.) On September 15, 2014, the parties filed a Stipulation to Dismiss with Prejudice, dismissing this action. (Doc. 64.)

On September 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees, and a Motion for Taxation of Costs, [3] seeking an award of attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, as the prevailing party in this action. (Docs. 56, 58.)

DISCUSSION

I. Motion for Attorneys' Fees

A. Entitlement to Attorneys' Fees

Plaintiff requests an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides in part that the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The " prevailing party" in a § 1983 action should ordinarily recover attorneys' fees " absent special circumstances which would render the award unjust." Runyon v. Fasi, 762 F.Supp. 280, 285 (D. Haw. 1991) (citations omitted). In bringing the present case, Plaintiff alleged violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments as well as of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (See Doc. 1 at 1-2.) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, this Court must first determine whether Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this action, and absent special circumstances, may find that an award of reasonable attorney's fees is appropriate.

B. Prevailing Party

" To be considered a prevailing party, a party must succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Robinson v. Plourde, 717 F.Supp.2d 1092, 1096 (D. Haw. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly held that a party does not have to win a final judgment in order to qualify as the prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, rather, in order to be a prevailing party, " a plaintiff need only establish some sort of clear, causal relationship between the litigation brought and the practical outcome realized." Tokuhama v. City & Cnty. of Honolulu, 751 F.Supp. 1394, 1396-97 (D. Haw. 1990) ( citing Lummi Indian Tribe v. Oltman, 720 F.2d 1124, 1125 (9th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In Clark v. City of Los Angeles, 803 F.2d 987 (9th Cir. 1986), the Ninth Circuit further explained that

Plaintiffs need not obtain formal relief in order to enjoy prevailing party status. It is enough that plaintiffs received some of the benefit they sought in bringing the suit.

Whether a litigant has shown a sufficient causal relationship between the lawsuit and the practical outcome realized is a pragmatic factual inquiry for the district court.

Clark, 803 F.2d at 989-990 (citations omitted). The Ninth Circuit has adopted the following two-part test for determining prevailing party status when a case has not gone to final judgment:

the party seeking to establish " prevailing party" status must demonstrate that: (1) as a factual matter, the relief sought by the lawsuit was in fact obtained as a result of having brought the action, and (2) there was a legal basis for the plaintiffs' claim. Under the first level of inquiry, the court must identify what the lawsuit originally sought to accomplish and what relief actually was obtained. It must then determine whether there exists a " clear causal relationship between the litigation brought and the practical outcome realized." This realized relief may come in the form of a settlement or other disposition of the case. The critical factor is whether the party seeking fees has, as a result of bringing the lawsuit, received some or all of the relief originally sought.

Under the second inquiry, the court must determine whether there was a legal basis for the claim. While this requires some evaluation of the merits, this evaluation is extremely limited. The extent of the court's inquiry is strictly limited to determining whether the claims asserted are " frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or whether the plaintiff continued to litigate after they became so."

Andrew v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 875, 877-78 (9th Cir. 1988) (citations and brackets omitted). Thus, it follows that a plaintiff may qualify as the prevailing party after settling with the defendant if the plaintiff:

1a) received at least some of the benefit sought in bringing suit, 1b) can show a clear causal relationship between the litigation brought and the practical outcome realized, and 2) can show that there was a legal basis for the claim.

Tokuhama, 751 F.Supp. at 1398.

In the case at bar, Plaintiff requested, inter alia, the Court (1) declare ROH Chapter 29, Article 19 unconstitutional; (2) declare Defendants' actions violated Plaintiff's rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments; (3) grant preliminary and permanent injunctive relief enjoining Defendant from, generally, entering private property for the purpose of seizing personal property, and destroying such property absent prior written notice and the opportunity to seek pre-and post- deprivation remedies to recover such property; (4) compensatory damages; and (5) punitive damages. (See Doc. 1 at 15-17.) In her Complaint, Plaintiff maintains that, at the time of filing, she " has not yet been compensated for the damage to her signs, " and she was unable to reclaim her signs unless she agreed to sign a " Release of Impounded Personal Property" form, which Plaintiff refused to sign out of concern that signing it could affect the pending eminent domain proceedings in State court. (Doc. 1 at 9, ¶ 29-30.) Plaintiff alleged a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights, claiming that " Defendants' destruction of Plaintiff's property and/or failure to return the property in a usable condition also constitutes an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, " (Doc. 1 at 10, ¶ 35), and requested, inter alia, compensatory damages for such acts. (See Doc. 1 at 17.)

Here, Plaintiff claims she has received the relief she requested, namely, her signs were returned after the City agreed to modify its Release Form, and she has been " paid in full for the damages to the sign and a nominal amount for the constitutional violation." (Doc. 56-1 at 15.) This Court agrees, in part. Although it cannot be said that Plaintiff received a " vast majority" of the relief she requested, this Court finds that Plaintiff received at least some of the benefit sought in bringing suit. Tokuhama, 751 F.Supp. at 1398.

During a July 21, 2014 status conference before the Court, Defendant agreed to return Plaintiff's signs if she executed a modified Release Form. (See Doc. 48 at 7.) On July 25, 2014, Plaintiff retrieved her signs by signing the modified Release Form, which the City modified to delete the language Plaintiff found objectionable. (Doc. 48 at 7; Doc. 45-1 at 2, ¶¶ 5-6.) With regard to the compensation Plaintiff requested for damage caused to her signs, Plaintiff maintains that upon receiving the sum of twenty-one dollars paid to her as " consideration" for releasing her claims for, inter alia, damages, (Doc. 63-1 at 1-2), Plaintiff " has been paid in full for the damages to the sign and a nominal amount for the constitutional violation." (Doc. 56-1 at 8.) Thus, this Court finds that having (1) received her signs, and (2) received consideration for the release of her claims against Defendant, Plaintiff received at least some of the benefit sought in bringing suit. Tokuhama, 751 F.Supp. at 1398.

Moreover, this Court finds that Plaintiff has demonstrated the requisite causal relationship between the litigation brought and the practical outcome realized; if Plaintiff had not brought this suit, there would have been no agreement to modify the City's Release Form and no settlement agreement compensating Plaintiff for the release of her claims for, inter alia, damages against Defendant. See Tokuhama, 751 F.Supp. at 1398. Thus, Plaintiff meets the first prong of the Andrew test.

Finally, according to the " extremely limited" evaluation required by Andrew, it is clear from the facts of the instant case that Plaintiff's claims had a sufficient legal basis and were not " frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless[.]" Andrew, 837 F.2d at 877-78. This is sufficiently established by the fact that Judge Seabright denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that genuine issues of fact existed as to whether the Defendant exercised exclusive possession of the Property at the time it removed Plaintiff's signs, and thus, whether Defendant could unilaterally seize Plaintiff's signs. (See Doc. 48 at 12, 21.) Plaintiff therefore meets the second prong of the Andrew test.

Defendant also argues that assuming Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this action, Plaintiff is not entitled to attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 because she did not prevail on any federal claims. (Doc. 68 at 18-19.) This Court disagrees. A plaintiff " prevails" for purposes of § 1988 " when actual relief on the merits of his [or her] claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). Relief " on the merits" occurs when the material alteration of the parties' legal relationship is accompanied by " judicial imprimatur on the change." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001). A material alteration of the parties' legal relationship occurs when " the plaintiff becomes entitled to enforce a judgment, consent decree, or settlement against the defendant, " and thus " can force the defendant to do something he otherwise would not have to do." Fischer v. SJB-P.D., Inc., 214 F.3d 1115, 1118 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). Judicial imprimatur can come in the form of an enforceable judgment ...


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