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Garcia v. City and County of Honolulu

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

February 27, 2019

DONNA GARCIA, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR HER MINOR CHILDREN, J. L. AND G. L., Plaintiff,
v.
CITY AND COUNTY OF HONOLULU, et al., Defendants.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO DENY DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

          Kevin S.C. Chang, United States Magistrate Judge.

         On November 30, 2018, Defendants April Daniels, Arlynn Orpilla, Bonnie McKewen, Harold Uehara, Timothy Slovak, Mikel Frederick, Robert A. Cravalho, Darrien Thornley, Gary Daniels, Thomas Nitta, Leonard Nishimura, Benjamin Moszkowicz, Alan Rodrigues, Keith Vegas, Brian Blackwell, Brandon Lau, and Ryan Hironaka (collectively “Defendants”) filed Defendants [sic] Motion for Attorneys' Fees (“Motion”). The Court finds the Motion suitable for disposition without a hearing pursuant to Rule 7.2(d) of the Local Rules of Practice of the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii.

         The Defendants have not shown that they are entitled to their attorneys' fees. Attorneys' fees may be awarded to a prevailing defendant where the plaintiff's claims are found to be frivolous. The Defendants prevailed on their motions to dismiss. However, this Court cannot find that the Plaintiff's claims were frivolous just because the Plaintiff did not establish a prima facie case and Plaintiff's claims were time-barred due to a Second Circuit case. Moreover, the District Court ruled on the Defendants' motions to dismiss and made no finding of frivolousness. After reviewing the parties' submissions, records, and relevant law, the Court FINDS and RECOMMENDS that the Motion be DENIED.

         RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Donna Garcia, individually and as guardian ad litem for her minor children, J.L. and G.L. (“Plaintiff”), filed a Complaint on March 15, 2018 alleging a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 violation of her Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. The Complaint names the City and County of Honolulu (“Defendant Honolulu”), twenty-one Honolulu Police Department (“HPD”) officers (“Officer Defendants”), and John and/or Jane Does 1-10 as defendants. The claims arise from Plaintiff's allegations of domestic abuse by her ex-husband, Defendant Ronald J. Lombardi, an HPD officer.

         Beginning in May 2018, the majority of the defendants filed motions to dismiss. On May 4, 2018, Defendant Honolulu filed a Motion to Dismiss (“Defendant Honolulu's Motion”). On May 14, 2018, Defendant Robert A. Cravalho filed a Motion to Dismiss (“Defendant Cravalho's Motion”). On June 19, 2018, Defendant Benjamin Moszkowicz filed a Motion to Dismiss (“Defendant Moszkowicz's Motion”). On July 31, 2018, the remaining Officer Defendants, with the exception of Defendant Ronald J. Lombardi, filed a Motion to Dismiss (“Officer Defendants' Motion”). In response, on October 11, 2018, the Plaintiff filed an Omnibus Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant Honolulu's, Defendant Robert A. Cravalho's and Defendant Benjamin Moskowicz's Motions to Dismiss Complaint Filed on March 15, 2018. On October 15, 2018, the Plaintiff filed her Memorandum in Opposition to Officer Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Complaint Filed on March 15, 2018. On October 18, 2018, Defendant Honolulu filed its reply. Defendants Cravalho and Moszkowicz filed their reply on that same day. On October 22, 2018, the remaining Officer Defendants, except for Defendant Lombardi, filed their reply. The hearing on defendants' motions was held on November 9, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. before U.S. District Court Judge Alan C. Kay.

         On November 16, 2018, Judge Kay issued an Order Granting Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (“Order”). Judge Kay (1) “grant[ed] with prejudice the Officer Defendants' Motion as to all claims except those asserted against Officers Arakawa, Hee, and Lee in their individual capacities, which were dismissed without prejudice;” (2) “grant[ed] with prejudice Defendant Cravalho's Motion and Defendant Moszkowicz's Motion as to all claims;” and (3) “grant[ed] without prejudice Defendant Honolulu's Motion as to all claims.” ECF No. 64. The instant Motion followed shortly thereafter.

         DISCUSSION

         The Defendants argue that they are entitled to an award of attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 because the Plaintiff's claims were frivolous, unreasonable and without foundation. The Plaintiff's Complaint alleges a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 violation. Under Section 1988, “[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of section[ ] . . . 1983 . . . 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 . . .” 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.'” LSO, Ltd. v. Stroh, 205 F.3d 1146, 1160 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). In this case, the Defendants were the prevailing parties. The Order granted the Defendants' motions to dismiss and dismissed all claims against them.

         “The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure ‘effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 429 (1983) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 (1976)). “Accordingly, a prevailing plaintiff ‘should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.'” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 429 (quoting S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976)) (citations omitted). On the other hand, a strict standard is applied when awarding attorneys' fees to a prevailing defendant. Miller v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Educ., 827 F.2d 617, 619 (9th Cir. 1987). A prevailing defendant has “the burden of establishing entitlement to an attorneys fees award[.]” Harris v. Maricopa County Superior Court, 631 F.3d 963, 971 (9th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). A prevailing defendant should only be awarded attorneys' fees in civil rights cases under “exceptional circumstances” and “may recover attorneys' fees only if the plaintiff's action was ‘frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.'” Barry v. Fowler, 902 F.2d 770, 773 (9th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

         “A case may be deemed frivolous only when the ‘result is obvious or the . . . arguments of error are wholly without merit.'” Gibson v. Office of Atty. Gen., State of California, 561 F.3d 920, 929 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Karam v. City of Burbank, 352 F.3d 1188, 1195 (9th Cir. 2003)) (citations omitted). A District Court's award of attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Edgerly v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, 599 F.3d 946, 962 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing LSO, Ltd. v. Stroh, 205 F.3d 1146, 1160 (9th Cir. 2000)). “A district court may award attorneys' fees to a prevailing defendant ‘only where the action brought is found to be unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious.'” Edgerly, 599 F.3d at 962 (quoting Patton v. County of Kings, 857 F.2d 1379, 1381 (9th Cir. 1988); Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978)). This strict standard serves to uphold “Congress' policy of promoting vigorous prosecution of civil rights violations under . . . § 1983.” Miller v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Educ., 827 F.2d 617, 619 (9th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

         Based on the submissions and records in this case, this Court cannot find that the Plaintiff's case was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. The Defendants argue that the Plaintiff's claims were frivolous because the District Court granted the Defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice, there was no legal or factual basis to the Plaintiff's claims, and the Plaintiff failed to even assert the basic elements of her claim. These arguments do not rise to the level of exceptional circumstances that warrant the award of attorneys' fees.

         Although the District Court granted the Defendants' motions to dismiss with prejudice, this Court cannot find that the Plaintiff's action was frivolous on this fact alone. A dismissal with prejudice does not within itself mean that the Defendants are entitled to attorneys' fees. See Maag v. Wessler, 993 F.2d 718, 721 (9th Cir. 1993) (quoting Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) (per curiam) (“‘the fact that Plaintiff may ultimately lose his [civil rights] case is not in itself a sufficient justification for the assessment of fees.'”); Berry v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours and Co., 635 F.Supp. 262, 266 (D. Del. 1986) (“[a]lthough a defendant has prevailed in a civil rights case, and a plaintiff has not met its prima facie burden, it does not necessarily follow that attorney's fees should be awarded to the defendant”); Hudson v. Western Airlines, Inc., 851 F.2d 261, 267 (9th Cir. 1988) (the fact that the plaintiff does not prevail is not enough to justify an award of fees to a prevailing defendant); Forsberg v. Pac. Northwest Bell Tel. Co., 840 F.2d 1409, 1422 (9th Cir. 1988) (affirming district court's denial of attorneys' fees to prevailing defendant where summary judgment granted as to all claims); Galen v. County of Los Angeles, 477 F.3d 652, 667 (9th Cir. 2007) (that a plaintiff loses at summary judgment does not render his or her case per se frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation). The Supreme Court has cautioned that:

it is important that the district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation. This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success . . . Decisive facts may not emerge until discovery or trial. The law may change or clarify in the midst of litigation. Even when the ...

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