United States District Court, N.D. California
October 5, 2005.
JEFFREY BUCHANAN, Plaintiff,
COUNTY OF ALAMEDA; WAYNE TUCKER, individually and in his capacity as Chief Probation Officer for the County of Alameda; and TABULA RASA TREATMENT HOMES, INC., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: CLAUDIA WILKEN, District Judge
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT TABULA RASA'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES
Defendant Tabula Rasa Treatment Homes, Inc., (Tabula Rasa), one
of the prevailing parties in this action, moves pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1988 for an award of attorneys' fees in the amount of
$60,015.50. Counsel for Plaintiff Jeffrey Buchanan has filed a
declaration in opposition to the motion.*fn1 The matter was
taken under submission on the papers.
Having considered all of the papers filed by the parties, the Court DENIES Tabula Rasa's motion for attorneys' fees.
A district court may authorize an award of attorneys' fees to a
prevailing party in a civil rights action under the Civil Rights
Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988. An award of
attorneys' fees may be made to a civil rights defendant only
where the court finds that the plaintiff's action was
"unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious." Legal
Services of Northern California, Inc. v. Arnett, 114 F.3d 135,
141 (9th Cir. 1997). "Only in exceptional cases should defendants
be awarded attorneys' fees in civil rights cases." Mitchell v.
Los Angeles Community College Dist., 861 F.2d 198, 202 (9th Cir.
The background of this civil rights action is set forth in the
Court's July 21, 2005 order granting Defendants' motions for
summary judgment. Although Plaintiff's case was not meritorious,
the Court finds that he did not file this action frivolously.
Plaintiff believed in good faith that Tabula Rasa administered
Paxil to him, that Paxil was not approved for juvenile use, and
that it caused him to be at increased risk for suicide. The Court
found that Plaintiff "failed to produce evidence sufficient to
raise a triable issue of material fact regarding Tabula Rasa's
deliberate indifference to him," and also failed to introduce
evidence of spoliation sufficient to create an adverse inference
of deliberate indifference. July 21, 2005 Order at 11-12.
However, lack of merit does not mean that Plaintiff's complaint
as filed was unreasonable, frivolous or groundless. Cf., e.g.,
Saman v. Robbins, 173 F.3d 1150, 1157 (9th Cir. 1999) (finding
abuse of discretion where district court failed to award
attorneys' fees in civil rights case where defendant's involvement in case was very
limited); Franceschi v. Schwartz, 57 F.3d 828, 832 (9th Cir.
1995) (upholding award of fees where attorney plaintiff knew or
should have known that municipal defendants were entitled to
immunity); Townsend v. Holman Consulting Corp., 914 F.2d 1136
(9th Cir. 1990) (finding plaintiff had failed to conduct
competent pre-filing inquiry where undisputed facts showed
defendant not involved in alleged acts). Furthermore, Tabula Rasa
has made no attempt, except through attorney argument, to show
that Plaintiff brought this action in bad faith or purely out of
a desire for settlement money. Based on the facts of the case, it
appears that Plaintiff is a young man with mental health issues
who is unlikely to have the wherewithal to pay attorneys' fees.
Tabula Rasa also asks the Court to tax attorneys' fees against
Plaintiff's counsel, but does not cite the statute under which it
makes this request. Section 1988 does not appear to provide for
such an award. The Court does have the inherent power to impose
sanctions against a lawyer who "willfully abuses judicial
processes." Roadway Express, Inc., v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 766
(1980). In order to impose such a sanction, the Court must "make
a specific finding as to whether counsel's conduct in th[e] case
constituted or was tantamount to bad faith." Id. at 767. In
addition, the Court has statutory authority to hold counsel
personally liable for attorneys' fees as a sanction under
28 U.S.C. § 1927. That statute provides,
Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct
cases in any court of the United States or any
Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings
in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy
personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorney's
fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.
Tabula Rasa has shown no grounds on which the Court could make a
specific finding that Plaintiff's counsel's conduct was
tantamount to bad faith. Nor has Tabula Rasa shown that counsel's
conduct has "unreasonably and vexatiously" multiplied the
proceedings. Therefore, the Court declines to award attorneys'
fees against Plaintiff's attorney.
For these reasons, the Court concludes that this is not an
exceptional civil rights action so meritless as to warrant an
award of fees to Tabula Rasa. Tabula Rasa's motion is DENIED
(Docket No. 160).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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