United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
ORDER AND REASONS
JANE TRICHE MILAZZO, District Judge.
Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs (R. Doc. 94). For the following reasons, the Motion is DENIED.
In this action, Plaintiffs, appearing both individually and on behalf of their deceased mother Willie Nell Bullock, alleged that on November 16, 2011, the Gretna Police Department and Special Response Team (SRT) executed a search warrant at Bullock's home. Plaintiffs alleged that during the execution of the warrant, officers kicked Bullock, causing her to fall, strike the concrete, and suffer injuries to the mouth and abdomen. At the time, Bullock was 65 years old, suffering from stage four cancer, and recovering from surgery on her abdomen. Plaintiffs alleged that these injuries resulted in a delay of chemotherapy treatment, which contributed to Bullock's death. Plaintiffs brought claims of excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and false arrest against three Gretna police officers, Scott Vinson, James Price, and Russell Lloyd. In addition, they asserted claims of vicarious and supervisory liability under section 1983 and allegations of negligent hiring, supervision, and training against Chief of Police Arthur Lawson Jr. and Scott Vinson, in his capacity as Lieutenant Commander of the SRT.
On October 10, 2014, this Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Through the course of discovery in this matter, Plaintiffs learned that many of the allegations stated in their Complaint were false. Indeed, in their Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiffs acknowledged that the officers named in the Complaint were no longer the officers they believed had assaulted Bullock. Plaintiffs were, however, denied leave to amend their Complaint at that stage in the litigation in order to add the newly discovered officers. Plaintiffs conceded that the officers named in the Complaint were not responsible for the injuries allegedly sustained by Bullock.
Further, Plaintiffs failed to support their allegations that the Gretna Police Department did not adequately train, discipline, or supervise their officers when (1) they did not keep a record of complaints made against officers, (2) no officers were disciplined in connection with this incident, and (3) the number of officers used in the execution of this search warrant was excessive. Plaintiffs did not indicate how these actions violated Bullock's constitutional rights, nor how they were causally connected to the incident at issue in this case. Plaintiffs also failed to show any prior incidents in which these policies lead to constitutional violations.
After this Court granted summary judgment in its favor, Defendants moved for attorney's fees and costs on the ground that Plaintiffs' claims were frivolous.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a court may, in its discretion, award attorney's fees to the prevailing party in a section 1983 action. "A prevailing defendant [in a section 1983 action] is entitled to fees only when a plaintiff's underlying claim is frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless." "[A] court must ask whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful." "To determine whether a claim is frivolous or groundless, [the Fifth Circuit has] stated that courts may examine factors such as: (1) whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case; (2) whether the defendant offered to settle; and (3) whether the court dismissed the case or held a full trial." If a suit involves both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable fees to the prevailing defendant only for costs that the defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims. Accordingly, a court must assess the frivolity of each claim individually.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
A. Assault, Battery and Section 1983 Excessive Force Claims
Defendants argue that they should be awarded attorney's fees in this matter because Plaintiffs' claims of excessive force, assault, and battery lacked foundation in law or fact. Specifically, Defendants point to the fact that none of Plaintiffs' witnesses actually saw an officer strike Bullock, that the officers sued were ultimately revealed to have never entered Bullock's home, and that Bullock's statements regarding the incident were inconsistent.
Plaintiffs argue that their case, although unsuccessful, was not frivolous. Plaintiffs state that their failure to prove many of the allegations in the Complaint or name the correct officers from the outset was due to Bullock's death shortly before the case was filed. Because Bullock was no longer available to testify and because she was the only person inside the house at the time of the incident, Plaintiffs had no non-law enforcement witnesses to verify her claims. As proof of their claims, Plaintiffs point to the record of Bullock's visit to the hospital shortly after the search of her home. The record indicates that Bullock was treated for abdominal bruising and had a swollen and lacerated lip.[ ...