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Rice v. Reliastar Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 29, 2015

NATHAN RICE, ET AL.,
v.
RELIASTAR LIFE INSURANCE CO., ET AL No. 11-111-BAJ-SCR

RULING AND ORDER

BRIAN A. JACKSON, Chief District Judge.

Before the Court is a Re-Urged Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Other Costs (Doc. 118) filed by Defendants Joel Arnold and Willie Graves (collectively, "Defendants"), seeking an award of attorney's fees and other costs pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 54(d) and 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Plaintiffs have opposed the motion. (Doc. 119). Oral argument is not necessary. Jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Re-Urged Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Other Costs (Doc. 118) is DENIED. However, the Court admonishes Plaintiffs' counsel for filing and pursing frivolous claims in violation of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiffs' Allegations and Defendants' Answers

Plaintiffs are the surviving family members of Gerald Rice, who died after being shot in his home on January 27, 2010 by Arnold. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 5, 7, 26). Arnold was one of five Livingston Parish Sheriff's Deputies who responded to an emergency call that Gerald Rice was "at his home with a gun and in a suicidal state of mind." (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 8). After a confrontation with Arnold and the other deputies, Arnold shot Gerald Rice, who later died from his injuries. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 26).

Plaintiffs filed an action against Defendants under Louisiana's survival, wrongful death, and tort statutes, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] (Id. at ¶ 2). Plaintiffs alleged that Arnold was liable for claims of excessive and unreasonable use of deadly force; assault; battery; false imprisonment; intentional infliction of emotional distress, fright, and outrage; cruel treatment; failing to provide adequate or timely medical attention; deliberate indifference to the "rights, safety, and dignity of Gerald Rice"; warrantless entry into Gerald Rice's home; and other unspecified violations of the United States Constitution and federal and state laws.[2] (Id. at ¶¶ 1, 43). Plaintiffs also alleged that Graves, then the Livingston Parish Sheriff, was liable for Arnold's actions under a theory of respondeat superior, and was additionally liable for "his negligent hiring, retention, training, and supervision of Arnold, " and his "deliberate indifference to the acts of Arnold." (Id. at ¶¶ 1, 44-46). Defendants denied all substantive allegations and raised several affirmative defenses. (Docs. 8, 19).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed the original Complaint in this action on January 25, 2011, and an Amended Complaint on March 9, 2011.[3] (Docs. 1, 13). Defendants filed their Answer to the original Complaint on February 17, 2011 (Doc. 8), and to the Amended Complaint on March 23, 2011 (Doc. 19). On May 2, 2012, Defendants filed three separate motions for partial summary judgment: a motion regarding the state law claims against Arnold (Doc. 70), a motion regarding the § 1983 claims against Arnold (Doc. 71), and a motion regarding all claims against Graves (Doc. 72).[4] Plaintiffs opposed the three motions for partial summary judgment (Docs. 74, 75), and filed their own motion for summary judgment on October 26, 2012 (Doc. 90). The Court granted all three of Defendant's summary judgment motions on November 27, 2012. (Doc. 93).

Defendants originally filed a Motion for Attorney Fees and for Other Costs in this action on December 13, 2012. (Doc. 95). However, Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment or for Relief from Judgment on December 27, 2012 (Doc. 96), which the Court denied on May 6, 2013 (Doc. 107). On June 3, 2013, Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal to the Fifth Circuit. (Doc. 108). As such, the Court dismissed the original attorney's fee motion, without prejudice, on January 8, 2014 because this Court's judgment in the case was pending before the Fifth Circuit. (Doc. 114). The Court expressly stated that the motion could "be re-filed in accordance with the mandate from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals." (Id. at p. 2). The Fifth Circuit affirmed this Court's ruling on the summary judgment motions on October 27, 2014. Rice, 770 F.3d at 1122. Defendants then filed this "re-urged" motion for attorney's fees and costs on December 29, 2014. (Doc. 118). Plaintiffs filed their opposition to this motion on January 20, 2015. (Doc. 119). Defendants filed a reply in support of this motion on March 23, 2015 (Doc. 123) upon securing the permission of the Court (Doc. 122).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The general rule in the United States is that litigants must pay their own attorney's fees, absent legislation providing otherwise. See Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240 (1975). However, Section 1988 grants the Court the authority to award the prevailing party in actions under various civil rights acts, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983, reasonable attorney's fees as part of its costs. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) ("In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of section[]... 1983... of this title..., the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs....") (emphasis added); see also Myers v. City of W. Monroe, 211 F.3d 289, 292 (5th Cir. 2000) (affirming an award of attorney's fees to two of four defendants because the claims against them were frivolous). In Hughes v. Rowe, the Supreme Court extended its holding in Christiansburg, which allowed the award of attorney's fees to prevailing Title VII defendants under certain circumstances, to the award of attorney's fees under § 1988 to defendants in § 1983 actions. Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14-15 (1980) (citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978)). As such, a court may award a defendant attorney's fees under § 1988 if the court finds that the plaintiff's claim was "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so." Hughes, 449 U.S. at 15 (quoting Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 442) (internal quotations omitted).

The Fifth Circuit has established that the relevant question in determining frivolity is "whether the case was so lacking in merit that it was groundless, rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful." United States v. Miss., 921 F.2d 604, 609 (5th Cir. 1991). A claim is not frivolous solely because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail or because it was dismissed before reaching the jury. Doe v. Silsbee Indep. Sch. Dist., 440 Fed.App'x 421, 425 (5th Cir. 2011) (unpublished, but persuasive). In deciding whether a case was frivolous, a court should review "(1) whether plaintiff established a prima facie case, (2) whether the defendant offered to settle, and (3) whether the district court dismissed the case or held a full-blown trial." Miss., 921 F.2d at 609. The Fifth Circuit has generally concluded that awards of attorney's fees for defendants are appropriate where "the plaintiffs civil rights claim lacks a basis in fact or relies on an undisputedly meritless legal theory, " or when the "plaintiff knew or should have known the legal or evidentiary deficiencies of his claim." Doe, 440 Fed.App'x at 425. When a plaintiff has asserted both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable attorney's fees to the defendant "only for the costs that the defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims." Fox v. Vice, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2211 (2011).

III. ANALYSIS

The Court must decide whether any of Plaintiffs' claims against Arnold and Graves were frivolous and/or unnecessarily litigated. The ...


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