United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
GREATER NEW ORLEANS FAIR HOUSING ACTION CENTER, INC.
JIM HOTARD AND 3839 ULLOA STREET, L.L.C.
ORDER AND REASONS
S. VANCE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
move for attorney's fees for their successful defense of
a Fair Housing Act suit. For the following reasons, the Court
denies the motion.
case arises out of allegations of housing discrimination at
an apartment building located at 3839 Ulloa Street, in New
Orleans, Louisiana. The building is owned and operated by Jim
Hotard and 3839 Ulloa Street, LLC. Plaintiff Greater New
Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Inc. (GNOFHAC) filed this
lawsuit on April 23, 2015, asserting a claim under the Fair
Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et
seq. Plaintiff sought declaratory and
injunctive relief, damages, attorney's fees, and
complaint alleged that Hotard treated potential renters for
his property differently on the basis of their race. More
specifically, plaintiff alleged that Hotard refused to
respond to email inquiries regarding his property from
African-American testers but responded promptly to email
inquiries from white testers. Plaintiff further alleged that
Hotard responded less favorably to phone inquiries from
African-American testers than he did to phone inquiries from
17, 2017, the Court held a bench trial. After hearing live
testimony and reviewing all the evidence, the Court held that
plaintiff had failed to establish by a preponderance of the
evidence that Hotard discriminated against its testers on the
basis of their race. Accordingly, the Court rendered judgment
in favor of defendants. Defendants now move for
attorney's fees in the amount of $12, 222.70 under the
Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2).
the general rule in the United States that in the absence of
legislation providing otherwise, litigants are liable for
their own attorney's fees. See Christiansburg Garment
Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 434 U.S.
412, 415 (1978) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Co. v.
Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240 (1975)). Congress has
provided limited exceptions to this rule under certain
statutes protecting particular federal rights. See
Id. Like other civil rights statutes, the FHA provides
the district court with a great deal of flexibility and
discretion in awarding attorney's fees to either a
prevailing plaintiff or a prevailing defendant. See
Id. at 416. The FHA states: “In a civil action
under subsection (a) of this section, the court, in its
discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the
United States, a reasonable attorney's fee and
costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2).
prevailing plaintiff in a civil rights case should receive
attorney's fees “in all but special
circumstances” in order to encourage private
enforcement of the civil rights statutes.
Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 417. But the policy
considerations that support granting fees to a prevailing
plaintiff are not present when the defendant prevails. As
such, a district court may grant attorney's fees to a
prevailing defendant only when the court finds that the
action was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without
foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad
faith.” Id. at 421; see also NAACP v. City
of Kyle, 626 F.3d 233, 239 (5th Cir. 2010) (applying
this standard to FHA claim). The Supreme Court has emphasized
that district courts should not find that a plaintiff's
action was unreasonable or groundless simply because she did
not prevail. See Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22.
Engaging in such “hindsight logic” would
“discourage all but the most airtight claims” and
undercut the efforts of Congress to promote vigorous
enforcement of civil rights statutes. Id. at 423.
first argue that they are entitled to attorney's fees
because plaintiff's complaint was unreasonable,
groundless, and without merit. Although plaintiff did not
prevail at trial, nothing in the record suggests that its
claims were unreasonable or frivolous when filed. Before
filing its complaint, GNOFHAC conducted five tests to
investigate whether Hotard discriminated based on race. The
test results showed differential responses to
African-American and white testers. Allegations based on this
evidence sufficed to make out an FHA claim. See,
e.g., Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S.
363, 370, 374 (1982) (affirming circuit court's holding
that tester who allegedly experienced discrimination had
standing to bring an FHA claim).
further argue that plaintiff continued to litigate this case
even though discovery revealed that the case lacked merit. At
trial, Hotard testified that he was not aware of the
testers' race. The Court found this testimony credible,
and concluded that plaintiff failed to establish by a
preponderance of the evidence that Hotard knew the race of
the African-American testers. This conclusion was fatal to
plaintiff's FHA claim. But “attorney's fees for
prevailing defendants are presumptively unavailable unless a
showing is made that the underlying civil rights
suit was vexatious, frivolous, or otherwise without
merit.” Dean v. Riser, 240 F.3d 505, 508 (5th
Cir. 2001) (emphasis added).
trial testimony, and the Court's credibility
determination, do not render plaintiff's underlying suit
frivolous or unreasonable. To conclude otherwise would be
precisely the type of post hoc reasoning the Supreme
Court cautioned against in Christiansburg. There,
the Supreme Court made clear that a district court must not
rely solely on the ultimate outcome of the litigation as the
standard for whether attorney's fees should be awarded.
Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421. As the Supreme
Court stated, “[n]o matter how honest one's belief
that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter how
meritorious one's claim may appear at the outset, the
course of litigation is rarely predictable.” 434 U.S.
at 422. In this case, GNOFHAC was unable to support its
claims with evidence sufficient to show discriminatory
intent. For the Court to assess attorney's fees against