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Magee v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 2, 2018

SCOTT MAGEE, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated
v.
WINN-DIXIE STORES, INC.

          SECTION “R” (4)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          SARAH S. VANCE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.'s motion for attorneys' fees.[1] For the following reasons, the Court denies the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a dispute over the accessibility of Glacier Water Refill Stations at Winn-Dixie stores.[2] The water refill stations are self-service machines that dispense filtered water into containers provided by the customer.[3] Plaintiff Scott Magee is legally blind.[4] On August 21, 2017, plaintiff filed a class action complaint asserting violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).[5] The complaint alleged that plaintiff attempted to use a water refill station at the Winn-Dixie store located at 211 Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie, Louisiana, in the late evening of August 17, 2017, or the early morning of August 18, 2017.[6] Plaintiff alleged that he was unable to use the water refill station during this visit because the station “did not utilize any braille markings or other non-visual means for [plaintiff] to interact with the machine.”[7] The complaint further alleged that plaintiff attempted to access the water refill machine at other times with no success because the machine “offers no non-visual interface.”[8]

         On January 22, 2018, the Court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing because plaintiff failed to show that he suffered an injury-in-fact.[9]The Court found that plaintiff's allegation that he was unable to use the water refill station because it lacked any braille markings was contradicted by evidence that the machine had at least some braille stickers at the time of his alleged August 2017 visit.[10] Plaintiff failed to offer sufficiently concrete information regarding his other alleged visits to the water refill station.[11]Defendant now moves for an award of attorneys' fees.[12]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The general rule in the United States is that, “in the absence of legislation providing otherwise, litigants must pay their own attorneys' fees.” Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415 (1978). Congress has created limited exceptions to this rule under certain statutes protecting various federal rights. Id. To encourage private enforcement of civil rights statutes, a prevailing plaintiff in a civil rights case should receive attorneys' fees “in all but special circumstances.” Id. at 416-17. But the policy considerations that support granting fees to a prevailing plaintiff are absent when the defendant prevails.

         A district court may grant attorneys' fees to a prevailing defendant only when the court finds that the action was “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Id. at 422. The Supreme Court has emphasized that district courts should not find a plaintiff's action unreasonable or groundless simply because he did not prevail. Id. at 421-22. Engaging in such “hindsight logic” would “discourage all but the most airtight claims” and undercut Congress's efforts to promote vigorous enforcement of civil rights statutes. Id. at 422-23; see also Myers v. City of West Monroe, 211 F.3d 289, 292 n.1 (5th Cir. 2000) (explaining that the limit on recovery of fees by a prevailing defendant “attempts to prevent any chilling effect on the enforcement of civil rights”).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Fee Request under the Americans with Disabilities Act

         Defendant moves for attorneys' fees under the ADA's fee-shifting provision.[13] See 42 U.S.C. § 12205. A fee request by a prevailing defendant under the ADA is governed by the same legal standard applicable to other civil rights cases. See No Barriers, Inc. v. Brinker Chili's Tex., Inc., 262 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir. 2001). A defendant may recover fees only if the plaintiff's claims were “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” Id.

         Defendant first argues that a fee award is warranted because plaintiff wrongly asserted that no braille was present on the water refill station when he attempted to use the machine on the evening of August 17, 2017.[14] In its order dismissing the complaint, the Court found that it was more likely than not that at least some braille stickers were present at the time of plaintiff's alleged August 2017 visit.[15] The Court based this finding on a declaration from a Glacier Water employee stating that he applied braille stickers to the water machine on February 1, 2017, and a second declaration from an individual who took pictures of the machine on August 22, 2017.[16] But plaintiff is blind, and there was no finding that plaintiff knew the braille stickers were present when he filed the lawsuit. Thus, the Court finds that defendant has not shown that plaintiff's complaint was frivolous or groundless when he initiated this suit.

         Defendant further contends that plaintiff and his counsel continued to litigate this matter after it became clear that plaintiff's claims were groundless.[17] Specifically, defendant states that plaintiff and his counsel continued to assert that the water refill station lacked braille even after defendant's counsel informed them that braille was present on the machine.[18] But defendant does not indicate when it informed plaintiff that braille stickers were present on the machine. The sole ...


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