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Trahan v. Melancon

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

July 30, 2018

SHELBY TRAHAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HIS DECEASED FATHER, ADAM JAMES TRAHAN
v.
WAYNE MELANCON, ET AL.

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          PATRICK J. HANNA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Currently pending is the defendants' reurged motion for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Fed.R.Civ.P. 54. (Rec. Doc. 92). The motion is opposed. The motion for costs was ordered separated from the motion for attorneys' fees (Rec. Doc. 94), and a separate determination of costs will be issued by the Clerk of Court in due course. For the reasons explained below, the motion for attorneys' fees is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         Background

         On April 6, 2013, Acadia Parish Sheriff's Deputies Tyler Broussard and Conan Smith responded to a call regarding a domestic altercation between Adam James Trahan and Tammy Bankston, which resulted in Mr. Trahan being shot and killed by Deputy Broussard. Mr. Trahan's son Shelby Trahan filed suit against Deputy Broussard, Deputy Smith, and Acadia Parish Sheriff Wayne Melancon, alleging under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the deputies entered Mr. Trahan's home without a warrant and used excessive force in violation of Mr. Trahan's Fourth Amendment rights. The plaintiff further alleged that Sheriff Melancon negligently hired, trained, supervised, and disciplined the deputies regarding constitutional rights and the use of force. The plaintiff also asserted state-law claims of assault, battery, wrongful death, and spoliation of evidence. In his first amended complaint, the plaintiff asserted a claim against Acadian Ambulance Service, which was dismissed because that defendant was not properly served. (Rec. Docs. 62, 63).

         The defendants' motion for summary judgment was granted. (Rec. Doc. 74). In ruling on that motion, this Court found that there was no factual basis for the claims against Sheriff Melancon. This Court further found that there was no basis for the punitive damages claim against the deputies in their individual capacities because there was no evidence that their actions were motivated by an evil motive or intent. This Court also found that the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity with regard to their warrantless entry into Mr. Trahan's residence and with regard to the amount of force used in subduing Mr. Trahan. This Court found that there was insufficient evidence to support the plaintiff's spoliation claim. After the federal-law claims were resolved, this Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state-law claims, and those claims were dismissed without prejudice.

         After the motion for summary judgment was decided, the defendants filed a motion seeking to recover attorneys' fees and costs (Rec. Doc. 76), which was denied as premature pending appeal (Rec. Doc. 87). The plaintiff appealed the ruling on the motion for summary judgment, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this Court's ruling in all respects. (Rec. Doc. 76). The defendants now seek to recover attorneys' fees for their successful defense of the plaintiff's claims.

         Law and Analysis

         The general rule in the United States is that litigants must pay their own attorneys' fees.[1] An exception to that rule is found in 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which states that a district court may, in its discretion, award attorneys' fees to a prevailing party (other than the United States) in a Section 1983 suit. A prevailing defendant may recover attorneys' fees under Section 1988 only when the plaintiff's underlying claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.[2] The purpose of this law is to ensure that persons with civil rights grievances obtain effective access to the judicial process while protecting defendants from burdensome litigation having no legal or factual basis.[3]

         A suit is frivolous if it is “so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation.”[4] When considering whether a suit is frivolous, a district court should look to factors such as whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case, whether the defendant offered to settle, and whether the court held a full trial[5] rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful.[6] However, these factors are “guideposts, ” and frivolousness must be judged on a case-by-case basis.[7] Further, a claim is not frivolous solely because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail or because it was dismissed before reaching the jury.[8]

         Thus, awards of attorneys' fees for defendants are generally appropriate where “the plaintiff's 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 about the legal or evidentiary deficiencies of his claim.[9] When a plaintiff has asserted both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable attorneys' fees to the defendant “only for the costs that the defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims.”[10]

         A party may be considered a prevailing party if he “succeeds on any significant issue in the litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.”[11] In the case now before the Court, the defendants clearly prevailed, pursuant to the court's ruling on the defendants' motion for summary judgment and the Fifth Circuit's affirmation of that ruling.

         Applying the relevant factors, this Court finds that the plaintiff's claim against Acadian Ambulance was frivolous because the plaintiff failed to assure that the claim was properly served. This Court further finds that the plaintiff's claim against Sheriff Melancon was frivolous because it was lacking in factual underpinnings. Similarly, this Court finds that the plaintiff's spoliation claim was frivolous because it lacked a valid factual foundation. The plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims against the deputies, however, were not frivolous.

         First, the plaintiff established a prima facie case with regard to the Fourth Amendment claims against the deputies. A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by alleging 1) a violation of a federal constitutional or statutory right; and 2) that the violation was committed by an individual acting under the color of state law.[12] Here, the plaintiff alleged that the deputies violated Mr. Trahan's Fourth Amendment rights and further alleged that they were, at all relevant times, acting under color of law. Accordingly, the plaintiff established a prima facie case. Ultimately, however, it was determined that the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity with regard to both the warrantless search claim and the excessive force claim.

         Second, the defendants did not offer to settle the claims. The defendants stated in their briefing that they did not, at any time during the litigation, extend a settlement offer. (Rec. Doc. 76-4 at 8). In his briefing, the plaintiff confirmed this fact. (Rec. Doc. 98 at 9).

         Third, although the case was decided prior to a trial on the merits, that alone is insufficient to support a finding of frivolity.[13] In this case, a significant amount of fact gathering and motion practice preceded the resolution of the plaintiff's claims. Thus, the three relevant factors weigh in favor of a finding that the ...


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