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Brown v. Praxair, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

June 3, 2019

JONATHAN BROWN
v.
PRAXAIR, INC., ET AL.

          RULING AND ORDER

          JUDGE BRIAN JACKSON JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Doc. 34). Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendants' motion (Doc. 43). Oral argument is not required. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED. Further, on the Court's own motion, Plaintiffs claims based on 42 U.S.C. § 1986 against the individual Praxair employees are DISMISSED.

         I. FACTUAL HISTORY

         This matter arises from allegations of racial discrimination and unlawful termination made against Praxair, Inc ("Praxair"), James Willis, Brian Burt, Todd Dunn, and Vanjia Thomas[1] (collectively "Defendants") by Jonathan Brown ("Plaintiff'). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff alleges that he began working for Praxair in April 2012 as a "maintenance supervisor." (Id. at ¶ 4). Plaintiff broadly alleges that he was ridiculed at work despite his admirable workplace performance, and was falsely accused of violating company policies, leading to a reprimand from Brian Burt, one of Plaintiffs superiors. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-8). Plaintiff alleges that despite attempts to complain to Vanjia Thomas ("Ms. Thomas") and Courtni Booker ("Ms. Booker"), employees within Praxair's Human Resources Department, his concerns remained unaddressed. Plaintiff claims that in April 2016, he met with Praxair management, ostensibly to develop a "performance improvement plan" for Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 10). Plaintiff avers that during this meeting, and two subsequent meetings, he was accused of additional workplace violations and was offered a severance package in an effort to terminate him. (Id. at ¶ 11). Plaintiff alleges that a final meeting took place between himself, Ms. Thomas, Mr. Dunn, and James Willis during which they questioned Plaintiff for four hours and accused Plaintiff of additional workplace infractions. (Id. at ¶ 12). Plaintiff asserts that while his performance improvement plan was ultimately accepted, due to the continual harassment he alleges to have faced, Plaintiff eventually submitted his two weeks' notice, but that he was immediately escorted off of the premises after doing so. (Id. at ¶ 14). Plaintiff claims that these actions were violations of Title VII[2], the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law ("LEDL")[3], and 28 U.S.C. § 1983[4]

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs complaint on October 20, 2017. The Court granted Defendants' motion in part, and dismissed Plaintiffs claims against James Willis, Brian Burt, Todd Dunn, and Vanjia Thomas with prejudice. (Doc. 31). The Court also denied Plaintiffs request for attorney's fees without prejudice, pending the submission of a separate motion for attorney's fees filed in accordance with Rule 54(d)(2). (Id.) Defendants' motion for attorneys' fees is now before the Court.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A prevailing defendant should be awarded attorneys' fees under Title VII if "a court finds that [plaintiffs] claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5(K). See also Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978). The standard set forth in Christiansburg also applies to claims brought under the LEDL and § 1983. Wilson-Robinson v. Our Lady of the Lake Reg'l Med. Ctr., Inc., No. CIV.A. 10-584, 2013 WL 5372346, at *l (M.D. La. Sept. 24, 2013). In considering the matter, the Court must determine whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation, rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful. Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421.

         In Hensely v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), the United States Supreme Court established a two-step system for calculating attorney fees called the "lodestar" method. Id. at 433 (applying the lodestar amount for attorney's fees awarded under a § 1988 case). See also Heidtman v. County of El Paso, 171 F.3d 1038, 1043 (5th Cir. 1999). Attorney fees are calculated by "determining . . . the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id.

         III. ARGUMENTS

         Defendants alleged that prior to filing their motion to dismiss, they attempted to confer with Plaintiff several times to alert him that he would be unable to sustain actions against the individual employees of Praxair in under Title VII, because they could not be considered "employers" under the statue, which Plaintiff ignored. (Doc. 34-1 at pp. 1-2). Defendants assert that Plaintiffs actions, in light of the demonstrable lack of merits to her claims, caused Defendants to suffer unnecessary costs and legal fees. (Id.). Defendants claim that under no legal theory could the individual Praxair employees have been found liable for the violations alleged by Plaintiff. (Id. at p. 5).

         Concerning Plaintiffs § 1983 claim, Defendants argue that "private individuals generally are not considered to act under color of law, i.e., are not considered state actors" Ballard v. Wall, 413 F.3d 510, 518 (5th Cir. 2005). As for Title VII and the LEDL, Defendants also argue that "a party may not maintain a suit against an employer and its agent under Title VII. Indest v. Freeman Decorating, Inc., 164 F.3d 258, 262 (5th Cir. 1999). Defendants further claim that "it is well established that Louisiana's antidiscrimination law provides no cause of action against individual employees, only against employers." Minns v. Bd. Of Sup'rs of LSU, 972 F.Supp.2d 878, 889 (M.D. La. 2013). Defendants draw the Court's attention to its prior ruling wherein the Court dismissed the individual employees of Praxair from this action without giving Plaintiff an opportunity to amend his claims, as any attempted amendment would be futile. (Doc. 34-1 at p. 5).

         Plaintiff argues that pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2003-5(K), Defendants should only be entitled to fees if "a court finds that plaintiffs claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." (Doc. 43 at p. 1). Plaintiff claims that although ultimately unsuccessful, the claims against the individual Praxair employees were brought in good faith. (Id.).

         Plaintiff argues that since 2007, Praxair has been implementing policies and regulations adopted by its officers through its governmental contracts with the Department of Defense. (Id.). As an analogy, Plaintiff compares this matter to a finding that a physician who contracts with the state to provide medical care to inmates acts under the color of state law while doing so. (Id.). Plaintiff argues that this theory, while ultimately unavailing, was reasonable, and not meritless or frivolous.

         Concerning the claims based on 42 U.S.C. § 1986, Plaintiff claims that his allegations that he contacted Praxair's Human resources department multiple times for assistance to ...


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