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Romain v. Sonnier

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

October 2, 2019

LISA ROMAIN, ET AL.
v.
SUZY SONNIER, in her official capacity as Secretary of Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services

         SECTION: “J” (1)

          ORDER & REASONS

          CARL J. BARBIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees (Rec. Doc. 13) on remand from the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and subsequently transferred to this Court, a memorandum in support filed by Plaintiffs (Rec. Doc. 36) and an opposition filed by Defendant (Rec. Doc. 37). Having consider the motion and legal memoranda, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the motion should be GRANTED.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Court assumes the reader's familiarity with this case and provides only a brief account of the relevant facts and procedural history. Plaintiffs are a “prevailing party” seeking reasonable attorneys' fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 against Defendant, the Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (“Department”). Romain v. Walters, 856 F.3d 402, (5th. Cir. 2017). All Plaintiffs are Louisiana residents who are eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP”) benefits so long as Louisiana applies for a SNAP “work requirement” waiver from the federal government. If, however, Louisiana fails to apply for the waiver then the Plaintiffs would lose their benefits. In September of 2015, the Department informed Plaintiffs that Louisiana, under the guidance of then Governor Bobby Jindal, would not be seeking a work requirement waiver for 2016.

         On December 18, 2015 Plaintiffs sued in attempt to prevent Louisiana from terminating their SNAP benefits by failing to file the work requirement waiver. On December 21, 2015, Governor-Elect John Bel Edwards wrote a letter to the federal government stating his intention to reverse Governor Jindal's decision by applying for the work requirement waiver as soon as he took office on January 11, 2016. In his letter, he “requested the USDA to work with [Louisiana] ‘to ensure that there is no gap in benefits until the waiver can be formally extended after I take office [on January 11, 2016],' and stated that ‘I am willing to work with your office and [the Department] to ensure these benefits are not cut off on December 31st.'” Id.

         Considering Governor-Elect Edwards' intentions, Plaintiffs entered into a Settlement Order with the Department that contained three specific orders affecting the relationship between the parties.[1] Id. If the waiver was granted and the Defendant complied with all three orders, then Plaintiffs' complaint would be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiffs then filed their Motion for Reasonable Attorney's Fees and Costs, believing the Settlement Order was sufficient to make them the prevailing party. The district judge then assigned to the case denied the motion, stating that Plaintiffs were not a prevailing party within the meaning of § 1988.

         Subsequently, Plaintiffs appealed the decision and the Fifth Circuit overturned, holding that Plaintiffs were the prevailing party due to the Settlement Order. On remand the case was transferred to this Court for the first time.[2] The sole remaining issue before the Court on remand is whether there exists any “special circumstances” that would render awarding attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs under § 1988 unjust. Id. at 407.

         DISCUSSION

         The instructions from the Fifth Circuit are even more narrowly tailored than a general requirement to assess the availability of “special circumstances.” The only potential special circumstance present here is a case in which the plaintiffs received the desired benefits of their litigation, but the plaintiffs' attorneys did not contribute to achieving that result. Id. (citing Grisham v. City of Fort Worth, 837 F.3d 564, 569 (5th Cir. 2016). On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that Defendant must make an “extremely strong showing” of special circumstances to succeed, and the district courts discretion to deny attorneys' fees under § 1988 is “extremely narrow.” Id. In the instance case, the Defendant “must present evidence, not supposition, showing that Plaintiffs' lawsuit did not contribute to either Governor Edwards's application for the waiver or Governor Edwards's work to ensure no individual lost their SNAP benefits due to the timing of the waiver application.” Id. at 407-408. Finally, the court in Romain stated that this Court has discretion on remand to determine what sort of evidence will be permitted and considered in this “unusual situation of determining what motivated the specific action of a governor.” Id. at 408.

         Defendant attempts to prove Plaintiffs lawsuit did not contribute to Governor Edwards' actions in the following four ways:

1. Governor Edwards has continued to seek the “work requirement waiver every year since 2016. (Rec. Doc. 37);
2. Governor Edwards' general campaign platform spoke of a desire to assist Louisiana's poor and unemployed. Id.;
3. the timing of Governor Edwards' letter on December 21, 2015, only three days after Plaintiffs suit was filed, is proof that internal discussions to reimplement the work waiver were ongoing ...

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