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Walter Dulaney v. Miami-Dade County and International Association of Firefighters

December 22, 2011

WALTER DULANEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MIAMI-DADE COUNTY AND INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FIREFIGHTERS, LOCAL 1403, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John J. O'sullivan United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

THIS MATTER came before the Court on the Defendant, Metro-Dade Fire Fighters, Local 1403, IAFF's ("Local 1403") Motion for Bill of Costs (DE # 134, 6/7/11) and the Defendant, Local 1403 Metro-Dade Fire Fighters, IAFF's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs (DE # 142, 7/5/11). This matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge John J. O'Sullivan by the Honorable Joan A. Lenard, United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of Florida pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b).*fn1 Having carefully considered the pertinent filings, the record and the applicable law, the Defendant, Metro-Dade Fire Fighters, Local 1403, IAFF's ("Local 1403") Motion for Bill of Costs (DE # 134, 6/7/11) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part and the Defendant, Local 1403 Metro-Dade Fire Fighters, IAFF's Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs (DE # 142, 7/5/11) is DENIED as more fully discussed below.

BACKGROUND AND FACTS

This case arose under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), § 760.02, Fla. Stat. (2010).

On October 27, 2009, the plaintiff filed a complaint against Miami-Dade County and Local 1403 alleging discrimination based on a perceived disability or handicap under the ADA and the FRCA. On May 5, 2011, this Court entered an Order granting summary judgment in favor of both Miami-Dade County and Local 1403. On June 7, 2011, Local 1403, filed a Motion for Bill of Costs (DE # 134, 6/7/11).*fn2 On June 23, 2011, the plaintiff filed a response to the Motion for Bill of Costs (DE 3 138, 6/23/11). On July 5, 2011, Local 1403 filed a Motion for Fees and Costs (DE # 142, 7/5/11). The plaintiff filed a response on August 31, 2011, (DE # 154, 8/31/11) and Local 1403 filed a reply on September 14, 2011, (DE # 159, 9/14/11).

The defendant argues in its Motion that attorneys' fees, should be assessed against the plaintiff because the plaintiff's case was frivolous. The plaintiff's response argues that his claims were meritorious and points out to the Court that Local 1403 did not move to dismiss, for judgment on the pleadings, or for an early summary judgment in this matter. See Pl.'s Resp.(DE # 154 at 3, 8/31/11).

ANALYSIS

As discussed below, the undersigned finds that fees should be denied, and Local 1403 should only be awarded the costs permitted by 28 U.S.C. § 1920.

I. Entitlement to Fees, Expenses & Costs Under 42 USC § 12205

Fees, expenses and costs are permitted pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 12205 (hereinafter "§ 12205"), which provides in pertinent part:

In any action or administrative proceeding commenced pursuant to this chapter, the court or agency, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs . . ..

Congress conferred upon federal courts broad discretion in determining when an award of fees is appropriate. See Tufaro v. Willie, 756 F. Supp. 556, 560 (S.D. Fla. 1991) (citing Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980); Christiansburg Garment Co. v. E.E.O.C., 434 U.S. 412, 421-22 (1978)).

Although the language of § 12205 does not differentiate between a prevailing plaintiff and defendant, "the courts have determined that the standard for deciding a defendant's motion for attorney's fees is different from that used when a plaintiff has made the motion." Tufaro, 756 F. Supp. at 560. The United States Supreme Court held that an award of fees to a defendant should not be routinely awarded simply because the defendant has succeeded, but only awarded where the action is found to be unreasonable, frivolous or groundless or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so. See Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422. To assess attorneys' fees against the plaintiff without a finding that the plaintiff's claims were frivolous, unreasonable or groundless would undercut clear Congressional intent to promote vigorous enforcement of these statutes. Id.

The Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed the Christiansburg standard and held that a district court may in its discretion award attorneys' fees to a prevailing defendant only upon a finding that the plaintiff's lawsuit was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation. See Sullivan v. Sch. Bd. of Pinellas County, 773 F.2d 1182, 1188 (11th Cir. 1985). Further, in deciding whether a suit is frivolous, "'a district court must focus on the question whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful.'" Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189 (quoting Jones v. Texas Tech University, 656 F.2d 1137, 1145 (5th Cir. 1981)). Cases in which findings of "frivolity" have been sustained have typically been decided in the defendant's favor on a motion for summary judgment or a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) motion for involuntary dismissal because the plaintiffs did not introduce any evidence in support of their claims. Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189 (citing Beard v. Annis, 730 F.2d 741 (11th Cir. 1984); Jones v. Dealers Tractors & Equip. Co., 634 F.2d 180 (5th Cir. 1981); Church of Scientology of California v. Casares, 638 F.2d 1272 (5th Cir. 1981); Harris v. Plastics Mfg. Co., 617 F.2d 438 (5th Cir. 1980)). In contrast, in cases where the plaintiffs do introduce evidence sufficient to support their claims, findings of frivolity typically do not stand. Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189 (citing White v. South Park Indep. Sch. Dist., 693 F.2d 1163 (5th Cir. 1982); Plemer v. Parsons-Gilbane, 713 F.2d 1127 (5th Cir. 1983)).

The Eleventh Circuit in Sullivan outlined three factors to consider when determining whether a claim is frivolous so as to warrant an award of attorneys' fees to a defendant. Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189 (citing E.E.O.C. v. Kimbrough Invest. Co., 703 F.2d 98, 103 (5th Cir. 1983); Jones, 656 F.2d at 1146). First, the court should consider whether the plaintiff has established a prima facie case. Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189. The court must then determine whether the defendant offered to settle, and whether the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or held a full-blown trial on the merits. Id. However, the Sullivan Court cautioned that these factors are only general guidelines and that determinations regarding frivolity are to be made on a case by case basis. Id. Furthermore, in determining frivolity, the Court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the ...


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