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Evans v. St. Lucie County School District

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

August 22, 2019

DARIEN X. EVANS, Plaintiff,



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant St. Lucie County School District's Motion for Attorney's Fees As Prevailing Party (the “Motion”). Mot., DE 70; see also Financial Affidavit, DE 67. Plaintiff has not filed a response to the Motion, nor has he responded to the Magistrate's Order to Show Cause to Respond to the Motion, which required a written response by June 20, 2019. See DE 89; DE 90.

         Through its Motion, Defendant seeks attorney's fees as the prevailing party in this Title VII action in which Plaintiff sought damages for discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation based on his race and sexual orientation. See Mot., DE 70; Compl., DE 1. In its Motion, Defendant argues that “defendant is entitled to attorneys fees as a prevailing party and/or due to the fact that the Plaintiff's claims in this case were groundless, as it was clear at all times…that termination of the Plaintiff was appropriate for the reasons set forth in the Defendants' Motion for Final Summary Judgment.” Id. ¶ 4.

         The facts of this case were fully set forth in the Court's Order Granting Summary Judgment. See Order, DE 65, 1-8.

         I. Standard for Awarding Attorney's Fees

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizes the award of attorney's fees in certain circumstances. The statute provides that “In any action or proceeding under this subchapter the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, … a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). “When a defendant is the prevailing party on a civil rights claim, the Court has held, district courts may award attorney's fees if the plaintiff's ‘claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless,' or if ‘the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.'” CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. E.E.O.C., 136 S.Ct. 1642, 1646 (2016) (citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421-422 (1978)). This is a “stringent” standard. Bonner v. Mobile Energy Services Co., LLC, 246 F.3d 1303, 1304 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5 (1980)).

[I]t is important that a district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation. This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success. No. matter how honest one's belief that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter how meritorious one's claim may appear at the outset, the course of litigation is rarely predictable. Decisive facts may not emerge until discovery or trial. The law may change or clarify in the midst of litigation. Even when the law or the facts appear questionable or unfavorable at the outset, a party may have an entirely reasonable ground for bringing suit.

Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 421-22. See also Richardson v. Bay Dist. Sch., 560 Fed.Appx. 928, 929-30 (11th Cir. 2014) (“This ‘standard is so stringent that the plaintiff's action must be meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation in order for an award of fees to be justified.'”) (quoting Busby v. City of Orlando, 931 F.2d 764, 787 (11th Cir. 1991)).

         In the Eleventh Circuit, “[i]n deciding whether an action is so lacking in merit as to justify awarding attorney's fees to the prevailing defendant, the trial court is to consider the denominated Sullivan factors, i.e., whether (1) the plaintiff established a prima facie case; (2) the defendant offered to settle; and (3) the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial.” Bonner, 246 F.3d at 1304. See also Sullivan v. School Bd. of Pinellas Cty., 773 F.2d 1182, 1189 (11th Cir. 1985). “These factors, however, are only general guidelines, and frivolity determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis.” Lawver v. Hillcrest Hospice, Inc., 300 Fed.Appx. 768, 773-74 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing Quintana v. Jenne, 414 F.3d 1306, 1310 (11th Cir. 2005)).

         “In determining whether a claim is frivolous, [the Court] ‘view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-prevailing plaintiff.” Barnes v. Zaccari, 592 Fed.Appx. 859, 872 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cordoba v. Gillard's Inc., 419 F.3d 1169, 1179 (11th Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original).

         II. Discussion

         Here, Plaintiff's Complaint alleged six counts of violations of Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act. See Compl., DE 1. Summary judgment was granted in Defendant's favor on all counts. Order, DE 65. In light of the Court's Order Granting Summary Judgment, the Court agrees that Defendant was the prevailing party in this action. See Id. Accordingly, the Court proceeds to analyze the Sullivan factors. The Court analyzes the factors out of order, because the first factor requires individual analysis of the merits of each count of the Complaint.

         A. The Sullivan Factors

         The second factor - an offer of settlement by Defendant - is neutral, because there is no explicit offer of settlement apparent in the record.[1]Cf. Quintana v. Jenne, 414 F.3d 1306, 1310 (11th Cir. 2005) (“In the absence of evidence of an offer of a substantial amount in settlement, this factor does not support either party.”). The third factor - dismissal prior to trial - weighs in Defendant's favor in that the case was resolved on summary judgment before trial. See Sullivan, 773 F.2d at 1189 (noting ...

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