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NAACP v. BELL

April 3, 1978

THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GRIFFIN B. BELL, et al., Defendants


Parker


The opinion of the court was delivered by: PARKER

The plaintiffs in this proceeding have filed a motion for attorneys' fees and costs under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that plaintiffs are entitled to a reasonable award.

 I. Background

 In 1971, Carnell Russ, a black, was fatally shot by a white Arkansas law officer while detained for an alleged speeding violation. The officer was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter charges by a state court jury deliberating less than fifteen minutes. After reviewing the transcript of the manslaughter trial proceedings and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports, the Department of Justice decided not to prosecute anyone under the federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242.

 In February of 1977, Attorney General Griffin Bell issued a memorandum modifying the 1959 non-dual prosecution policy in the civil rights field. He announced that "each and every allegation of a violation of the civil rights laws shall be evaluated on its own merits," irrespective of related state enforcement action.

 Agreeing that this memorandum effectively mooted this action, the parties moved jointly to dismiss. Finding that the Bell memo was indeed "in accord with the policy objectives which underlie this suit," the Court dismissed the case without prejudice.

 Plaintiffs seek an award of $28,700.00 in attorneys' fees and $855.50 in costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides in relevant part that

 
[in] any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, . . . 1985, . . . of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

 Defendants do not contest the validity of applying this act retroactively or to obtain an award from the government. See S.Rep. No. 94-1011, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 4-5 (1976). They do contest plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties under the statutory scheme and the reasonableness of the amounts requested. On balance, the Court finds that plaintiffs have prevailed, since this action was a catalytic factor in the issuance of the memo. Further, the Court finds that their counsel are entitled to an award of $26,912.25.

 II. Plaintiffs Are Prevailing Parties

 To determine whether a party has prevailed in order to collect attorneys' fees under § 1988, the Court must focus on whether that party has accomplished the objectives of his litigation. Parker v. Matthews, 411 F. Supp. 1059, 1064 (D.D.C. 1976), aff'd sub. nom., Parker v. Califano, 182 U.S. App. D.C. 322, 561 F.2d 320 (D.C.Cir. 1977). A party need not win a full trial on the merits to be said to prevail, but the lawsuit must have resulted in or been the catalyst of a victory for the party or the class he represents. Parker v. Califano, supra; Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 433 F.2d 421 (8th Cir. 1970); Fogg v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 346 F. Supp. 645 (D.N.H. 1972).

 The defendants here claim that plaintiffs accomplished none of the objectives of this litigation. The Order of Dismissal neither required the government to undertake a full investigation of the Russ shooting nor provided monetary relief for the Russ family. Because they maintain that non-dual prosecution considerations did not govern in the Russ case, defendants disavow any relationship between the complaint and issuance of the Bell memorandum. Indeed, they deny the existence of any such policy and interpret the memorandum to be a clarification of Department rules, rather than a policy reversal. In specific, Attorney General Bell was merely explaining why the Department brought a criminal prosecution in the Morales case after a state conviction. See discussion infra slip op. at page 4.

 Viewing defendants' arguments to be at best disingenuous, the Court finds that plaintiffs' persistent prosecution of this action was a strong catalytic factor in the issuance of the Bell memorandum. True, plaintiffs did not obtain monetary relief or federal investigation with an eye toward prosecution, the latter presumably due to statute of limitations problems. ...


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