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University Legal Services Protection and Advocacy, Inc. v. Knisley

December 11, 2006

UNIVERSITY LEGAL SERVICES PROTECTION AND ADVOCACY, INC. PLAINTIFF,
v.
MARTHA B. KNISLEY, DIRECTOR DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently before the Court is the Plaintiff's Response to Order to Show Cause and Renewed Motion for Attorneys' Fees*fn1 ("Pl.'s Renewed Mot.") [D.E. #31].*fn2 For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion will be granted and the Court therefore awards the plaintiff attorneys' fees in the amount of $47,867.

I. Background

University Legal Services Protection and Advocacy, Inc. ("ULS"), brought this action against John Stupak, in his capacity as Acting Director of Northwestern Human Services ("Northwestern"), and Ella Thomas,*fn3 in her capacity as Interim Director of the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health ("DMH").*fn4 Pl.'s Mot. at 1. ULS sought injunctive and declaratory relief with the objective of gaining access to records it had requested from the defendants under the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act of 1986 ("PAIMI Act"), 42 U.S.C. §10801-10827 (2000). Pl's Mot. at 1-2. As a result of a "Stipulation" entered into by ULS and the DMH, this Court, on July 15, 2004, appointed ULS as a limited client representative and ordered the DMH to provide ULS with a list of names and contact information of those individuals over whom Northwestern had responsibility for their funds. See Stipulation at 2-4. The plaintiff then filed its motion requesting $47,867*fn5 in attorneys' fees as the prevailing party in this litigation. The defendant opposed the motion on the basis that the plaintiff was not a prevailing party, arguing that there has not been a material change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and defendant. Def. Opp'n at 3.

Concerned about whether a "substantial part [of this litigation] could have been avoided if the plaintiff[] had sought client representative status under [the District of Columbia Mental Health Information Act ("DCMHI")], rather than filing its lawsuit in this Court," this Court denied the plaintiff's original motion for attorney's fees without prejudice with an instruction to the plaintiff to provide "an explanation as to why it failed to seek designation as 'client representatives' of those individuals for whom Northwest Human Services provided services in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia pursuant to D.C. Code § 7-1201.01(3)." See Order dated March 22, 2006. In response, the plaintiff contends that "[t]he fact that [it] agreed to a settlement that incorporated state law does not in anyway [sic] mean that [it] does not also have the same right of access under federal law or should have to be required to first follow a state law procedure in this or any future case." Pl.'s Renewed Mem. at 2. Moreover, the plaintiff argues that it was proper to bring the case in this Court because its claim was based on the PAIMI Act, a federal statute, thereby vesting original federal question jurisdiction in this Court. Id. at 2-3. Additionally, the plaintiff argues that being appointed a "client representative" under District of Columbia law was an "anomaly" and done "solely for settlement purposes." Id. at 7.*fn6

Because the plaintiff's original claim was brought under federal law and the plaintiff could not have predicted that it would eventually be settled under a non-federal statute, the plaintiff was reasonable in bringing the action in this Court. Moreover, one of the terms of the Stipulation was that each party, "reserve[d] all claims . . . that they have raised, as well as any others that may be available to them . . . ." Stipulation at 1. Therefore, the plaintiff preserved the right to pursue its federal claim. Accordingly, the Court will not deny or deduct the amount of attorneys' fees requested by the plaintiff because it brought its claim in this Court rather than in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The Court will therefore address whether the plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees, and if so, in what amount.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2)(B) requires that a plaintiff requesting attorney's fees "specify the judgment and the statutes, rule, or other grounds entitling the moving party to the award; and must state the amount or provide a fair estimate of the amount sought." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2)(B). Here, the plaintiff seeks an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2000). Pl's. Mot. at 1. This statue provides that "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 . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). While courts have discretion under the statute whether to award attorneys' fees, the Supreme Court has stated that the statute was designed to ensure "effective access to the judicial process" and that courts should ordinarily award attorneys' fees to a prevailing plaintiff unless circumstances dictate that such an award would be unjust. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983).

In order for this Court to award attorney's fees under the PAIMI Act, the plaintiff must first demonstrate that it is the "prevailing party" within the meaning set forth in 42 U.S.C. §1988. In Hensley, the Supreme Court outlined the requirements that a party must satisfy in order to qualify as a prevailing party. 461 U.S. at 433. A plaintiff is a prevailing party if "[it] succeeded on any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the part[y] sought in bringing suit." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). Success can be achieved through a judgment on the merits or a settlement agreement enforceable pursuant to a court-issued consent decree. See Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dept. of Heath and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 604 (2001) (noting that its precedent "taken together establish that enforceable judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees create the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties necessary to permit an award of attorney's fees.").

III. Analysis

A. Prevailing Party Status

The plaintiff argues that it is the prevailing party because it "succeed[ed] on [a] significant issue in [this] litigation [and] it achieve[d] some benefit [it] sought by bringing suit." Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Attorneys' Fees ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 3 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). On the other hand, the defendant contends that the plaintiff is not a prevailing party because it did not receive any relief on the merits of its claim. Def.'s Opp'n at 3. Specifically, the defendant contends that because "there [was] no relief granted based on the PAIMI Act," the plaintiff is not entitled to attorneys' fees as the prevailing party. Id. Additionally, the defendant argues that "the consent decree did not materially change the legal relationship of the parties." Id. at 5.

1. Whether the Plaintiff Obtained a Judgment on the Merits

The defendant claims that the plaintiff cannot be a prevailing party because it did not acquire a judgment on the merits of its claim. Id. at 3. Specifically, the defendant alleges that the plaintiff only received the information it sought after it agreed that a valid authorization, pursuant to the District of Columbia Mental Health Information Act ("MHIA"), D.C. Code ยง7-1201.01(3), was required before the information it sought could be released to it. Id. The plaintiff concedes that it is not entitled to attorneys' fees based on having attained a judgment on the merits. Pl.'s Reply at 3. Rather, the plaintiff seeks prevailing party status based on the stipulation ...


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