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Autor v. Blank

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 20, 2016

ERIK O. AUTOR, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
REBECCA BLANK, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

AMY BERMAN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

In this case, plaintiffs challenged a presidential policy that barred federally registered lobbyists from serving on certain advisory committees. After the Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss the case for failure to state First Amendment and equal protection claims, plaintiffs appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the decision, holding that plaintiffs had pled viable claims. Autor v. Pritzker, 740 F.3d 176, 178 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The Court of Appeals remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 184. Following remand, but before any further proceedings took place, the parties notified the Court that they intended to settle the matter. They filed a stipulation of dismissal on September 3, 2014. Stipulation of Dismissal [Dkt. # 28].

Shortly thereafter, plaintiffs filed a motion with the Court for attorneys’ fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Pls.’ Mot. for Attys’ Fees & Costs [Dkt. # 31]. Plaintiffs’ motion was referred to a Magistrate Judge for decision on February 23, 2015, and the parties fully briefed the issue.[1] On September 14, 2015, the Magistrate Judge denied plaintiffs’ motion. Autor v. Blank, 2015 WL 5331940, Case No. 1:11-cv-01593 (ABJ/GMH) (D.D.C. Sept. 14, 2015).

Plaintiffs have filed objections to the Magistrate Judge’s order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 and Local Civil Rule 72.2. Upon consideration of the parties’ arguments and the record in this case, [2] the Court will uphold the Magistrate Judge’s decision because he correctly stated and applied the law: although plaintiffs ultimately achieved their desired outcome, they were not “a prevailing party” for purposes of the Equal Access to Justice Act.

While plaintiffs were successful in overturning the initial dismissal of their action, and the Court of Appeals clearly held that they had succeeded in stating a claim, the Magistrate Judge correctly determined that there was no judicial decision that changed the legal relationship between the parties, and that plaintiffs were not the “prevailing parties” as that term has been defined in the precedents binding upon this Court. The case was not resolved in plaintiffs’ favor - it was simply remanded for further proceedings - and the D.C. Circuit’s opinion did not ensure that a substantive victory would obviously follow. Plaintiffs’ claim that the appellate court essentially dictated the outcome on remand and specifically voiced its agreement with their position is a mischaracterization of the Circuit’s opinion, and it does not supply grounds for disturbing the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A court may refer nondispositive matters, including motions for attorneys fees, to a magistrate judge for resolution pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a) and Local Rule 72.2. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); LCvR 72.2(a). Upon referral, the magistrate judge “must promptly conduct the required proceedings and, when appropriate, issue a written order stating the decision.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); see also LCvR 72.2(a). Once the magistrate judge issues his or her decision, any party may file written objections to that decision “within 14 days after being served with the order of the magistrate judge.” LCvR 72.2(b); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). The district court shall review timely objections and “may modify or set aside any portion of a magistrate judge’s order . . . found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” LCvR 72.2(c); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). “Under that deferential standard, a magistrate judge’s factual findings or discretionary decisions must be affirmed unless, ‘although there is evidence to support [them], the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.’” Am. Ctr. for Civil Justice v. Ambush, 794 F.Supp.2d 123, 129 (D.D.C. 2011), quoting Fed. Sav. & Loan Ins. Corp. v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 130 F.R.D. 507, 508 (D.D.C. 1990).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiffs claim they are entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act because they were a “prevailing party” in the underlying case within the meaning of the statute. Pls.’ Objs. at 17-18.

The Equal Access to Justice Act provides that:

[e]xcept as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses, . . . incurred by that party in any civil action . . . brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (2012).

To qualify as a prevailing party under the Act, a party must point to: (1) a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the parties; (2) a judgment in favor of the party seeking attorneys’ fees; and (3) a judicial pronouncement accompanied by judicial relief. Thomas v. Nat’l Sci. Found., 330 F.3d 486, 492-93 (D.C. Cir. 2003), citing Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001). A party is considered to be a prevailing party when it obtains an enforceable judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree. Initiative & Referendum Inst. v. U.S. Postal Serv., 794 F.3d 21, 24 (D.C. Cir. 2015). More is required “than just a ‘favorable statement of the law in an otherwise unfavorable opinion.’” Waterman S.S. Corp. v. Maritime Subsidy Bd., 901 F.2d 1119, 1122 (D.C. Cir. 1990), quoting Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 762 (1987). In a case that has been remanded for further proceedings, a party may be deemed a prevailing party if the “terms of a remand [are] such that a substantive victory will obviously follow, ” Waterman, 901 F.2d at 1123, or if the party “succeeded on ‘any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.’” Id. at 1121, quoting Tex. State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791 (1989).

Applying this standard, the Magistrate Judge held that plaintiffs do not qualify as prevailing parties because none of the three elements of the test were satisfied. First, “neither the District Court nor the D.C. Circuit mandated a change in the legal relationship of the parties.” Autor, 2015 WL 5331940, at *5. The Magistrate Judge observed that this Court “only denied the government’s jurisdictional challenge, ” and that the Court of Appeals remanded the case for this Court to rule on the merits in the first instance. Id. (“[P]laintiffs merely avoided the dismissal of their claims. . . . [T]hey regained the status ...


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