United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
E.L., a minor, by LA'SHIEKA WHITE, the Mother, legal guardian, and next friend of E.L., Plaintiff
VOLUNTARY INTERDISTRICT CHOICE CORPORATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
L. WHITE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for
Attorneys' Fees (ECF No. 31). This matter is fully
briefed and ready for disposition
behalf of E.L., her minor son, La'Shieka White filed this
federal civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §§1981
and 1983 against sued the Defendant Voluntary Interdistrict
Choice Corporation ("VICC"). E.L., an
African-American student, attended Gateway Science Academy
("Gateway"), a charter school in the City of St.
Louis when E.L.'s family resided in St. Louis. During
third grade, E.L's family moved to St. Louis County, in
the Pattonville School District. E.L.'s mother asked
Gateway to enroll him in fourth grade even though they no
longer lived in the city limits. Gateway declined to enroll
E.L., citing its policy that African-American students who
live outside the city are not eligible for enrollment. In his
lawsuit, E.L. alleged that the county-to-city ban on
African-American student transfers violated his right to
equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment
to the United States Constitution.
filing suit, E.L. sought a preliminary injunction, asking
this Court to allow him to continue attending Gateway. VICC
moved this Court to dismiss the case. After briefing on both
motions, the Court dismissed the lawsuit and denied
E.L.'s motion for preliminary injunction as moot. After
the Court dismissed the case, VICC moved for attorneys'
fees under 42 U.S.C. §1988. On July 27, 2017, the Eighth
Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the
District Court, holding that E.L. lacked standing to bring
his claim against VICC because his alleged injury was not
"fairly traceable" to VICC. (ECF No. 37 at 7). On
August 23, 2017, the Eighth Circuit issued its mandate.
Standard for Attorneys' Fees
1988 authorizes awards of reasonable attorneys' fees to a
"prevailing party." 42 U.S.C. § 1988; Dorr
v. Weber, 741 F.Supp.2d 1022, 1028 (N.D. Iowa 2010).
Thus, the initial question regarding the propriety of
awarding attorneys' fees in a case such as this is
whether the plaintiff can be characterized as a
"prevailing party." Casey v. City of Cabool,
Mo., 12 F.3d 799, 804 (8th Cir. 1993). In
Hensley, the Supreme Court stated that a party is a
"prevailing party" when he or she
'"succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation
which achieves some of the benefit the part[y] sought in
bringing suit."' Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461
U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe,
581 F.2d275, 278-79 (1st Cir. 1978)); Farrar v.
Hobby 506U.S. 103, 111, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494
(1992) (a prevailing party is one who obtains "at least
some relief on the merits of his claim");
Casey, 12 F.3d at 804 (quoting Farrar ).
argues that it should be awarded attorneys' fees because
it was the prevailing party. VICC argues that it is entitled
to recover attorneys' fees because E.L. continued his
case even after it became clear that his claims were
"frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation ...
[and] not brought in subjective bad faith." Davidson
v. Allis-Chalmers Corp., 567 F.Supp. 1532, 1537 (W.D.
Mo. 1983). VICC notes that the core of E.L.'s response to
VICC's motion to dismiss was a group of twenty inapposite
cases, primarily involving employment discrimination claims
that were never proven in court. (ECF No. 32 at 6). Further,
VICC states that E.L. continued to pursue his claim against
VICC even after VICC confronted E.L. with the
"overwhelming factual and legal authority demonstrating
that VICC deals only with magnet schools in the City and has
nothing to do with charter schools, that VICC is accordingly
not a proper defendant and that plaintiff lacks standing to
sue VICC, she continued to press her claim against VICC
rather than seek redress of her alleged injury from the
charter school that she wanted her son to attend,
Gateway." (ECF No. 32 at 9). VICC asserts that once E.L.
was informed of the deficiencies in his Complaint by
VICC's June 2, 2016 filings, E.L. "was
unquestionably on notice of the groundless and frivolous
nature of the lawsuit, yet [he] continued to pursue it,
improperly forcing VICC to incur additional attorneys'
fees." (ECF No. 32 at 11). Therefore, VICC contends it
should be awarded its reasonably expended attorneys' fees
from June 2, 2016 forward. (ECF No. 32 at 11). Finally, VICC
notes that it, like Plaintiffs counsel, is a not-for-profit
organization and funds used for litigation take away
resources from its students. (ECF No. 36 at 10). VICC seeks
$15, 416.20 for the preparation of its reply brief in support
of its motion to dismiss, plus approximately $7, 500 for
preparation of its motion for its Motion for Attorneys'
Fees, for a total of $22, 916.20.
response, E.L. argues that this case does not fit within the
"very narrow circumstances" in which a prevailing
defendant is entitled to attorneys' fees. (ECF No. 35
(citing Marquart v. Lodge 837, Int'l Ass'n of
Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 26 F.3d 842, 848
(8th Cir. 1994) (citing Eichman v. Linden & Sons,
Inc., 752 F.2d 1246, 1248 (7th Cir. 1985)). E.L. claims
that the Court cannot engage in "post hoc
reasoning" to conclude that E.L. did not have a valid
claim simply because this Court ultimately dismissed his
action. (ECF No. 35 at 1 (citing Fisher v. Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc., 619 F.3d 811, 819 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting
Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412,
421-22 (1978); ECF No. 35 at 6-7). E.L. argues that VICC is
not entitled to attorneys' fees because his claims were
not "frivolous, unreasonable, or without
foundation." (ECF No. 35 at 3 (citing James v. City
of Boise, Idaho, 136 S.Ct. 685, 686 (2016)). E.L. claims
that his theory for standing was that "VICC's
discrimination manifests itself by preventing E.L. from
enrolling in charter schools in the City of St.
Louis-including Gateway-and manifests itself by preventing
E.L. from enrolling in magnet schools in the City of St.
Louis." (ECF No. 35 at 9). E.L. states that he
"reasonably believed that both manifestations of
VICC's discrimination are present" in his Complaint.
(ECF No. 35 at 9). Finally, E.L. asserts that awarding fees
to VICC would discourage civil rights lawsuits on behalf of
the disadvantaged or indigent. (ECF No. 35 at 11-12). E.L.
states that imposing attorneys' fee judgments against an
unsuccessful plaintiff represented by a public interest
organization would exercise a powerful disincentive against
litigation by such entities. (ECF No. 35 at 12).
Court holds that VICC is not entitled to attorneys' fees
in this case. The Court finds that E.L. provided a plausible
and defensible claim for relief against VICC. Although VICC
was not the proper defendant in this action, E.L. presented a
persuasive argument that VICC could provide relief based upon
its allegedly discriminatory policy and its potential effect
on E.L.'s ability to enroll in Gateway and other charter
schools. Ultimately, the Court held that E.L.'s arguments
were not persuasive. However, the Court does not perform such
a post hoc determination of whether a claim is meritorious.
Moreover, the Court finds that an adverse determination would
discourage such public interest lawsuits, which may be based
upon novel or untested theories of liability. Therefore, the
Court denies VICC's Motion for Attorneys' Fees.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant's
Motion for Attorneys' ...