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Beard v. Schneider

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 21, 2018

TONY BEARD, Jr., a legally incapacitated individual, by and through JOHNETTE FORD, his guardian, Plaintiff,


          Honorable Nancy G. Edmunds Judge

         Johnette Ford ("Ford") brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action on behalf of her adult son Tony Dewayne Beard, Jr. ("Beard") claiming police had violated his constitutional rights in the process of arresting him on September 6, 2011, after a fourteen minute car chase. Prior to trial, the Court granted in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment and then presided over the jury trial from December 5, 2017 through December 15, 2017 on the continuing counts. At its conclusion, the jury held that the five remaining defendants ("Defendants") had no liability to Beard. Before the Court now are three Defendants motions.

         Defendants' motion for attorney fees [214] seeks that Plaintiff pay all of Defendants' costs related to the entire suit. Defendants' seek sanctions against Ford for her conduct on the eve of and during the trial in their motion for sanctions [208]. Finally, Defendants' ask the Court to enforce a previously issued Court ordered sanction totaling $18, 455 against Attorney Hawkins [212]. The Court held a hearing on this matter on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. For the reasons stated below, Defendants motion for attorney fees [214] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, Defendants motion for sanctions against Ford is DENIED [208], and Defendants motion for enforcement of sanctions against Attorney Hawkins is GRANTED [212].

         II. Defendants' Motion for Attorney Fees

         1. Legal Standard - Attorney Fees

         42 U.S.C. § 1988, entitles a prevailing party in §§ 1983 civil rights actions to reasonable attorney fees as part of costs, at the discretion of the trial court. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). While a trial court often awards a prevailing plaintiff attorneys' fees, prevailing defendants are held to a different standard. "A prevailing defendant should only recover upon a finding by the district court that 'the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith.' " Wayne v. Village of Sebring, 36 F.3d 517, 530 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978))[1]. See also Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) (stating "[t]he plaintiff's action must be meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation. The fact that plaintiff may ultimately lose his case is not in itself a sufficient justification for the assessment of a fee."); Tarter v. Raybuck, 742 F.2d 977, 985-86 (6th Cir. 1984) (applying Christiansburg standards to a § 1983 case). The Supreme Court further held in Christiansburg that the Court must not use post hoc reasoning or hindsight logic to determine if the initial complaint had 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. . . .the course of litigation is rarely predictable. . . .Even when the law or facts appear questionable or unfavorable at the outset, a party may have an entirely reasonable ground for bringing suit. . . .To take the further step of assessing attorney's fee against plaintiffs simply because they do not finally prevail would substantially add to the risks in most litigation and would undercut the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of the provisions.

Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22. The Sixth Circuit holds "[a]n award of attorney's fee against a losing plaintiff in a civil rights action is an extreme sanction, and must be limited to truly egregious cases of misconduct." Garner v. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, 554 F.3d 624, 635 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Jones v. The Continental Corp., 789 F.2d 1225, 1232 (6th Cir. 1986))

         Courts look to the factual circumstances and a plaintiffs' basis for bringing their particular suit, to determine if the initial claim was frivolous. Smith, 754 F.2d at 183. Within the Sixth Circuit, a plaintiff's belief of an injury, and some evidence to support this belief, is an adequate basis for filing suit. Sprague v. Forystek, No. 05-73977, 2007 WL 2812300, (E.D.Mich. Sept.26, 2007) (Hood, J.) See Smith, 752 F.2d at 182-83. "The Sixth Circuit has also pointed to factors such as defendant's failure to file a motion for dismissal as indicative of the fact that the claim was not groundless from the outset." Sprague, 2007 WL 2812300, *2 (E.D.Mich. Sept.26, 2007) (referencing Riddle v. Egensperger, 266 F.3d 542, 550 (6th Cir.2001)). When a claim is "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, " Defendants can use Rule 12(b)(6) to narrow the claims or dismiss the action "at the onset of the case, rather than engaging in extensive discovery in order to 'obtain' summary judgment." Riddle, 266 F.3d at 551.

         2. Analysis - Attorney Fees

         Defendants seek all attorney fees and costs associated with Defendants' representation in the litigation, including $348, 066.24 in attorney fees and another $61, 526.24 in costs, on the theory each of Plaintiff's allegations was frivolous. (Dkt. 214, at 10-11; PgID 7037-38.) Defendants' motion is an overreach. Portions of Plaintiff's case survived summary judgment and went to trial, which is incongruous with identifying those remaining claims as frivolous. The Sixth Circuit refuses to call even inadequate claims frivolous unless the failing is egregious. See Sprague, 2007 WL 2812300 at *2 (E.D.Mich. Sept.26, 2007). Beard's claims that survived summary judgment, presented genuine issues of fact and sufficiently sound legal theory, that they could not be resolved even with discovery but required a jury as fact finder to resolve. Riddle, 266 F.3d at 552 and Smith, 754 F.2d at 182 (in which the Sixth Circuit opined that belief of injury and some evidence to support it provided adequate basis for filing suit.).

         Several of Plaintiff's other claims that failed at summary judgment also do not meet the Sixth Circuit's standard that the claims be groundless or their failing egregious. See Smith, 654 F.2d at 183 ("[T]he mere fact that allegations prove legally insufficient to require a trial does not, for that reason alone, render a complaint groundless."); see also Hughes, 449 U.S. at 15-16 (1980) ("Allegations that, upon careful examination, prove legally insufficient to require a trial are not, for that reason alone, 'groundless' or 'without foundation' as required by Christiansburg."). Defendants assert that Plaintiff never established evidence against each of the individual defendants named in the complaint. However, the Court must only consider Plaintiff's perspective at the time of filing the complaint. Plaintiff could reasonably have believe that other officers participated in the alleged behavior and only through discovery narrow his allegations to specific officers.

         Similarly, Beard's municipal liability claim against Southfield was not frivolous when originally filed, despite the Court later dismissing it at summary judgment for failing to properly analyze the claim. Municipal liability arises only where "the challenged conduct occurs pursuant to a municipality's 'official policy' such that the municipality's promulgation or adoption of the policy can be said to have 'caused' one of its employees to violate the plaintiff's constitutional rights." D'Ambrosio v. Marino, 747 F.3d 378, 386 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692 (1978)). To succeed on such a claim, a plaintiff must find a clearly established custom or practice of the municipality to fail to properly train its officers. Turner v. City of Taylor, 412 F.3d 629, 639 (6th Cir. 2005). The discovery process is necessary to determine whether such a custom or practice exists. Although Beard provided none of the necessary analysis to support his claim at summary judgment, his original legal theory was not so outlandish, facially unreasonable, or frivolous that he may not have developed evidence in discovery to support it.

         Beard's equal protection claim which asserts Defendants Schneider and Jagielski racially profiled him, in violation of his equal protection rights, is similar, since it too required discovery to determine its viability. Equal protection claims require proof similarly situated individuals of a different race were treated differently. Farm Labor Org. Comm. v. Ohio State Highway Patrol, 308 F.3dd 523, 534 (6th Cir. 2002); Gardenhire v. Schubert, 205 F.3d 303, 318 (6th Cir. 2000). Only through discovery could Beard hope to establish how similarly situated individuals were treated. Although Beard did not manage to put forward such facts, at the time Plaintiff filed his complaint, it was reasonable to believe he would discover facts to support it.

         Finally, Beard's failure to intervene claim also proved legally insufficient only after discovery. A failure to intervene claim requires a plaintiff show that the officers "observed or had reason to know that excessive force would be or was being used" and "had both the opportunity and the means to prevent the harm from occurring." Burgess v. Fischer, 735 F.3d 462, 475 (6th Cir. 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court dismissed this at summary judgment because Plaintiff failed to establish the officers in question had the opportunity to intervene. However, this too required discovery to determine and at the time Plaintiff filed his complaint could reasonably be pursued.

         In hindsight all of Plaintiff's above complaints were doomed, particularly given no excessive force was ever established, however this is just the type of post hoc reasoning or rationalization the Supreme Court cautioned against in Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22. None of the above claims were based on a set of untrue facts, only unknown ones. Plaintiff was arrested and suffered some injuries during that arrest. Only through the course of discovery, litigation, and the final outcome of the trial, do we now know how to describe the substance of that arrest and the extent of his injuries. Defendants' request for attorney fees as pertain to these counts is "post hoc reasoning" and does not deal with what is at issue here, Beard's basis for filing the original claims, not the ultimate outcome of the case. The above claims were not frivolous or egregiously brought and Defendant as prevailing party is not entitled to attorney fees.

         Only two of Plaintiff's claims lacked any reasonable factual or legal basis from the beginning and consequently attorney fees pertaining to them specifically are awarded. The Court quickly dismissed each at summary judgment, although would have preferred they had been handled under a 12(b)(6) motion at the outset. First, Plaintiff's claim for unlawful seizure "misapprehend[ed] when a constitutional seizure occurred." (Dkt. 165, at 13; PgID 6356.) Defendants Schneider and Jagielski did not "seize" Plaintiff until Schneider's PIT maneuver stopped his car. This seizure occurred after Beard had been driving at excessive speeds and, as a jury found, fleeing and eluding the police. By law, and as this Court determined at summary judgment, Beard had no factual basis to support his claim the he experienced an unlawful seizure, since by the time the seizure occurred Beard had clearly broken several laws including eluding the police. Similarly Plaintiff's excessive force claim as pertained to the PIT maneuver and the car chase was also without merit. In Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), the Supreme Court held "[a] police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death." Id. at 386. The Supreme Court's holding in Scott, made Plaintiff's excessive force claim as pertained to the car chase and as originally conceived, legally and factually impossible.

         These two counts are similar to the frivolous claim brought by a plaintiff in Wolfe v. Perry, 412 F.3d 707, 721 (6th Cir. 2005). In Wolfe, the plaintiff filed a Fourth Amendment rights complaint alleging the police illegally search his home. Id. at 721. The plaintiff later admitted that he did not own or reside in the home in question; rather it belonged to his parents something known to him at the time he filed his complaint. Id. at 709. Plaintiff's admission made it clear that his complaint was based on a set of untrue facts, defective from the outset, and his complaint was dismissed at the summary judgment stage. Id. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to award attorney fees to the prevailing defendant in Wolfe because the plaintiff's claims "were frivolous and lacked factual support." Id. at 722. The Sixth Circuit held, only egregious instances where plaintiff's claims were clearly defective at the outset of the case warrant an award of attorney fees to a prevailing defendant.

         In Wolfe the plaintiff knew from the beginning the facts would not and could not prove the necessary elements for his claim. Here too Plaintiff did not, and could not present any evidence to make his claims legally appropriate. In Wolfe, the plaintiff knew that the search occurred at his parents' home and that he had no legal right to privacy in their home. Similarly, here, Beard knew, or should have known, the police had a right to seize him after he led them on a car chase, and that the law gave the police the authority to end dangerous car chases, including using a potentially dangerous move like the PIT maneuver. Plaintiff knew these dispositive facts at the time he instituted his civil rights complaint. The Sixth Circuit held in Wolfe attorney fees were appropriate because from the start, the plaintiff's claims were clearly defective. Here too, the Court finds from the outset, Beard's unlawful seizure claim, and excessive force as pertained to the PIT maneuver, were clearly defective. The Court does not suggest that Beard, who has had a legal guardian since 2001, himself is at fault. However, between his mother Ford, and his counsel, Attorney Hawkins, these two claims should never have been filed.

         3. Award

         Of the 1, 432.7 hours Defendants invested in this case, only a small portion of that time was expended in defense of the two frivolous claims. For example, Defendants filed an eighty-five page brief in support of their motion for partial summary judgment which included forty-six pages of legal analysis. Approximately fourteen of those pages were devoted to the unlawful seizure claim and the excessive force claim as pertained to the PIT maneuver and the car chase. Although Plaintiff filed two frivolous claims against Defendants, the overwhelming majority of the resources that Defendants devoted to defending the case were expended on the non-frivolous claims. Thus, the Court awards Defendant twenty hours of attorney fees. This is based on a reasonable amount of attorney time to research the status of these two claims and a portion of the hours Defendant spent working on the motion for partial summary judgment which resulted in the ...

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