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Michigan State A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Johnson

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

May 31, 2019

MICHIGAN STATE A. PHILIP RANDOLPH INSTITUTE, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
v.
RUTH A. JOHNSON, Defendant.

          Mona K. Majzoub, United States Magistrate Judge.

          OPINIONAND ORDER GRANTINGPLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEESANDCOSTS [#169]INPART

          Gershwin A. Drain, United States District Court Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Present before the Court is Plaintiffs Michigan State A. Philip Randolph Institute, Mary Lansdown, Erin Comartin, Dion Williams, and Common Cause's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs. Dkt. No. 169. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will GRANT the Motion IN PART [#169] and award attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $530, 874.29.

         II. Background

         Plaintiffs initiated this suit against Michigan Secretary of State Ruth A. Johnson (“Defendant”) on May 24, 2016, challenging the constitutionality of Public Act 268, which eliminated straight-ticket voting in Michigan. Dkt. No. 1. On July 22, 2016, the Court granted Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, thereby enjoining the statute from going into effect. Dkt. No. 25. As a result, straight-ticket voting remained available for both the November 2016 General Election and the November 2017 Odd-Year Election. See Dkt. No. 172, p. 5 (Pg. ID 4969).

         On August 1, 2018, after conducting a bench trial, the Court entered a Judgment in favor of Plaintiffs and granted their request for a permanent injunction. Dkt. No. 151; Dkt. No. 152. Defendant appealed, and on September 5, 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of that injunction. Dkt. No. 161. Consequently, Public Act 268 was operative for the November 2018 General Election. Dkt. No. 172, p. 6 (Pg. ID 4970).

         During the 2018 General Election, Michigan voters passed Proposal 18-3, which amended the Michigan Constitution to preserve straight-ticket voting. Id. Because of the amendment, this case became moot on appeal, and the Sixth Circuit entered an order directing the Court to vacate judgment and dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint on remand. Dkt. No. 163.

         Now, Plaintiffs bring the instant Motion, arguing they are entitled to $1, 149, 041.25 in attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and 52 U.S.C. § 10310(e) because they obtained a favorable judgment in the district court that was never reversed on the merits. Dkt. No. 169.

         III. Discussion

         A. Plaintiffs are the Prevailing Party with Respect to the Court's Order Granting a Preliminary Injunction.

         “Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), the ‘prevailing party' in an action to enforce civil rights under § 1983 may recover ‘a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs' of litigation.” Green Party of Tenn. v. Hargett, 767 F.3d 533, 552 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Hescott v. City of Saginaw, 757 F.3d 518, 2014 WL 2959289, at *3 (6th Cir. 2014)). “To be considered a prevailing party, a litigant must have ‘receive[d] at least some relief on the merits of his claim' amounting to a ‘court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant.'” Id. (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603-04 (2001)). “Absent a direct benefit, the plaintiff achieves only a symbolic victory, which § 1988(b) does not compensate.” McQueary v. Conway, 614 F.3d 591, 598 (6th Cir. 2010).

         In certain contexts, the attainment of a preliminary injunction can serve as a basis for prevailing party status. See McQueary, 614 F.3d at 600. Courts are thus instructed to exercise their discretion and undertake a case-specific factual inquiry. Id. at 604. Generally, “there is only prevailing party status if the [preliminary] injunction represents an unambiguous indication of probable success on the merits, and not merely a maintenance of the status quo ordered because the balance of the equities greatly favors the plaintiff.” Dubuc v. Green Oak Twp., 312 F.3d 736, 753 (6th Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted). Additionally, where a claimant wins a preliminary injunction, and nothing more, a request for attorney's fees should typically be denied. See McQueary, 614 F.3d at 604; see also Sole v. Wyner, 551 U.S. 74, 86 (2007) (“We decide only that a plaintiff who gains a preliminary injunction does not qualify for an award of counsel fees under § 1988(b) if the merits of the case are ultimately decided against her.”).

         Here, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys' fees in connection with their request for a preliminary injunction. The Court granted Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction on July 22, 2016. Dkt. No. 25. As a result, Defendant was precluded from enforcing Public Act 268 during two election cycles: the November 2016 General Election and the November 2017 Odd-Year Election. Furthermore, the preliminary injunction was predicated on the likelihood that Plaintiffs would succeed on the merits of their claims, and not just on maintaining the status quo. See id.; Dubuc, 312 F.3d at 753.

         Following the preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs went on to win on the merits of their claims, obtaining both a favorable Judgment and an Order permanently enjoining Public Act 268. See Dkt. No. 151; Dkt. No. 152. Although the Sixth Circuit stayed the permanent injunction, and later dismissed the case on appeal as moot, this Court's decision was never reversed on the merits. Hence, this is not a case where Plaintiffs obtained a preliminary injunction, only to receive an unfavorable outcome in the end. Cf. Sole, 551 U.S. at 83 (“Prevailing party status, we hold, does not attend achievement of a preliminary injunction that is reversed, dissolved, or otherwise undone by the final decision in the same case.”). Nor is this a case where Plaintiffs obtained a preliminary injunction, and nothing more. See McQueary, 614 F.3d at 604. Accordingly, Plaintiffs are the prevailing party with respect to the Court's Order granting a preliminary injunction.

         B. Plaintiffs are not the Prevailing Party with Respect to the Court's Order Granting a Permanent Injunction.

         While Plaintiffs were the prevailing party with respect to the Court's Order granting a preliminary injunction, the same cannot be said regarding the Order granting a permanent injunction.

         Again, to achieve prevailing party status, a litigant must receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim. Hargett, 767 F.3d at 552. “If the court of appeals reverses on the merits of the underlying claims, the formerly prevailing party no longer prevails and is no longer entitled to fees.” Id. But “if the reversal is not on the merits, it does not necessarily upset the prevailing party's status.” Id. “When plaintiffs clearly succeeded in obtaining the relief sought before the district court and an intervening event rendered the case moot on appeal, plaintiffs are still prevailing parties for the purposes of attorney's fees for the district court litigation.” Id. (quoting Diffenderfer v. Gomez-Colon, 587 F.3d 445, 454 (1st Cir. 2009)).

         Here, it is undisputed that Plaintiffs obtained the relief that they sought from this Court. Indeed, the Court entered a Judgment in their favor and granted their request to permanently enjoin Public Act 268. The Sixth Circuit did not reverse this decision on the merits; rather, an intervening event, the passage of Proposal 18-3, rendered the case moot on appeal. Under these facts, Plaintiffs would be considered the prevailing party for purposes of attorneys' fees. See id.

         Defendant concedes that, in theory, this is the correct conclusion. See Dkt. No. 172, p. 12 (Pg. ID 4976) (“Defendants [sic] agree, generally, that a dismissal on mootness grounds based on a statutory change (or in this case constitutional amendment) and a vacatur of the district court order do not, in and of themselves, negate a party's status as a prevailing party.”). However, Defendant contends that the Sixth Circuit's stay of the permanent injunction alters the prevailing party analysis because the stay prevented any court-ordered change in the parties' legal relationship from materializing. See Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992) (“[A] plaintiff ‘prevails' when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.”). Although it does not appear that the Sixth Circuit has ever addressed this issue, Defendant presents two out-of-circuit cases in support.

         Defendant first cites to UFO Chuting of Hawaii, Inc. v. Smith, where the Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs were not the prevailing party under § 1988 despite having initially obtained a final judgment and a permanent injunction. 508 F.3d 1189, 1198 (9th Cir. 2007). In that case, plaintiffs filed suit challenging whether a Hawaii statute prohibiting parasailing activity from December 15 to May 15 of each year was pre-empted by federal law. Id. at 1191. The district court held that it was, and permanently enjoined the statute. Id.

         Subsequently, the President signed into law a bill permitting Hawaii to enforce that very statute. Id. at 1192. Immediately after, the state filed a motion to stay the permanent injunction and vacate the judgment. Id. On December 13 of that year, two days before the permanent injunction was set to go into effect, the district court granted both motions and entered summary judgment in favor of the state. Id. The district court also denied plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees, reasoning that plaintiffs were not the prevailing party because the permanent injunction was never implemented, and therefore, plaintiffs never received its benefit. Id. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision on the same grounds. Id. at 1198 ...


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