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First Circuit Awards Defendant Costs Under FRCP 68; Plaintiff Rejected $10,000 Offer, Was Awarded $5,500

First Circuit Awards Defendant Costs Under FRCP 68; Plaintiff Rejected ?$10,000 Offer, Was Awarded $5,500

by Mark Wilson

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has awarded a defendant costs under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 68, after a prisoner rejected a joint settlement offer of $10,000 and was subsequently awarded only $5,500 at trial.

On July 14, 2002, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire jail guard Cesar Rivas was supervising detainees who were out of their cells for recreation when he “radioed for assistance, falsely reporting that he was in jeopardy of being taken hostage.” Rivas accused Antonio King and eight other prisoners of threatening him, and they were placed in segregation.

On July 19, 2002, King received disciplinary punishment of 30 days in segregation based on Rivas’ false report. He was then confined until December 23, 2002 on administrative segregation status.

“While in the hole, King was allowed only a mattress, sheet, pillow, and prison uniform; everything else was forbidden (including personal hygiene products and toilet paper). King had to ask guards to turn on the water to flush the toilet, drink, or wash his hands – requests not always satisfied promptly. He was allowed out of his cell only once every three days, shackled, in order to shower and was subject to frequent strip searches. These conditions remained throughout his time in segregation.” Yet, the court noted, “this description does not fully capture the grim and unsanitary circumstances of the confinement,” which are described in more detail in Surprenant v. Rivas, 424 F.3d 5, 10-11 (1st Cir. 2005) [PLN, July 2007, p.28].

King sued seven jail employees in federal court, alleging he had been falsely accused of threatening Rivas and was mistreated in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process clause. Several other prisoners who had been accused by Rivas also brought suit. One was awarded $20,503 in damages, $29,754.50 in attorney’s fees and $3,897.72 in costs following a jury trial. See: Surprenant v. Rivas, 2004 DNH 123 (D.N.H. 2004) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.17], aff’d 424 F.3d 5 (1st Cir. 2005).

Another jury awarded two prisoners $150,000 in damages, plus $33,952.50 in attorney’s fees and $1,247.32 in costs. See: Paladin v. Rivas, 2007 DNH 122 (D.N.H. 2007), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73416 [PLN, July 2007, p.28]. Other prisoners settled before trial, while two could not be located.

After King filed suit, the “defendants, jointly represented, invoked Rule 68 and made an offer on January 24, 2005 to settle with King for a single payment of $10,000, together with attorney’s fees and costs as determined by the court.” The offer expired under FRCP 68 when King failed to respond within ten days.

On January 6, 2006, King voluntarily dismissed claims against four defendants and proceeded to trial. A jury found only Rivas liable, and awarded King $1 in nominal damages and $500 in punitive damages. “On King’s motion, the trial judge ordered a new trial on compensatory damages ... because the jury had necessarily found that Rivas had falsely accused King and led to his wrongful punishment.” Therefore, “the $1 nominal damage award was contrary to the substantial weight of the evidence.” A second jury awarded King $5,000 in compensatory damages, resulting in a total award of $5,500.

King moved for an award of attorney’s fees under 42 USC § 1988, but Rivas objected, “arguing that the plaintiff’s $5,500 judgment was less than the $10,000 offer and that Rule 68 therefore shifted costs to King; accordingly, Rivas sought to recover his attorney’s fees and costs.” The district court found “that Rule 68 did not apply because the $10,000 offer had not been apportioned among the defendants.” The court therefore awarded King attorney’s fees and costs against Rivas. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.30].

Noting that “the circuit courts have been divided about variations on the central problem” – i.e., whether an offer must be apportioned among the defendants for FRCP 68 to apply – the First Circuit concluded that “an allocation requirement makes no sense.”

The appellate court said it agreed with the decisions in Harbor Motors Co., Inc. v. Arnell Chevrolet-Geo, Inc., 265 F.3d 638 (7th Cir. 2001) and Johnston v. Penrod Drilling Co., 803 F.2d 867 (5th Cir. 1986), and also aligned itself “with the Third Circuit, save that we do not see why it matters whether liability was joint or several or how the defendants were related: a package offer is simply to be taken on its own terms and compared with the total recovery package.”

Finding that FRCP 68 applied, the First Circuit vacated the district court’s order denying Rivas relief. The case was remanded with instructions that “Rivas is entitled under Rule 68 to costs incurred after the Rule 68 offer but no attorney’s fees. King, as the prevailing plaintiff, is presumptively entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs accrued prior to the Rule 68 offer.” See: King v. Rivas, 555 F.3d 14 (1st Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

King v. Rivas