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Where Prisoner Prevailed on One of Four § 1983 Claims, Attorney Fees Reduced by 75%

Where Prisoner Prevailed on One of Four § 1983 Claims, Attorney Fees Reduced by 75%

Where a state prisoner sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in pro per under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 over grooming standards, and prevailed on only one of his four claims, his appointed attorney was only able to recover fees and costs that correlated to his 25% degree of success.

California state prisoner Mango Watts complained that CDCR’s hair-length restriction regulations violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as well as under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

While Watts’ suit was pending, the CDCR amended its regulations (based upon other litigation) to eliminate the challenged grooming restriction. Upon opposing motions for summary judgment, the magistrate therefore found Watts’ claims for damages and permanent injunctive relief were moot. However, the magistrate did order Watts’ prison file expunged as to the rules violation reports he had received.

The magistrate further found that under an eventual settlement, Watts was the “prevailing party” under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and awarded him attorney fees for efforts by his appointed counsel subsequent to the original pro per pleadings. The magistrate then reduced the fee award by 50% to reflect Watts’ partial success in the case.

The district judge considered the defendants’ motion for reconsideration, which argued that in light of the settlement and absence of injunctive relief, Watts was not the “prevailing party” and not entitled to any fees. The court determined that all of Watts’ efforts had been properly grounded in the former illegal grooming policy – even if that claim was now moot. Accordingly, Watts should not be denied his status as “prevailing party.”

However, the district court took a less generous view than the magistrate of the “degree of success” component. Noting that Watts had made four claims but obtained relief on only one (expungement and prohibition of future use of the rules violation reports), he was entitled to only 25% of the total fees sought. Thus, the attorney fee award was reduced to $3,346.50. Watts was represented by Fresno attorneys Carolyn D. Phillips and Catherine Campbell. See: Watts v. Department of Corrections, USDC, E.D. Cal., Case No. 1:03-cv-5635 OWW DLB P (2006).

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Related legal case

Watts v. Department of Corrections

MANGO WATTS, Plaintiff, v. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.

1:03-cv-5365 OWW DLB P


2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45812

June 14, 2007, Decided
June 15, 2007, Filed



This case is before the Court on the Motion for Reconsideration of the Magistrate Judge's ruling awarding attorneys' fees to Plaintiff as a result of a settlement of the case.

Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis, who brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1997e(d)(1) and 1983 alleging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("CDCR") hair length grooming standards violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized [*2] Persons Act ("RLUIPA").

Defendant moved for summary judgment and was granted relief on all grounds except Plaintiff's request for expungement of grooming standards rules violation reports contained in his central file. Plaintiff's First Amendment claim, monetary damage claims under the Equal Protection Clause and the RLUIPA and for permanent injunctive relief were barred or rendered moot. The case settled on the parties' stipulation to the expungement of the Plaintiff's grooming standards rules violations from his central file and agreement the RVRs would not be used in the future against Plaintiff.

The Magistrate Judge found Plaintiff was the prevailing party and entitled to attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1) and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and reduced the claimed fees by 50%. The Defendants acknowledge that the basis for the Magistrate Judge's award of attorneys' fees was that while Plaintiff was not 100% successful on all of his claims, due to counsel's efforts, he did succeed in having his disciplinary record related to grooming standards removed from his central file and reached agreement the RVRs would not be used in the future, after defeating Defendants' motion for summary [*3] judgment on Plaintiff's Equal Protection and RLUIPA claims.


A motion for reconsideration is appropriate only where the District Court (1) is presented with newly discovered evidence; (2) committed clear error or the initial decision was manifestly unjust; (3) if there was an intervening change in controlling law. School Dist. No. 1J, Multnomah County v. ACandS, Inc., 5 F.3d 1255, 1263 (9th Cir. 1993). A reconsideration motion should not merely present arguments raised, or which could have been raised in the initial motion. See Backlund v. Barnhart, 778 F.2d 1386, 1388 ("The motion was probably denied here because it presented no arguments that had not already been raised in opposition to summary judgment."); United States v. Navarro, 972 F.Supp. 1296, 1299 (E.D. Cal. 1997) ("[M]otions to reconsider are not vehicles permitting the unsuccessful party to 'rehash' arguments previously presented . . . Nor is a motion to reconsider justified on the basis of new evidence which could have been discovered prior to the court's ruling . . . . Finally, 'afterthoughts' or 'shifting of ground' do not constitute an appropriate basis for reconsideration.") (The underlying [*4] decision on the merits, United States v. Navarro, 959 F.Supp. 1273 (E.D. Cal. 1997), was reversed by United States v. Navarro, 160 F.3d 1254 (9th Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 527 U.S. 1011, 119 S. Ct. 2354, 144 L. Ed. 2d 249 (1999). The reversal did not address the issue of the reconsideration standard.

Defendants argue that in the absence of a constitutional violation, an award of attorneys' fees based upon the expungement of Plaintiff's grooming standards RVRs, "where none of the cognizable relief sought, either compensatory or injunctive, is obtained is clearly erroneous and contrary to the law." Defendants rely on Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 478 F.3d 985, 999 (9th Cir. 2007) and Mateyko v. Felix, 924 F.2d 824, 828 (1990) for the proposition that a Plaintiff who succeeds on a state claim, but on none of her constitutional claims, is not a "prevailing party" under § 1988. In Engquist, the Circuit Court reversed the award of attorneys' fees and remanded to the District Court to determine damages and any attorneys' fees award, expressing no opinion as to whether Engquist is entitled to attorneys' fees under Oregon law. Id. at p. 999, FN 10.

Plaintiffs rely on Doty v. County of Lassen, 37 F.3d 540, 548 (9th Cir. 1994) [*5] which established, in a challenge to prison conditions case, that the second element of the Slaben test for determining whether Plaintiffs have obtained catalytic relief does not require the District Court to determine whether the relief was required by the U.S. Constitution or Federal law. Rather, the test requires only that the relief be related to a claim that is not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless. "This test sensibly keeps the District Court from having to address, during the attorneys' fees litigation, the merits of resolved disputes to determine whether the relief obtained would have been obtainable by judgment." Doty, 37 F.3d at 548.

In LeMaire v. Maass, 12 F.3d 1444, 1461 (9th Cir. 1993) an inmate challenging the conditions of his imprisonment in a disciplinary segregation unit failed on most of his claims, but success on a few of the claims altered the legal relationship of the parties and he could be deemed a prevailing party under § 1988. "While the limited nature of this success does not deprive LeMaire of his prevailing status, it does effect the reasonable amount of fees his attorneys may receive." 12 F.3d at 1461.

To determine whether a claimant's litigation was [*6] the catalyst for changes ultimately obtained in a consent decree, the Court proceeds as follows: first, the Court "must determine what Plaintiffs sought to accomplish in bringing the lawsuit and then determine whether the lawsuit was causally linked to the relief actually obtained." Steinke v. Washington County, 903 F.Supp. 1403, 1407 (D. Or. 1995); citing Doty. Then, the Court "must determine whether there is a legal basis for the Plaintiff's claim -- it must not be 'frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.'" Here, Plaintiff's lawsuit was causally related to the relief sought - deletion of alleged violations of grooming standards from Plaintiff's central file. Here, Plaintiff sought compensatory damages and injunctive relief with respect to the enforcement of the grooming standards as to his appearance and hair length and expungement from his central file of all disciplinary reports relating to his non-compliance with the grooming standards. Plaintiff, while acting pro se, obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of the grooming standards with respect to himself, however, he was not represented by counsel and is not entitled to attorneys' fees for obtaining [*7] the temporary restraining order.

This case was concluded by a voluntary stipulation, without admission of liability, but all disciplinary reports related to Plaintiff's grooming standards rules violations were be expunged forthwith from Plaintiff's central file, and as of the date of the stipulation and order, Plaintiff's classification score is to be computed without regard to these RVRs. This is partial success.

The Magistrate Judge found that Plaintiff was the "prevailing" party and entitled to attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1). The court found that 50% of counsels' time was directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of Plaintiff's rights, and that Plaintiff was entitled to compensation for 48.5 hours at the rate of $ 138.00 per hour. Defendants were ordered to pay the total amount of $ 6,693.00 directly to Plaintiff's counsel within 30 days of the order.

Attorneys' Fees Under the PLRA.

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1) attorneys' fees are limited to those directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of Plaintiff's rights protected by a statute under which a fee may be awarded. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Plaintiff [*8] alleged that the presence of unexpunged RVRs in his central file violated his civil rights under the Equal Protection Clause or the RLUIPA. Plaintiff argues that "the only adverse effect the presence of the RVRs in the Plaintiff's central file could possibly have would be to increase Plaintiff's security classification." The State then argues that "an inmate has no constitutional right regarding his classification." Myron v. Terhune, 476 F.3d 716, 718-19 (9th Cir. 2007).

The State's analysis suffers from the same infirmity recognized by Doty, where the Ninth Circuit expressly held and it continues to be the law of the Circuit, that proof of a constitutional violation is not required for attorneys' fees, under § 1988, where a case has been resolved by settlement, and claims for violation of constitutional rights or Federal law, the RLUIPA, were asserted and relief which altered the legal rights of the parties was obtained. Here, the lawsuit achieved deletion of all Plaintiff's RVRs from his central file and the prohibition against future use of those rules violation reports for any purpose. As in Doty, the test requires only that the relief achieved be related to a claim that is not [*9] frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, not that the relief was "required by the Constitution or Federal law."


Once the entitlement to attorneys' fees is established, a District Court should consider Plaintiff's limited success and the factors set forth in Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392 (9th Cir. 1992); and Harris v. Marhoefer, 24 F.3d 16 (9th Cir. 1994). Fee awards pursuant to § 1988 must be reasonable, both as to the number of hours spent in advancing the successful claim and the billing rate per hour. Calculating the Lodestar figure is the starting point for determining the reasonable fee. Gates, 987 F.2d at 1397. Here, the statutory rate of $ 138.00 per hour was utilized by the Court. This is substantially below prevailing rates for civil rights lawyers practicing in the Fresno Division of the Eastern District of California and is a reasonable rate for attorneys' fees.

The relief achieved was only partial. The Plaintiff did not succeed in changing the grooming standards, grooming policies, or establish that there was a substantive Equal Protection and RLUIPA violation. The settlement achieved, expunged any grooming standards rules violation reports from Plaintiff's [*10] central file and prohibited future reference to those violations, which, in substance, has the effect of permanent injunctive relief as to the RVRs. Judgment was rendered moot by the parties' stipulation. Plaintiff failed to obtain a decision that the CDCR's hair length grooming standards violated the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and Plaintiff did not obtain any compensatory damages.

He did achieve the expungement and prohibition against future use of his rules violations reports as a result of his lawsuit.

In reviewing the Magistrate Judge's analysis, the success achieved was more limited than the fee awarded reflects. In effect, Plaintiff prevailed on one of his four claims and a reduction to 25% of the hours incurred based on a statutory rate of $ 138.00 for attorneys' fees results in entitlement to compensation for 25 hours at the rate of $ 138.00 or a net fee award of $ 3,346.50.

Defendants' motion for reconsideration is GRANTED. Plaintiff's attorney shall be awarded $ 3,346.50 for reasonable and necessary attorney's fees.

SO ORDERED, this 14 [*11] day of June, 2007.


Dated: June 14, 2007

/s/ Oliver W. Wanger