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Successful Appellate Ruling Invalidating Statute Creates Prevailing Party for Attorney Fee Award

by David M. Reutter

The Washington State Supreme Court has held that a litigant who successfully gets an appellate court to vacate a prison disciplinary infraction and declare a statute unconstitutional is a prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, entitling him to attorney fees. The Court further held that upon remand attorney fees would be awardable for all successful claims, not just a retaliation claim as limited by the appellate court.

Before the Washington Supreme Court was a petition for review filed by prisoner Allan Parmelee, who received a disciplinary infraction at Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) for using inflammatory language in a letter.

The July 20, 2005 letter was addressed to Harold Clarke, Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections. Parmelee wrote, “I have been puzzled by the widespread hostilities growing ever tense [sic] at CBCC since I’ve been here. I have finally discovered the formula has to do with a verified reliable source indicating Superintendent Sandra Carter is anti-male – a lesbian .... Having a man-hater lesbian as a superintendent is like throwing gas on [an] already smoldering fire.”

CBCC did not allow the letter out of the prison and infracted Parmelee on October 13, 2005 for committing the misdemeanor of criminal libel against Carter. After the Clallam County Superior Court dismissed Parmelee’s suit alleging libel, slander, retaliation and violations of his rights to due process and free speech, he appealed.

The Court of Appeals held the criminal libel statute was “facially unconstitutional for overbreadth and vagueness.” It vacated the disciplinary infraction and remanded the case on all other causes of action except the libel and slander claims. The appellate court denied Parmelee’s request for attorney’s fees, holding he would not be entitled to fees unless he prevailed on the retaliation claim. See: Parmelee v. O’Neel, 145 Wash.App. 223, 186 P.3d 1094 (Wash.App.Div. 2, 2008) [PLN, Jan. 2009, p.36].

The Supreme Court wrote that “a plaintiff ‘prevails’ when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendants’ behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Thus, Parmelee was a prevailing party entitled to attorney fees on appeal. The Court further held the Prison Litigation Reform Act did not preclude an award because Parmelee’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint in this case alleged a violation of his First Amendment rights, and his attorney fees were incurred to vindicate those rights.

Finally, the Supreme Court found it was error to predicate attorney fees solely on Parmelee’s success on the retaliation claim. The respondents conceded this point. As such, the case was remanded for the appellate court to determine the attorney fee award for Parmelee’s successful appeal; it was also remanded for further proceedings in the Superior Court on his claims of retaliation, First Amendment violations and substantive due process violations. See: Parmelee v. O’Neel, 168 Wash.2d 515, 229 P.3d 723 (Wash. 2010).

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Related legal case

Parmelee v. O’Neel