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Eighth Circuit Revisits Muslim Prisoner’s Settlement with Nebraska DOC; $74,000 in Attorney Fees Awarded

In a detailed ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected an attempt by a Muslim prisoner to obtain additional attorney fees for alleged violations of an agreed injunctive order, and remanded for further proceedings. Following remand, the district court awarded over $74,000 in fees and costs.

In 2004, Mohamed A. El-Tabech, serving consecutive life sentences at Nebraska’s Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI), filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint alleging violations of his religious rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.
The parties reached a settlement whereby the defendants agreed to implement a stipulated “Kosher Equipment and Meal Preparation Process,” and fees and costs were awarded to El-Tabech’s attorneys in 2007.

In 2008, after his lawyers alleged violations of the agreement under Rules 69(a) and 70 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the district court awarded additional attorney fees and a punitive increase in the post-judgment interest rate payable on the original award to 14%. The state appealed that order, and in a later proceeding the district court modified the stipulated injunction to require that El-Tabech only be provided prepackaged kosher meals.

The district court further awarded additional fees in the amount of $73,360.20 plus $271.20 in costs, which the state also appealed. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.22].

The Eighth Circuit considered whether the district court’s order requiring state officials “to immediately issue a warrant payable to plaintiff’s counsel” was contrary to the well-established rule “that property of a State is exempt from execution unless a statute otherwise provides.” El-Tabech argued that Section 1988, empowering private enforcement of civil rights laws, indicated that Congress had intended to preempt state statutes. However, the appellate court concluded “the answer is no,” as Section 1988 did not operate to preempt state laws related to the enforcement of judgments.

As to the issue of supplemental attorney fees, the Court of Appeals held that “the time sheets belatedly submitted by El-Tabech’s attorneys reveal lack of candor and excessive time spent in submitting his motion to enforce the original fee award. Even more to the point, the motion was entirely unsuccessful…. Therefore, the award of fees ... is reversed.” The appellate court also determined that the district court’s punitive increase in the post-judgment interest rate was an abuse of discretion, as there were no extraordinary circumstances in the case that justified such an action.

The Eighth Circuit then examined the issue of post-judgment monitoring and the issue of contempt, and found that most of the monitoring work was “work on a new, unsuccessful lawsuit.” As to the contempt motion, the appellate court ruled in favor of El-Tabech after he alleged that a kosher meal prepared by staff at the prison included “feces wrapped in plastic in a vegan entree prepared and delivered by TSCI staff....”

In conclusion, the appellate court noted that when “a fee award is not upheld, the appropriate disposition of the appeal is usually to remand.... This is appropriate in this case, particularly because other fee and fee payment issues may not be entirely resolved.” See: El-Tabech v. Clarke, 616 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 2010), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied.

Following remand, on May 20, 2011 the district court once again considered El-Tabech’s amended motion for attorney fees and costs, in a reduced amount. The district court granted an award of $73,209.67 in fees and $935.40 in costs.

“The court has reviewed the time sheets and billing descriptions submitted by the plaintiff and finds them sufficiently detailed. The time records show that the plaintiff seeks remuneration only for work that directly relates to the claims upheld by the Eighth Circuit. Further, based on its familiarity with the litigation, the court finds there was little or no ‘excessive lawyering’ by the plaintiff’s counsel,” the district court stated.

The award was made directly to El-Tabech’s attorneys, as El-Tabech had died during the lengthy course of the litigation. See: El-Tabech v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:04-cv-03231; 2011 WL 1979847.

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Related legal cases

El-Tabech v. Clarke

El-Tabech v. Clarke