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New Jersey Appellate Court Holds Attorneys for Female Prisoners Temporarily Transferred to All-Male Facility May be Entitled to Fees

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has held that the attorneys who represented a class of female prisoners temporarily transferred to the all-male New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) may qualify for an award of attorney’s fees.

The answer will hinge on whether the prisoners are ultimately deemed to be “prevailing parties” in the litigation despite the fact that there was no trial court ruling on the merits of their claims. Instead, the underlying action was dismissed as moot after the female prisoners were transferred back to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF), from which they had been sent to NJSP.

The trial court had denied the prisoners’ motion for attorney’s fees on the ground that, in its view, there was no factual nexus between their lawsuit and the decision by prison officials to return the women to EMCF. In the court’s words, the latter was simply “an operational decision made independent of this suit.”

The Appellate Division reversed the denial of the prisoners’ motion for attorney’s fees and remanded for reconsideration in light of legal principles articulated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Mason v. City of Hoboken, 951 A.2d 1017 (N.J. 2008).

Between March and September 2007, in an effort to alleviate overcrowding at EMCF (the state’s sole women’s facility), the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) transferred approximately 40 female prisoners to NJSP, a maximum-security men’s prison. In December 2007, four of those prisoners filed suit alleging illegal confinement, discrimination, cruel and unusual punishment, and unconscionable violations of their privacy rights in association with their transfer to NJSP.

Over the objections of the defendant prison officials, the trial court certified the case as a class-action and granted preliminary injunctive relief, ordering the DOC not to send any other women to NJSP. Then, in December 2008, the DOC transferred all of the female prisoners at NJSP back to EMCF. It did so, it claimed, due to a determination that the population at EMCF had dropped sufficiently to allow their return. [See: PLN, Jan. 1, 2009, p.46].

The Appellate Division held that the trial court had misapplied the standards in Mason. Under the so-called catalyst theory adopted in Mason, a plaintiff can be awarded attorney’s fees even without a final judgment on the merits, so long as 1) there is a factual causal nexus between the litigation and the relief ultimately achieved, and 2) the relief ultimately secured has a “basis in law.”

The Appellate Division found that the “basis in law” prong had been satisfied because the prisoners’ litigation was neither frivolous nor harassing. As to the “causal nexus” prong, the trial court erred, the Appellate Division held, in simply accepting the defendant prison officials’ self-serving representations that the transfer of the women to NJSP had been intended, from the very outset, to be only “temporary.” Rather, this “fact sensitive determination” required an evidentiary hearing for proper resolution of the prisoners’ motion for attorney fees.

Further, even if the trial court finds no “causal nexus” that would result in a grant of fees under the catalyst theory, it “shall then determine whether plaintiffs are otherwise entitled to a partial award of attorneys’ fees for successfully securing preliminary injunctive relief.” See: Jones v. Hayman, 418 N.J.Super. 291, 13 A.3d 416 (N.J.Super.A.D. 2011).

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Related legal case

Jones v. Hayman