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Minnesota Sheriff Hit with Attorney Fees Award in Civil Rights Case

by Derek Gilna

Martin County, Minnesota Sheriff Jeffrey Markquart has been ordered to pay $6,075 in attorney fees to former prisoner Erik Daniel Christianson in a federal civil rights action where the district court found Christianson was the “prevailing plaintiff.” 

As noted in the court’s July 19, 2018 order, “Plaintiff ... brought this action against ... Markquart for assessing pay-for-stay costs against Christianson during his stay at the Martin County Jail without considering whether [he] qualifies for a waiver of payment of the costs.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.29].

The district court had previously found that the sheriff had violated Minnesota Statute § 641.12, by failing to determine whether Christianson was eligible for a waiver of the fees, while sidestepping constitutional issues. The court turned aside Markquart’s argument that Christianson was not the prevailing plaintiff because he did not prevail on all of his claims, saying the sheriff was “utterly confused about the legal issues in this case.” 

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the court explained, a “plaintiff prevails if he or she ‘succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.’ Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40(1983).” Further, “courts are ‘not limited to awarding fees only when a constitutional or civil rights claim is actually decided. Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980).’”

“[W]hen a district court ‘grants relief on a state-law claim in order to avoid a constitutional issue, it may award attorney’s fees if the constitutional claim was “substantial” and both the constitutional and the state-law claims arose out of a “common nucleus of operative fact,”’ D.C., Inc. v. Missouri, 627 F.3d 698, 700 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Skokos v. Rhoades, 440 F.3d 957, 962 (8th Cir. 2006)),” the court wrote.

It added Sheriff Markquart had “no policies” to determine whether a defendant qualified for a waiver of the pay-for-stay costs under Minn. Stat. § 641.12. The district court concluded that “Markquart violated Minn. Stat. § 641.12, subd. 3(b), by failing to determine whether Christianson qualifies for a waiver from payment of pay-for-stay costs.”

However, the court reduced the $17,000 in requested attorney’s fees due to prevailing counsel’s failure to maintain contemporaneous hourly billing records and inclusion of hours incurred by a law clerk, which were not recoverable. The final fee award was $6,075. See: Christianson v. Markquart, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:16-cv-01034-JRT-KMM; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120809. 

Related legal case

Christianson v. Markquart