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Harrington v. Devito

decided: August 10, 1981.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 74-C-3290 -- Frank J. McGarr, Judge .

Before Pell and Bauer, Circuit Judges, and Campbell, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Pell

Plaintiffs-appellees, pretrial detainees in need of mental health care, sued Illinois and Cook County officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the defendants failed to provide necessary mental health care in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The parties negotiated for several years under court supervision to resolve the acknowledged mental health care deficiencies. Ultimately, the parties settled the case by consent order.

On October 19, 1979, the district judge awarded the plaintiffs $25,000 in attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 finding that the plaintiffs had prevailed against all of the defendants. The court assessed the fee jointly and severally against Illinois and Cook County officials, but declined to apportion it at that time. Instead, the court instructed the defendants to attempt to allocate the fee themselves, but to return to court for allocation should they fail to reach an agreement.

The Illinois Department of Mental Health (Department, State, or Illinois) thereafter moved the court to determine the allocation contending that Illinois should not be required to pay any portion of the award. On June 24, 1980, the court ordered Cook County to pay 80%, and the State to pay 20%, of the fee award.

In its appeal of the allocation order, the State argues that the allocation of fees against the State constituted an abuse of discretion*fn1 because the plaintiffs did not prevail against it, or alternatively, even if they did prevail against Illinois, special circumstances exist which render an award against the State unjust.


Attorneys' fee awards under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 rest within the sound discretion of the trial court. Muscare v. Quinn, 614 F.2d 577, 579-80 (7th Cir. 1980); Konczak v. Tyrrell, 603 F.2d 13, 19 (7th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1016, 100 S. Ct. 668, 62 L. Ed. 2d 646 (1980).

The appellant concedes that the lack of formal judicial relief does not itself deprive the plaintiffs of prevailing party status. Attorneys' fees may be appropriate if the plaintiffs have vindicated their rights by settlement. Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129, 100 S. Ct. 2570, 2575, 65 L. Ed. 2d 653 (1980); Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 279 (1st Cir. 1978). In Nadeau, the First Circuit established guidelines for determining prevailing party status in settlement cases. Subsequently, the Nadeau test was adopted by the Eighth Circuit in United Handicapped Federation v. Andre, 622 F.2d 342, 345-47 (8th Cir. 1980). Essentially, to prevail in a settled case, the plaintiffs' lawsuit must be causally linked to the achievement of the relief obtained. Secondly, the defendant must not have acted wholly gratuitously, i. e., the plaintiffs' claims, if pressed, cannot have been frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d at 280-81; United Handicapped Federation v. Andre, 622 F.2d at 346-47.

The first step, which requires that the lawsuit in some way have played a provocative role in obtaining relief, is a factual determination. Nadeau, 581 F.2d at 280. The appellant argues that the plaintiffs obtained no relief against the Department of Mental Health. While the consent decree itself outlines obligations, many of which relate only to the Cook County defendants, the record supports the district court's implicit conclusion that the State took specific actions in response to the plaintiff's lawsuit. Some of the State's actions taken preceded the consent order, but this does not mean that those actions were any less causally linked to the lawsuit than obligations outlined in the consent agreement itself.*fn2 The plaintiffs point out that five months after the suit was instituted, the Director of the Department of Mental Health sought a stay of the plaintiffs' discovery representing that the defendants were then formulating a plan to alleviate conditions the plaintiffs were complaining about. This "start-up" plan included diagnosis and placement of incoming inmates, implementation of a tripartite treatment program, and ongoing diagnosis and evaluation of the general prison population's mental health needs. This program was originally funded by a Department grant of $151,800. The Department continued to fund half of each year's operation of the Cook County Department of Corrections' mental health program since 1976, participated in the selection of an expert panel to assess conditions, paid for the panel review, and participated in the consent agreement.

Even apart from these events, the Department of Mental Health agreed to perform certain limited obligations in the consent order itself. The State agreed, inter alia, to participate in (1) any reevaluations of the mental health team occurring pursuant to circumstances specified in the order, and (2) the resolution of disputes relating to space and equipment needs for mental health screening. The Department additionally agreed to file with the court, and to submit copies to plaintiffs' counsel, reports regarding the implementation of specific provisions of the order including Department reports made pursuant to its monitoring of the program under the grant agreement with the Health and Hospitals Governing Commission. The Department argues, however, that it was obligated under Illinois law to compile grant-in-aid monitoring reports in any event. While there may be an overlap between some of the obligations imposed by the consent agreement and the Department's existing legal duties, we view the evidence of the Department's participation as a whole in this case as supporting a conclusion that the Department did take certain steps to alleviate deficiencies in mental health treatment of pretrial detainees as a result of the plaintiffs' lawsuit. Especially because all of these actions followed soon after the institution of this lawsuit, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they were causally related to the lawsuit. As the court in Nadeau noted,

the chronological sequence of events (is) ... an important, although clearly not definitive factor, in determining whether or not defendant can be reasonably inferred to have guided his actions in response to plaintiff's lawsuit. This is particularly true where the evidence relevant to the causes of defendant's behavior is under defendant's control and is not easily available to plaintiff.

581 F.2d at 281. See United Handicapped Federation v. Andre, 622 F.2d at 347; Lackey v. Bowling, 476 F. Supp. 1111, 1115 (N.D.Ill.1979) ("That the threat and then the filing of this lawsuit at least hastened defendants' change of policy is clear.")

This case is unlike United Handicapped Federation v. Andre to the extent that the Andre plaintiffs prevailed only against local, and not federal, defendants. The federal defendants in that case took no part in ongoing negotiations and did not participate in the settlement stipulation. 622 F.2d at 345, 348 n.6. The separate dismissal stipulation executed between the plaintiffs and the ...

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