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Eastby v. Collinsville Community Unit School District No. 10

March 18, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge


A. Introduction and Background

On July 23, 2004, Plaintiff Karen Eastby filed an action against Collinsville Community Unit School District No. 10 ("the School District"), Patrick Murphy, Julie (Miller) Brown, and Dennis Craft. On March 23, 2005, Eastby amended her complaint to allege that the School District, Murphy, and Brown violated her Free Speech rights (Count I), that the School District and Murphy discriminated against her because of her age (Counts II and III), that Murphy tortiously interfered with her business relationship by not completing her performance evaluation (Count IV), and that Craft defamed her (Count V) (see Case No. 04-0518-MJR, Doc. 30).

On July 6, 2005, having been advised by Eastby's counsel that the action had settled, this Court dismissed Eastby's complaint without prejudice (see Case No. 04-0518, Doc. 51). In the dismissal Order, the Court informed the parties that the dismissal would ripen into a dismissal with prejudice sixty days after the entry of that Order. Id. The Court finally dismissed the case with prejudice on March 20, 2006 (see Case No. 04-0518, Doc. 52).

Nonetheless, on August 21, 2006, Eastby filed the present cause of action, asserting to the Court that the parties did not in fact settle her previous case. Eastby filed a First Amended Complaint on January 29, 2007, containing three (3) counts: Breach of Contract (Count I), Violation of First Amendment Rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II), and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count III). Additionally, Eastby's amended complaint contained "General Allegations," which were the same as alleged in her complaint in Case No. 04-518-MJR.

Subsequently, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on February 28, 2007 (see Doc. 33). On July 13, 2007, the Court granted the motion (Doc. 47). Specifically, the Court found that Eastby's allegations in Count II were "materially identical" to those asserted in her previous cause of action. Therefore, Eastby's First Amendment claims were barred under the doctrine of res judicata. Accordingly, the Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her two state law claims, and these claims were dismissed without prejudice.

On August 24, 2007, the School District moved this Court to award attorney's fees in the amount of $12,044.50 under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (Doc. 50). In support of its motion, the School District provided over twenty legal bills that included fees incurred over the course of Eastby's two lawsuits. Some information specifying the nature of the charges was redacted due to attorney-client privilege. On September 17, 2007, Eastby filed an objection to the motion for fees (Doc. 53). On February 12, 2008, the Court ordered the School District to produce unredacted bills for in camera review (Doc. 57), and the School District provided these documents on February 25, 2008. Having fully considered all of the relevant filings, the Court now GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART the School District's motion for fees.

B. Analysis of Defendant's Ability to Recover Fees

Under the American Rule, attorney's fees are generally unavailable to the prevailing party. See Sole v. Wyner, -- U.S. --, 127 S.Ct. 2188, 2191 (2007). However, under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), attorney's fees may be awarded to the prevailing party under certain circumstances. Section 1988(b) states: "In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections . . . 1983 . . . of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ."

As a preliminary matter, the Court must address whether the School District is a prevailing party within the meaning of the statute. Though Eastby does not contest the issue of whether the School District was the "prevailing party," it is clear that the School District cannot collect attorney's fees under § 1988(b) unless it first satisfies that standard. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly noted, "The touchstone of the prevailing party inquiry must be the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties in a manner which Congress sought to promote in the fee statute." Sole, 127 S.Ct. at 2194 (quoting Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792--93 (1989)). With respect to whether a defendant is a prevailing party, the Seventh Circuit has explained:

If a plaintiff prevails by securing a change in legal relations, then a defendant prevails by securing an entitlement not to have any change in legal relations. If a plaintiff prevails by an award of damages or an injunction, the defendant prevails by securing a declaration that it need not pay damages or alter its behavior. Defeating a plaintiff on the merits is one way to obtain such assurance, but hardly the only way. A declaration that the plaintiff and others like it are not even entitled to sue accomplishes the same end, and more.

Citizens for a Better Environment v. Steel Company, 230 F.3d 923, 929 (7th Cir. 2000). Moreover, the Seventh Circuit noted that where "dismissal for want of jurisdiction forecloses the plaintiff's claim, the defendant is the prevailing party." Id. at 930. For instance, in Citizens, the defendant was a prevailing party because the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit. See id. at 929--30. By establishing that issue, the defendant achieved the only possible benefit available.

Here, the Court held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Eastby's § 1983 claim due to res judicata (Doc. 47) and determined that Eastby's First Amendment claim was therefore barred. The Court then dismissed the entire action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. As a result, is clear that the School District is the prevailing party, as it accomplished all it could have hoped in defending the action.

However, the Court's inquiry does not end here. Though the terms of § 1988(b) place the decision to award attorney's fees within the sole discretion of the district court, the Seventh Circuit has made it clear that "prevailing defendants have a much harder row to hoe than do prevailing plaintiffs." Roger Whitmore's Auto. Servs., Inc. v. Lake County, Ill., 424 F.3d 659 (7th Cir. 2005). Moreover, a defendant is "entitled to fees only in cases in which the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless." Id. (citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 ...

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