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National Rifle Association v. Village of Oak Park

December 22, 2010

NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
VILLAGE OF OAK PARK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION ) OF AMERICA, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

National Rifle Association of America, Inc. ("NRA") has filed motions, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988,*fn1 , each seeking an award of attorney's fees in a now-closed Section 1983 lawsuit that had been initiated by NRA some 2-1/2 years ago -- one of them targeting the Village of Oak Park ("Village") and the other brought against the City of Chicago ("City"). Both motions*fn2 follow the cases' journey to the Supreme Court and back again, ending with the dismissal of both actions by this Court on mootness grounds. For the reasons stated below, both NRA motions are denied.

Factual Background

NRA filed these lawsuits one day after the Supreme Court decided Dist. of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). This Court properly requested, and the Executive Committee of this District Court granted, the reassignment of both cases to its docket based on their relatedness to McDonald v. City of Chicago, 08 C 3645, which had been filed on the same morning that Heller was decided. All three cases charged that municipal ordinances that made it unlawful for any person to posses a handgun ran afoul of the Second Amendment, as incorporated against the States via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Because this Court followed (as it was obligated to do) existing Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit precedent (both preHeller, of course), it ruled that the Second Amendment was not incorporated against the States, and Village and City were therefore granted judgment on the pleadings. After consolidating the appeals in all three cases, our Court of Appeals affirmed this Court's ruling in NRA v. City of Chi., 567 F.3d 856 (7th Cir. 2009).

NRA and McDonald then filed separate petitions for writs of certiorari in the Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court granted the McDonald petition, it did not act on the NRA petition until after it issued its June 28, 2010 opinion in McDonald v. City of Chi., 130 S. Ct. 3020 (2010), holding that the Fourteenth Amendment does incorporate the Second Amendment. On the next day the Supreme Court granted NRA's petition and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit for further proceedings (NRA v. City of Chi., 130 S.Ct. 3544 (2010)).

Three days later (on July 2) City replaced its gun ordinance with one that does not contain a total ban on handguns (Journal of the Proceedings of the City Council of the City of Chicago, Illinois at 96235). For its part, Village repealed its gun ordinance on July 19 (Approved Minutes -- Regular Board Meeting, Village of Oak Park p.4, http://www.oakpark.us/public/pdfs/2010%20Minutes/07.19.10_minutes.pdf). In light of those actions, our Court of Appeals vacated this Court's judgment in all three cases and remanded with instructions to dismiss them as moot (NRA v. City of Chi., 2010 WL 3398395 (7th Cir. Aug. 25)). On October 12, 2010 this Court followed that direction.

Attorney's Fee Awards under Section 1988

Both sides agree that the Supreme Court opinion in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001) brought a sea change in the jurisprudence governing Section 1988 attorney's fee awards. It deep-sixed the "catalyst" concept that the vast majority of federal courts had been applying consistently in that area, replacing it instead with a more demanding standard.

Section 1988(b) states that in a Section 1983 action "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party ... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." In the wake of Buckhannon the Supreme Court has reconfirmed its earlier view that "[t]he touchstone of the prevailing party inquiry ... is the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties in a manner which Congress sought to promote in the fee statute" (Sole v. Wyner, 551 U.S. 74, 82 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

On that score Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604 had held "that enforceable judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees create" the essential "material alteration." Thus the Court distinguished settlements memorialized by consent decrees from private settlements on the ground that consent decrees are "court-ordered" (id.). In elaborating on its reasons for rejecting the "catalyst theory," the Court reasoned that a "defendant's voluntary change in conduct, although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change" (id. at 605). Buckhannon, id. at 606 (internal quotation marks omitted) succinctly summarized the Court's concerns and the applicable standard:

We cannot agree that the term "prevailing party" authorizes federal courts to award attorney's fees to a plaintiff who, by simply filing a non-frivolous but nonetheless potentially meritless lawsuit (it will never be determined), has reached the sought-after designation without obtaining any judicial relief.

Closer to the bone, our Court of Appeals has implemented Buckhannon in Zessar v. Keith, 536 F.3d 788 (7th Cir. 2008), a case where as here a statute had been found unconstitutional. Zessar, id. at 796 held that alone was not enough -- instead such a situation "gives a plaintiff a hurdle to overcome if he is to show that he is a prevailing party because the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that, other than a settlement made enforceable under a consent decree, a final judgment on the merits is the normative judicial act that creates a prevailing party." NRA fails to clear that hurdle.

Simply put, there has never been a final judgment on the merits in these cases. There was no final court order requiring Village or City to do anything. After the Supreme Court remanded the cases to the Seventh Circuit for proceedings consistent with its McDonald opinion, this Court never had the opportunity to conduct such proceedings because it was ordered by the Court of Appeals to dismiss the cases as moot. Both Village (by repealing its ordinance) and City (by adopting a new ...


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