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Playfair v. South Lemhi School District 292 Board of Trustees

March 20, 2010

JUNE L. PLAYFAIR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOUTH LEMHI SCHOOL DISTRICT 292 BOARD OF TRUSTEES; VON BEAN, A BOARD MEMBER; JAMES WHITTAKER, A BOARD MEMBER; CARL LUFKIN, A BOARD MEMBER; ROSS GODDARD, A BOARD MEMBER; AND DEB FOSTER, A BOARD MEMBER; DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable B. Lynn Winmill Chief U. S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Before the Court is Plaintiff June Playfair's Petition for Award of Attorney's Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, F.R.C.P. 54(d) and Local Rule 54.2 (Docket No. 22). For the following reasons, the Court grants the Petition.

BACKGROUND

Playfair commenced this action, alleging violations of state statutes and of her federal and state procedural due process rights and seeking to enjoin a scheduled hearing regarding the non-renewal of her contract with South Lemhi School District No. 292. Verified Complaint for Injunctive Relief (Docket No. 1- 2). Specifically, Playfair alleged that the defendant School Board members ("Defendants") could not fairly preside over her non-renewal hearing, originally scheduled for August 4, 2009, because Defendants previously decided to terminate her employment at a board meeting on May 11, 2009. Id. Playfair sought relief in the form of "a temporary restraining order, as well as preliminary and permanent injunctive relief preventing the School Board and its individual Board members from sitting and participating as decision makers in the non-renewal proceedings noticed against Plaintiff, Playfair." Id. at p. 4.

Playfair filed this action for injunctive relief in state court, id., and Defendants removed the case to federal court. Notice of Removal (Docket No. 1). Playfair then a filed Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction. Plaintiff's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction (Docket No. 2). On August 4, 2009, the Court granted Playfair's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order. Order (Docket No. 5). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on Playfair's Motion for Preliminary Injunction on August 10, 2009, and granted that motion on August 12, 2009. Memorandum and Order Re: Motion for Preliminary Injunction ("Preliminary Injunction Order") (Docket No. 16).

In the decision granting Playfair's Motion for Preliminary Injunction, the Court found "that the Board voted to terminate... [Playfair's] position on May 11, 2009, and [Playfair] is thus likely to succeed on her due process claims." Id. at p. 11. Consequently, the Court ordered Defendants to set aside the non-renewal of Playfair's contract. Id. at p. 19.

After finding that Playfair suffered a "constitutional injury," the Court faced the difficult decision of how to fashion an equitable remedy "to ensure [Playfair] is afforded due process and the public's interest is not harmed." Id. at p. 13. Determining the appropriate remedy was especially challenging given that Leadore, the town in which Playfair taught, is a small farming community with less than 150 citizens. Id. at 3, 16. Ultimately, the Court decided that the most equitable remedy was to "allow[] the Board to render a decision after providing [Playfair] a full and fair opportunity to be heard." Id. at p. 15. The Court cautioned Defendants that it would be "incumbent on each of [them] to assess their own state of mind and satisfy themselves that they can be open-minded and fair," and that "[i]f any of them have any doubt that they can do that... it would be their duty to recuse themselves from participation in the due process hearing." Id. at p. 17. Pursuant to this remedy, the Court ordered that Defendants be "enjoined from enforcing the Superintendent's recommendations of non-renewal of [Playfair's] contract" until Defendants could hold a "fair hearing at which [Playfair would have] the opportunity to be heard and the Board of Trustees [could] reach a fair and reasoned decision based on all of the evidence." Id. at p. 19.

On October 21, 2009, the parties filed a Stipulation for Dismissal, (Docket No. 19), and the Court entered an Order for Dismissal that same day, (Docket No. 20). Because the parties each contend that they are the prevailing party, Stipulation for Dismissal, p. 2 (Docket No. 19), they reserved the right to petition the Court for attorney fees and costs, Order for Dismissal (Docket No. 20).

ANALYSIS

Each party contends that it is the "prevailing party" in this action. Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Request for Attorney's Fees Pursuant to 43 U.S.C. § 1988, F.R.C.P. 54(d) and Local Rule 54.2 ("Plaintiff's Petition"), pp. 3--9 (Docket No. 22-1); Response to Plaintiff's Petition for Attorney Fees Pursuant to 42 USC § 1988, FRCP 54(d) and Local Rule 54.2 ("Defendants' Response"), p. 4 (Docket No. 23). Playfair contends that she is entitled attorney fees and costs totaling $14,676.45. Reply Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Request for Attorney's Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, F.R.C.P. 54(d) and Local Rule 54.2 ("Plaintiff's Reply"), p. 2 (Docket No. 24). Defendants contend that they are the prevailing part, but if the Court finds that Playfair is the prevailing party, her attorney fees are unreasonable and should be reduced. Defendants' Response, pp. 8--13 (Docket No. 23).

A. Prevailing Party

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), a court may award reasonable attorney fees and costs to "the prevailing party" in an action to enforce a provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Playfair's claim seeking to protect her federal due process rights through injunctive relief was appropriately raised under § 1983. See Matsuda v. City & County of Honolulu, 512 F.3d 1148, 1156 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[T]he Due Process Clause may give rise to a claim under § 1983.").

"The 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" § 1988. Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792--93 (1989). "If the plaintiff has succeeded on 'any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit,' the plaintiff has crossed the threshold to a fee award of some kind." Id. at 791--92 (citation omitted) (alternation in original). A party is not required to "succeed on the 'central issue' in the litigation [nor] achieve the 'primary relief sought' to be eligible for an award of attorney's fees under § 1988." Id. at 784; see also id. at 790 ("[T]he 'central issue' test... is directly contrary to the thrust of our decision in Hensely."); id. at 791 ("In sum, the search for the 'central' and 'tangential' issues in the lawsuit, or for the 'primary,' as opposed to the 'secondary,' relief sought, much like the search for the golden fleece, distracts the district court from the primary purposes behind § 1988 and is essentially unhelpful in defining the term 'prevailing party.'"). However, "[w]here the plaintiff's legal success on a legal claim can be characterized as purely technical or de minimis, a district court would be justified in concluding that" the standard for achieving "prevailing party" status has not been met. Id. at 792.

Guided by this framework, the Court finds that Playfair is the prevailing party in this action. Playfair, through her ยง 1983 action against Defendants, materially altered the legal relationship between herself and Defendants, succeeded on a significant issue in litigation, and achieved some of the benefit she sought when bringing suit. The legal relationship between Playfair and Defendants was materially altered when the Court set aside Defendants' non-renewal of Playfair's contract and ordered Defendants to hold a "fair hearing at which [Playfair would have] the opportunity to be heard." Preliminary Injunction Order, p. 19 (Docket No. 16). The Court's order ...


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