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Friends of Congress Square Park v. City of Portland

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

August 18, 2014



Joyce A. Wheeler, Justice

Before the court is plaintiffs' motion for an award of attorneys' fees and costs. On May 6, 2014, the Law Court affirmed this court's decision finding in plaintiffs' favor on counts I and II of their complaint regarding the City's refusal to issue citizens' initiative petition forms. Friends of Cong. Square Park v. City of Portland , 2014 ME 63, ¶ 19, 91 A.3d 601. The parties stipulated that, if plaintiffs prevailed on appeal, the City is liable on count III of plaintiffs' complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶ 5 n. 5. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the court may award reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party on a section 1983 claim. 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2012); Doe I v. Williams , 2013 ME 24, ¶ 80, 61 A.3d 718. " Unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust, the general rule is that the prevailing party is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees." IMS Health Corp. v. Schneider , 901 F.Supp.2d 172, 187 (D. Me. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).

The City argues that special circumstances make an award of attorneys' fees unjust in this case. " The special circumstances warranting the complete denial of attorneys' fees are narrowly circumscribed." Cushing v. McKee , 853 F.Supp.2d 163, 171 (D. Me. 2012) (quotation marks omitted). Special circumstances that permit the denial of a fee award " are few and far between." De Jesus Nazario v. Morris Rodriguez , 554 F.3d 196, 200 (1st Cir. 2009).

The City relies on Schock v. United States , which involved a claim for attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (" EAJA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2412. Schock v. United States , 254 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2001). The City argues that its position in this case was justified even though the City ultimately lost the case because the law in Maine was unclear on the distinction between legislative and administrative matters. Unlike § 1988, the EAJA requires a court to award fees " unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." 42 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). The " substantially justified" language is absent from 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Schock is therefore not relevant to this case.

Federal courts have held that " mere uncertainty in the law is not a 'special circumstance' justifying rejection of a statutory award of attorney fees in a civil rights action." Northcross v. Bd. of Ed. of Memphis City Schs ., 611 F.2d 624, 635 (6th Cir. 1979); see also J & J Anderson, Inc. v. Town of Erie , 767 F.2d 1469, 1474 (10th Cir. 1985) (stating that " good faith" and " uncertainty in the law" do not amount to special circumstances under § 1988). As the Northcross court explained, " [a] major purpose of the Fees Awards Act was to encourage the bringing of suits in new and undeveloped areas of civil rights law, and it would be anomalous indeed . . . to deny fees for the very reason the statute was passed." Northcross , 611 F.2d at 635. The City has failed to articulate a valid special circumstance to justify denying plaintiffs' fee award.

Furthermore, although the City contends that it acted in good faith to protect its rights in this case, the Court notes that the City withheld the citizens' initiative petition forms without any legal justification.[1] See Friends of Cong. Square Park , 2014 ME 63, ¶ 4 n.3, 91 A.3d 601 (" The City Clerk does not have express authority to reject citizens' initiative proposals submitted in compliance with the petition procedure in the City Code on the grounds that they are not legislative.") The City forced plaintiffs to file suit and litigate on an expedited schedule just to obtain the requested petition forms. As the City concedes, municipalities must proceed with caution when constitutional rights are involved and should err on the side of ensuring the free exercise of political speech.

The City does not contest the reasonableness of plaintiffs' fee request, which is supported by affidavits from counsel. Accordingly, plaintiffs' motion is granted in full.

The entry is:

Plaintiffs' motion for award of attorneys' fees is GRANTED.
Plaintiffs are awarded their attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $50, 834.50, plus post-judgment interest at 6.16% calculated ...

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