Tuesday, April 7, 2009

No injunction, no fees

The students at a high school in Yonkers walked out of the building in protest over budget cuts. When the administration subjected the students to discipline (5 day suspension), their attorney filed an order to show cause because the punishment did not fit the crime. After a hearing, the district court found that the students had a likelihood of success on the merits of their First Amendment claim that the suspension would constitute irreparable harm. The kids were spared further suspension.

Any civil rights lawyer would next file a motion for attorneys' fees under Section 1988. That's what happened here, and the district court granted the motion. The Court of Appeals reverses.

The case is Garcia v. Yonkers School District, decided on April 1. While the district court did state from the bench that the plaintiffs had a likelihood of success and irreparable harm and the court further said it would sign the preliminary injunction, it never got around to doing so. The court also said that it would allow the district some time to be fully heard on the merits of the order to show cause. The students meanwhile graduated from high school, and the case lay dormant until counsel moved for attorneys' fees, which the trial court granted.

The Second Circuit says the trial court should never have granted the attorneys' fees because no preliminary injunction was formally entered (notwithstanding the trial court's erroneous statement to the contrary in its written opinion granting attorneys' fees). It's true that a preliminary injunction can qualify you as a "prevailing party" in certain instances for the purposes of a fee award, but without a formal preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs are not entitled to them.

Making things even more complicated, although the trial court suggested it would sign the preliminary injunction when the order to show cause was filed, it also said it would allow the school district an opportunity to be fully heard on the merits of the application, which necessarily entangled the court in the disciplinary judgment of school officials, something the courts generally frown upon. But the school district did not receive adequate notice of the injunction application, the Court of Appeals rules, because its lawyers were given the paperwork as they entered court on the day of the order to show cause. In any event, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 65, the district court is supposed to clarify the basis for the injunction. The court did not do this, further supporting the Second Circuit's conclusion that no injunction was entered.

Finally, while the school district did not follow through with the suspension, you could make the argument that the lawsuit compelled the district to forego the punishment, thereby making the students prevailing parties under the attorneys' fees statute. That argument may have worked prior to 2001, but that year the Supreme Court, in Buckhannon v. West Virginia, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), held that you are not a prevailing party without a formal court judgment. No judgment here. That means no attorneys' fees.

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