Hill v. Phoenix, City of et al

Filing 182

ORDER denying 177 Motion for Attorney Fees. Signed by Judge David G Campbell on 9/6/2016.(DGC, nvo)

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    1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 No. CV13-2315 PHX DGC Stacia C. Hill, Plaintiff, 10 11 v. 12 ORDER City of Phoenix, et al., 13 Defendants. 14 15 16 Defendant City of Phoenix prevailed at trial on Plaintiff Stacia Hill’s claims under 17 the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The City now seeks an award of 18 $368,167.56 in attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees, and non-taxable costs against 19 Plaintiff. Doc. 177. The City’s motion is fully briefed, and no party has requested oral 20 argument. Because the City cannot clear the high threshold for an award of fees and non- 21 taxable costs under the relevant statute, the Court will deny the motion. 22 The City makes its request under 42 U.S.C. § 12205, which provides that a court 23 “may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney’s fee, including litigation 24 expenses, and costs[.]” As the City notes in its motion, fees and costs may be awarded to 25 a defendant under this statute only if the court finds that the plaintiff’s action was 26 “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 27 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978). The Ninth Circuit has instructed that “civil defendants can be 28 awarded fees under this statute only in exceptional circumstances.” Kohler v. Flava     1 2 Enterprises, Inc., 779 F.3d 1016, 1020 (9th Cir. 2015). Plaintiff sought to recover $3 million in damages based on the City’s alleged 3 failure to accommodate her disabilities. Plaintiff claimed that she informed her 4 supervisor of her disabilities and timely requested reasonable accommodations, and that 5 the City failed to engage in an interactive process to find appropriate accommodations. 6 The City presented evidence that it was not aware of Plaintiff’s ankle problems at the 7 time Plaintiff alleged, that Plaintiff did not request accommodations at the time she 8 alleged, and that her managers undertook significant efforts to communicate with her and 9 provide reasonable accommodations. Following a five-day trial, the jury deliberated less 10 than one hour before returning a defense verdict. Clearly, the jury did not accept 11 Plaintiff’s testimony about her communications with the City. 12 The City argues that it is entitled to fees and costs because the jury did not believe 13 Plaintiff’s testimony: “The City agrees that this case turned on the credibility of the 14 witnesses – or, rather, one witness – Plaintiff. Because the jury concluded she lacked 15 credibility, the case lacked merit.” Doc. 181 at 2-3. The Court cannot agree that 16 Plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation merely because the 17 jury did not believe her testimony. If that were the law, awards of fees and costs to ADA 18 defendants would not be limited to exceptional circumstances as the Ninth Circuit has 19 instructed, but would be available in every case that turned on witness credibility. 20 The Supreme Court has provided this helpful guidance: 21 [I]t is important that a district court resist the understandable temptation to engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation. This kind of hindsight logic could discourage all but the most airtight claims, for seldom can a prospective plaintiff be sure of ultimate success. No matter how honest one’s belief that he has been the victim of discrimination, no matter how meritorious one’s claim may appear at the outset, the course of litigation is rarely predictable. 22 23 24 25 26 27 Christianburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 421-22. 28 ‐ 2 ‐      1 Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment and the 2 City’s Rule 50 motion. At trial, the City did not dispute that Plaintiff had serious 3 disabilities – a severe ankle problem and shift work sleep disorder. The trial turned on 4 the credibility of Plaintiff and the City’s witnesses. The Court cannot conclude that 5 Plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation simply because the 6 jury found the City’s evidence more credible, even if the jury reached its verdict quickly. 7 The City notes that a question asked by the jury during deliberations could be read 8 as suggesting that the jury wanted to award damages to the City. See Doc. 167. But even 9 if this is true, the fact that the jury viewed the evidence as strongly favoring the City does 10 not mean that the City can recover fees and costs under the statute. The Ninth Circuit has 11 instructed that a defense victory does not justify an award under 42 U.S.C. § 12205, 12 “even in cases which are resolved at summary judgment because no ‘reasonable jury 13 could return a verdict in [the plaintiff’s] favor.’” Kohler v. Bed Bath & Beyond of 14 California, LLC, 780 F.3d 1260, 1267 (9th Cir. 2015) (quoting Thomas v. Douglas, 877 15 F.2d 1428, 1434 & n. 8 (9th Cir.1989)). If a plaintiff’s failure to present enough evidence 16 17 18 19 20 21 to survive summary judgment does not constitute exceptional circumstances justifying fees, a defense verdict at trial – even a resounding one – does not satisfy that requirement either. IT IS ORDERED that the City’s motion for attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees, and non-taxable costs (Doc. 177) is denied. Dated this 6th day of September, 2016. 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 ‐ 3 ‐ 

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