Van et al v. Wal-Mart Stores, inc. et al

Filing 464

ORDER by Judge Paul S. Grewal granting 432 Motion for Bill of Costs; denying 435 Motion for Attorney Fees (psglc2S, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 1/20/2012)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 SAN JOSE DIVISION 11 12 13 NATHALIE THUY VAN, Plaintiff, 14 v. 15 16 WAL-MART STORES, INC., Defendant. 17 18 19 ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) Case No.: 5:08-CV-05296 PSG ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES AND GRANTING DEFENDANT’S BILL OF COSTS (Re: Docket Nos. 435, 432) Before the court are Defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.’s (“Wal-Mart”) motions for attorneys’ fees and for a bill of costs against Plaintiff Nathalie Thuy Van (“Van”). Wal-Mart moves 20 for attorneys’ fees only for the period between November 2008 and January 2011. Van opposes 21 22 any award of fees or costs to Wal-Mart. The court took the matters under submission without oral 23 argument pursuant to Civ. L.R. 7-1(b). Having considered the arguments and evidence presented 24 by both parties, the court DENIES Wal-Mart’s motion for attorneys’ fees and GRANTS the bill of 25 costs. 26 27 I. BACKGROUND Van filed this action on November 21, 2008, alleging various civil rights violations on 28 behalf of herself and her minor son, “RVN.” In her initial and First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), ORDER, page 1 1 Van alleged that Wal-Mart engaged in racial profiling and a practice of unlawfully detaining minor 2 customers and their parents in violation of 42 U.S.C. ' 1983, Cal. Civ. Code '' 51.7 and 52.1, and 3 the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteen Amendments of the United States Constitution. The factual basis 4 for Van’s civil rights claims was Wal-Mart’s allegation that RVN had removed several Lego pieces 5 from a box and flushed them down the toilet, when in actuality the pieces that RVN “accidentally 6 dropped into the [] toilet … were the two pieces he had brought with him from home.”1 With 7 8 9 respect to her Section 1983 and derivative constitutional and statutory claims, Van further alleged that Wal-Mart acted under color of law in depriving RVN and her of their constitutional rights.2 After the February 2010 withdrawal of Van’s counsel3 and a stay of approximately five United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 11 months during which time Van did not retain new counsel, the court allowed Van to proceed on her 12 own behalf in pro se.4 On August 2, 2010, Van filed a Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”). In 13 her SAC, Van removed the allegation that the Lego figures dropped in the toilet belonged to RVN, 14 but retained the Section 1983 and derivative claims premised on Wal-Mart’s acting under color of 15 16 law in wrongly accusing RVN of theft and detaining Van and RVN.5 In addition to the civil rights 17 causes of action in her earlier complaints, Van added tort claims for false imprisonment and 18 defamation.6 Wal-Mart moved to dismiss the SAC pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure 19 to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. On January 6, 2011, the court granted-in-part 20 Wal-Mart’s motion, dismissing all of Van’s Section 1983, statutory and constitutional claims, and 21 1 See Docket No. 21 & 12 (FAC). 2 See id. & 24. 22 23 3 24 See Docket No. 41 (Order Granting Plaintiff’s Counsel’s Motion to Withdraw, Staying Case for 90 Days, and Vacating Pretrial and Trial Dates). 25 4 26 See Docket No. 44 (Order Extending Stay of Case) (explaining that Van may not represent her minor son and extending time to find and retain counsel); Docket No. 87 (Order re Plaintiff’s Motion to Represent Herself in Pro Per). 27 5 See Docket No. 91 && 13, 36-41 (SAC). 28 6 See id. && 46-47, 88-92. ORDER, page 2 1 allowing Van to move forward on her tort claims of false imprisonment and defamation.7 Wal-Mart 2 later prevailed in a motion for summary judgment on Van’s remaining claims.8 Van has appealed 3 the court’s ruling on summary judgment to the Ninth Circuit.9 4 During the period between November 2008 and January 2011, or the filing of Van’s initial 5 complaint and the court’s dismissal of Van’s Section 1983 and related statutory and constitutional 6 claims, the parties engaged in active motion practice. Van filed six motions relating to various 7 8 9 aspects of the litigation process and requesting sanctions against Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart’s counsel, including on May 21, 2010 (seeking sanctions for “court contempt, intimidation, United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 obstruction of justice, malicious practice, and lack of good faith), May 28, 2010 (asking the court 11 to “dismiss” Van’s deposition for “civil conduct violation” by Wal-Mart’s counsel), May 28, 2010 12 (seeking sanctions for “harassment” related to Wal-Mart’s inquiries and actions related to e-filing 13 of documents), May 28, 2010 (seeking sanctions for “professional and civil conduct violations”), 14 September 8, 2010 (seeking order holding Wal-Mart in contempt for evasive and incomplete 15 16 discovery responses), and November 18, 2010 (seeking sanctions for Wal-Mart’s “conduct and 17 breach of confidentiality”). On November 9, 2010, Wal-Mart moved for sanctions against Van, 18 seeking to “deter the filing of future Motions without meaningful meet and confer efforts,” and 19 similarly moved for sanctions on November 15, 2010 in conjunction with a motion for protective 20 order. In a number of written orders, the court denied all of the sanction requests.10 21 Wal-Mart seeks attorneys’ fees for the period in question in the amount of $274,610.50. 22 Wal-Mart also seeks payment of its bill of costs in the amount of $4,684.67. Wal-Mart has 23 24 7 25 See Docket No. 176 (Order Granting-In-Part and Denying-In-Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss). 26 8 See Docket No. 430 (Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment). 27 9 See Docket No. 442 (Notice of Appeal). 28 10 See Docket Nos. 86, 88, 89, 90, 181, 182. ORDER, page 3 1 provided documentation in support of both motions, including summaries of hours worked, market 2 data on comparable attorney compensation rates, and billing invoices to Wal-Mart from the 3 vendors used throughout the relevant litigation period. 4 II. 5 6 ATTORNEYS’ FEES Wal-Mart seeks to recoup its expenses in responding to and defending against Van’s repeated filing of what it calls “groundless vexatious motions” during the relevant time period. 7 8 9 Because Van brought these motions as part of her 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, Wal-Mart argues that an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees is warranted pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Van responds United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 that she brought her motions and Section 1983 allegations in good faith. 11 A. 12 13 Legal Standard Section 1988(b) provides that the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party in a Section 1983 action reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs.11 When a defendant is the 14 prevailing party in a civil rights action, fees are not awarded merely because the defendant prevails 15 16 on the merits.12 Rather, the court must find that the plaintiff’s action was unreasonable, frivolous, 17 meritless, or vexatious, even if not brought in subjective bad faith.13 An action is meritless if it is 18 “groundless or without foundation”14 and becomes frivolous “when the result appears obvious or 19 the arguments are wholly without merit.”15 In a case involving both frivolous and non-frivolous 20 claims, a court may award costs to the prevailing defendant only for expenses “it would not have 21 22 23 11 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). 12 See Allen v. City of Los Angeles, 66 F.3d 1052, 1058, n.2 (9th Cir. 1995). 24 25 13 26 See id. See also Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978); Galen v. County of Los Angeles, 477 F.3d 652, 666 (9th Cir. 2007). 27 14 Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980). 28 15 Galen, 477 F.3d at 666. ORDER, page 4 1 incurred but for the frivolous claims.”16 Moreover, a defendant may recover under Section 1988 “if 2 the plaintiff violates this standard at any point during the litigation, not just its inception.”17 3 The standard for awarding a defendant costs pursuant to Section 1988 reflects “quite 4 different equitable considerations” from those applied to plaintiffs prevailing on their civil rights 5 claims.18 A defendant’s award is intended to protect from “burdensome litigation having no factual 6 7 8 or legal basis.”19 Courts apply this standard with heightened scrutiny when the plaintiff proceeds pro se.20 In cases involving “multiple claims for relief that implicate a mix of legal theories and have 9 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 different merits,” the district court may apply Section 1988 only “to relieve a defendant of 11 expenses attributable to frivolous charges.”21 It is not the court’s goal to “achieve auditing 12 perfection;” the court may use estimates in calculating and allocating an attorney’s time.22 In doing 13 14 so, the court takes begins with a lodestar figure, which can then be adjusted to account for various factors, including the results obtained and the financial resources of the plaintiff.23 “While an 15 16 17 award of attorney’s fees for a frivolous lawsuit may be necessary to fulfill the deterrent purposes of 42 U.S.C. ' 1988 …, the award should not subject the plaintiff to financial ruin.”24 18 19 20 16 See Fox v. Vice, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2211 (2011). 21 17 Galen, 477 F.3d at 666 (citing Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 422). 22 18 See Fox, 131 S.Ct. at 2213 (citing Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 419). 23 19 See id. (citing Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 420). 24 20 See Miller v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Education, 827 F.2d 617, 19 (9th Cir. 1987). 25 21 See Fox, 131 S.Ct. at 2214. 26 22 See id. at 2216. 27 23 See Miller, 827 F.2d at 621. 28 24 See id. ORDER, page 5 1 B. Pursuit of Frivolous or Meritless Claims Whether an award of attorney’s fees is warranted thus turns on whether Wal-Mart was 2 3 forced to defend against “unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious” claims during the 4 relevant period. At the outset, as the Ninth Circuit requires, the court takes into consideration the 5 fact that Van proceeded without the benefit of counsel for the majority of the period in question. 6 Wal-Mart contends that Van knew at the time of filing her first complaint that Wal-Mart 7 8 9 and the Wal-Mart security team involved in the incident were not acting under color of state law, and that the toys flushed by RVN were Wal-Mart property, not RVN’s figures from home. Wal- United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 Mart points to the fact that Van did not and could not allege that Wal-Mart or its security were 11 performing a public function, engaged in joint action with the state, influenced or encouraged by 12 the state, or so closely related for their actions to be fairly treated as that of the state.25 Instead, 13 Wal-Mart argues that Van relied solely on conclusory allegations that Wal-Mart acted under color 14 of law, notwithstanding the absence of any facts to support the claim. Similarly, according to Wal15 16 Mart, Van premised her civil rights claims on the allegation that Wal-Mart stopped and detained 17 RVN because of his race, even though she knew that RVN had destroyed Wal-Mart property.26 18 Therefore, Wal-Mart argues that Van’s claims until the court’s January 2011 order dismissing all 19 but the later-added tort claims were without foundation because (1) Van knew that Wal-Mart had a 20 legitimate basis for its actions, and (2) could not be sued pursuant to Section 1983 because its 21 actions were not under color of law. Because Van continued to pursue these groundless claims and 22 related motions practice, Wal-Mart argues that Van should pay attorneys’ fees for the entire period 23 24 from November 2008 through January 2011. 25 26 25 27 See Docket No. 435 at 7 (Def.’s Mot. For Attorneys’ Fees) (citing Stanley v. Goodwin, 475 F. Supp. 2d 1026, 1038-40 (D. Hawaii 2006)). 28 26 See id. at 9 (citing Docket No.436, Pliner Decl., Ex. A (Van Depo. 59:2-19, 86:8-17)). ORDER, page 6 Van responds that she did not bring this action in bad faith and argues that her motions 1 2 were necessary to report Wal-Mart’s conduct to the court. She also emphasizes that Wal-Mart 3 having prevailed on the merits does not create a presumption of vexatious or bad faith litigation. 4 Otherwise, Van largely fails to address Wal-Mart’s arguments. In response to the contention that 5 there was no basis in law or fact for her Section 1983 and related claims, Van asserts that 6 7 8 9 Defendant delayed in filing its summary judgment motion for twenty months, did not comply with all applicable rules in litigating the case, and caused serious emotional injuries to Van.27 On these grounds, Van argues that the court should deny the motion for attorneys’ fees in its entirety. Despite the opportunity to gather and verify facts throughout the discovery process and to United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 11 twice amend her complaint, Van was unable to allege action under color of state law under any 12 cognizable legal theory.28 The court thus agrees with Wal-Mart that by maintaining her Section 13 1983 and related claims that were based upon an allegation of state action, Van continued to pursue 14 a set of claims that lacked foundation in fact. Yet in the case of a pro se litigant seeking to enforce 15 16 her civil rights, the court must take into account the difficulties inherent in ascertaining the merit of 17 a claim, and the danger that assessing fees against such an individual increases the risk of a chilling 18 effect.29 For these reasons, the Supreme Court has suggested that “attorney’s fees should rarely be 19 awarded against such plaintiffs.”30 20 21 27 See Docket No. 445 at 5 (Pl.’s Opp’n to Def.’s Mot. For Attorney’s Fees). 28 See Docket No. 176 at 1. 22 23 29 24 25 26 See Hughes, 449 U.S. at 14-15 (“An unrepresented litigant should not be punished for his failure to recognize subtle factual or legal deficiencies in his claims.”); Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at 422 (noting the risk that assessing fees against plaintiffs “simply because they do not finally prevail would substantially add to the risks inhering in most litigation and would undercut the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of the provisions of Title VII”). 30 27 28 See Hughes, 449 U.S. at 15 (citing to the principle set forth in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972) that the pleadings of pro se litigants should be held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers). See also Miller, 827 F.2d at 619 (“The Christianburg standard is applied with particular strictness in cases where the plaintiff proceeds pro se.”). ORDER, page 7 In Miller v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Education, the Ninth Circuit vacated a fee award 1 2 under 42 U.S.C. ' 1988, finding that the district court on remand must take into consideration the 3 plaintiff’s pro se status in assessing whether the action was without merit under Christiansburg.31 4 The court set forth factors for consideration in such a case, including whether the court found the 5 action appropriate for dismissal short of trial, the ability of the pro se plaintiff to recognize the 6 objective merit (or lack of merit) of a claim, and whether there is evidence of bad faith.32 7 In Miller, the district court had determined that the plaintiff’s action lacked merit in part 8 9 based on the fact that several administrative bodies had previously reviewed and rejected the same United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 discrimination claims.33 In contrast, here Van did not have the guidance of previous findings 11 regarding the objective lack of merit of her claims against Wal-Mart. On the other hand, the Miller 12 district court found a sufficient factual basis to allow plaintiff’s case to go to trial, whereas here the 13 court here dismissed the pertinent claims at the pleading stage, after Van had several opportunities 14 to amend. In sum, while there may be a sufficient basis upon which to find Van’s Section 1983 and 15 16 related claims lacked foundation, there are equally compelling reasons to find that she was without 17 sufficient ability or even capacity to fairly assess their merit. Nor does Wal-Mart suggest – and the 18 court does not find – evidence of bad faith. 19 20 21 22 Other district courts have refrained from awarding fees against a pro se plaintiff under similar circumstances. In Jefferson v. Save Mart Supermarket, the court dismissed the pro se plaintiff’s claim for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), but rejected the defendant supermarket’s motion for attorney’s fees under Section 1988.34 The court found that 23 24 notwithstanding the lack of legal merit to the claim, the plaintiff appeared to be unaware of the 25 31 See Miller, 827 F.2d at 620. 26 32 See id. 27 33 See id. 28 34 See No. S-09-2562 FCD/GGH, 2011 WL 3606643 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 2011). ORDER, page 8 1 defect in his claim and had not attempted previously to bring the same claim, militating against a 2 finding that the action was unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious.35 Similarly in Page v. 3 Jefferson Transit Authority, the court rejected the defendant transit authority’s motion for fees after 4 it prevailed against the pro se plaintiff’s discrimination claims at summary judgment.36 Looking at 5 the record as a whole, the court in Page noted that the plaintiff’s inability to carry his burden at 6 summary judgment and the fact that he earlier had lost a related claim and been ordered to pay fees 7 8 9 were insufficient grounds for awarding attorney’s fees under the Ninth Circuit’s stringent Section 1988 standard for pro se plaintiffs.37 In contrast, an award of fees against pro se plaintiffs may United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 appropriate under more extreme circumstances. For example, in DeNardo v. Johnstone, the court 11 ordered payment of attorney’s fees based on the plaintiff’s bad faith and extreme indifference to 12 multiple, earlier court rulings that “any lay person” would have recognized as a clear directive to 13 14 halt further litigation on the same claims, inclusive of an injunction against further litigation issued by the Ninth Circuit.38 15 In light of Van’s pro se status for the majority of the period in question, including the entire 16 17 period affected by what Wal-Mart deems to be vexatious motion practice, and the absence of any 18 evidence of bad faith or of Van’s ability to objectively weigh the merit of her Section 1983 and 19 related claims, the court finds insufficient grounds to grant Wal-Mart’s motion for attorneys’ fees. 20 21 22 23 24 25 35 See id, 2011 WL 3606643, at *3. 26 36 See No. C08-5456RJP, 2009 WL 2884754 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 8, 2009). 27 37 See id. at *2. 28 38 See 772 F. Supp. 462,467-70 (D. Alaska, 1991). ORDER, page 9 III. 1 BILL OF COSTS Fed. R. Civ. P. 54 creates a presumption in favor of allowing the prevailing party to collect 2 3 costs other than attorneys’ fees.39 Nevertheless, the district court retains discretion to refuse to 4 award costs based upon “specific reasons.”40 These reasons may include the losing party’s limited 5 financial resources, misconduct on the part of the prevailing party, and in the context of civil rights 6 cases, the potential chilling effect of imposing high costs on future civil rights litigants.41 Because 7 8 9 costs generally are awarded “as a matter of course,” the requirement that the district court must give reasons for denying costs “is, in essence, a requirement that the court explain why a case is not United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 ‘ordinary’ and why, in the circumstances, it would be inappropriate or inequitable to award 11 costs.”42 The court need not explain its reasons, however, for awarding costs consistent with Rule 12 54.43 The party objecting to the assignment of costs bears the burden of overcoming the 13 presumption and establishing why the prevailing party is not so entitled.44 14 Wal-Mart requests the court award its costs in the amount of $4,684.67. Wal-Mart has 15 16 submitted counsel’s summary of costs and copies of invoices submitted for services rendered in 17 connection with the litigation.45 In opposing costs, Van raises four issues: the economic disparity 18 between herself as an individual and Wal-Mart; her inability to pay the costs; the chilling effect on 19 39 20 21 22 See Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1) (“Unless a federal statute, these rules, or a court order provides otherwise, costs – other than attorney’s fees – should be allowed to the prevailing party.”). See also Ass’n of Mexican-Am. Educators v. State of Calif., 231 F.3d 572, 591 (9th Cir. 2000) (“By its terms, [Rule 54(d)(1)] creates a presumption in favor of awarding costs to a prevailing party, but vests in the district court discretion to refuse to award costs.”) (citing National Info. Servs., Inc. v. TRW, Inc., 51 F.3d 1470, 1471 (9th Cir. 1995)). 40 See Ass’n of Mexican-Am. Educators at 591. 41 See id. at 592 (citations omitted). 42 See id. at 593. 43 See Save Our Valley v. Sound Transit, 335 F.3d 932, 945 (9th Cir. 2003). 23 24 25 26 44 27 See id. at 944-945 (citing Stanley v. Univ. of Southern California, 178 F.3d 1069, 1079 (9th Cir. 1999)). 28 45 See Docket No. 433 (Pliner Decl. in Support of Bill of Costs), Exs. B, C, D. ORDER, page 10 1 future civil rights litigants; and whether the issues of the case were “close and complex.”46 Van 2 repeats the same arguments with respect to all aspects of Wal-Mart’s bill of costs. Van provides 3 little, however, support for her arguments. Her accompanying declaration states only that she has 4 “paltry resources” while Wal-Mart is a “large and powerful economic company,” and that Van 5 “cannot pay any costs in this litigation due to hardship.”47 Beyond these conclusory statements, 6 7 8 9 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 Van does not offer any evidence that she is of limited financial resources or would be subjected to hardship if ordered to pay Wal-Mart’s costs.48 Moreover, as discussed with respect to Wal-Mart’s motion for attorneys’ fees, Van’s civil rights claims were not meritorious because she could not allege state action on the part of Wal-Mart. 11 12 13 Even assuming the accuracy of Van’s statements regarding her limited financial resources and the complexity and merits of her case, the court does not find these reasons sufficient to overcome the presumption under Rule 54(d)(1). In Save Our Valley v. Sound Transit, the Ninth 14 Circuit affirmed the district court’s assignment of costs, even though the court did not explain its 15 16 reasoning and the losing party was a nonprofit organization with limited resources that had brought 17 a meritorious civil rights case raising issues of public importance.49 Although the Ninth Circuit 18 surmised that the district court may have believed the “relatively small sum” at issue would not 19 create a chilling effect on future civil rights litigation, and that there was no misconduct on the part 20 of the prevailing party or that were other reasons to award costs, the court rested its affirmance on 21 22 23 24 46 See Docket No. 449 at 2 (Pl.’s Opp’n to Def.’s Bill of Costs). 25 47 See Docket No. 448 at 2 (Van Decl. in Opp’n to Def.’s Bill of Costs). 26 48 27 Wal-Mart disputes that Van’s financial resources are so limited as to cause hardship and provides some support with its references to Van’s deposition testimony, as well as that of her husband. See Docket No. 452 at 3-4 (Def.’s Reply in Support of Bill of Costs). 28 49 See Save Our Valley v. Sound Transit, 335 F.3d at 945-46. ORDER, page 11 1 2 the fact that the district court “need only conclude that the reasons advanced by the party bearing the burden – the losing party – are not sufficiently persuasive to overcome the presumption.”50 Here, the court has not received evidence that would indicate an assignment of $4,684.67 in 3 4 costs will place Van in danger of financial hardship, and the only claims surviving until summary 5 judgment were based in tort, weakening any likelihood of a chilling effect on plaintiffs seeking to 6 raise meritorious civil rights claims under similar circumstances. Nor does the economic disparity 7 8 9 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 between Van and Wal-Mart or the fact that she zealously litigated her claims warrant a shift away from the presumption of costs to the prevailing party in this case. The court therefore GRANTS Wal-Mart’s Bill of Costs. 11 IV. 12 13 14 CONCLUSION In accordance with the foregoing, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Wal-Mart’s motion for attorneys’ fees is DENIED and Wal-Mart’s Bill of Costs is GRANTED. The clerk shall enter WalMart’s bill of costs as filed.51 15 16 Dated: 1/20/2012 _________________________________ PAUL S. GREWAL United States Magistrate Judge 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 50 See id. at 946. 51 See Docket No. 432. 28 ORDER, page 12

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