Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Inc. v. Hotard, et al
ORDER AND REASONS denying 49 Motion for Attorney Fees. Signed by Judge Sarah S. Vance on 12/5/2017. (cg)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
GREATER NEW ORLEANS FAIR
HOUSING ACTION CENTER, INC.
JIM HOTARD AND 3839 ULLOA
SECTION “R” (3)
ORDER AND REASONS
Defendants move for attorney’s fees for their successful defense of a
Fair Housing Act suit. 1 For the following reasons, the Court denies the
This case arises out of allegations of housing discrimination at an
apartment building located at 3839 Ulloa Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The building is owned and operated by Jim Hotard and 3839 Ulloa Street,
Plaintiff Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Inc.
(GNOFHAC) filed this lawsuit on April 23, 2015, asserting a claim under the
R. Doc. 49.
Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq. 2
declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, attorney’s fees, and costs. 3
Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that Hotard treated potential renters for
his property differently on the basis of their race. More specifically, plaintiff
alleged that Hotard refused to respond to email inquiries regarding his
property from African-American testers but responded promptly to email
inquiries from white testers. 4 Plaintiff further alleged that Hotard responded
less favorably to phone inquiries from African-American testers than he did
to phone inquiries from white testers. 5
On July 17, 2017, the Court held a bench trial. After hearing live
testimony and reviewing all the evidence, the Court held that plaintiff had
failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Hotard
discriminated against its testers on the basis of their race. 6 Accordingly, the
Court rendered judgment in favor of defendants. Defendants now move for
attorney’s fees in the amount of $12,222.70 under the Fair Housing Act, 42
U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2).
R. Doc. 1.
R. Doc. 1 at 11-12.
Id. at 4-6.
Id. at 6-8.
R. Doc. 47.
It is the general rule in the United States that in the absence of
legislation providing otherwise, litigants are liable for their own attorney’s
fees. See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, 434 U.S. 412, 415 (1978) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Co. v.
Wilderness Soc’y, 421 U.S. 240 (1975)). Congress has provided limited
exceptions to this rule under certain statutes protecting particular federal
rights. See id. Like other civil rights statutes, the FHA provides the district
court with a great deal of flexibility and discretion in awarding attorney’s fees
to either a prevailing plaintiff or a prevailing defendant. See id. at 416. The
FHA states: “In a civil action under subsection (a) of this section, the court,
in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States,
a reasonable attorney’s fee and costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2).
A prevailing plaintiff in a civil rights case should receive attorney’s fees
“in all but special circumstances” in order to encourage private enforcement
of the civil rights statutes. Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 417. But the policy
considerations that support granting fees to a prevailing plaintiff are not
present when the defendant prevails. As such, a district court may grant
attorney’s fees to a prevailing defendant only when the court finds that the
action was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not
brought in subjective bad faith.” Id. at 421; see also NAACP v. City of Kyle,
626 F.3d 233, 239 (5th Cir. 2010) (applying this standard to FHA claim). The
Supreme Court has emphasized that district courts should not find that a
plaintiff’s action was unreasonable or groundless simply because she did not
See Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22.
Engaging in such
“hindsight logic” would “discourage all but the most airtight claims” and
undercut the efforts of Congress to promote vigorous enforcement of civil
rights statutes. Id. at 423.
Defendants first argue that they are entitled to attorney’s fees because
plaintiff’s complaint was unreasonable, groundless, and without merit.
Although plaintiff did not prevail at trial, nothing in the record suggests that
its claims were unreasonable or frivolous when filed.
Before filing its
complaint, GNOFHAC conducted five tests to investigate whether Hotard
discriminated based on race. The test results showed differential responses
to African-American and white testers. Allegations based on this evidence
sufficed to make out an FHA claim. See, e.g., Havens Realty Corp. v.
Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 370, 374 (1982) (affirming circuit court’s holding
that tester who allegedly experienced discrimination had standing to bring
an FHA claim).
Defendants further argue that plaintiff continued to litigate this case
even though discovery revealed that the case lacked merit. At trial, Hotard
testified that he was not aware of the testers’ race. The Court found this
testimony credible, and concluded that plaintiff failed to establish by a
preponderance of the evidence that Hotard knew the race of the AfricanAmerican testers. This conclusion was fatal to plaintiff’s FHA claim. But
“attorney’s fees for prevailing defendants are presumptively unavailable
unless a showing is made that the underlying civil rights suit was vexatious,
frivolous, or otherwise without merit.” Dean v. Riser, 240 F.3d 505, 508 (5th
Cir. 2001) (emphasis added).
Hotard’s trial testimony, and the Court’s credibility determination, do
not render plaintiff’s underlying suit frivolous or unreasonable. To conclude
otherwise would be precisely the type of post hoc reasoning the Supreme
Court cautioned against in Christiansburg. There, the Supreme Court made
clear that a district court must not rely solely on the ultimate outcome of the
litigation as the standard for whether attorney’s fees should be awarded.
Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421. As the Supreme Court stated, “[n]o 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.” 434 U.S. at 422. In this case, GNOFHAC was
unable to support its claims with evidence sufficient to show discriminatory
intent. For the Court to assess attorney’s fees against plaintiff simply because
it proved unsuccessful would add substantially to the risks of litigation and
undermine the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of
the FHA. Thus, defendants are not entitled attorney’s fees.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES defendants’ motion for
New Orleans, Louisiana, this _____ day of December, 2017.
SARAH S. VANCE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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