CHATRAGADDA v. DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY
MEMORANDUM re 164 MOTION to Disallow Costs Against Plaintiff filed by HEMASUDHA CHATRAGADDA. Signed by Judge Mark A. Kearney on 9/14/2017. (kly)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
September 14, 2017
Former doctoral student Hema Chatragadda sued Duquesne University alleging it
retaliated against her after she reported a research assistant sexually assaulted and harassed her. 1
We held a jury trial and the jury entered a verdict in the University's favor. 2 The University
moved for costs. 3
After considering Ms. Chatragadda's objections, the Clerk of Court
performed his ministerial duty to tax $4,654.25 in demonstrated costs. 4
Ms. Chatragadda now
moves for an order disallowing taxation of these costs due to indigence and inability to pay. 5
The University has not opposed her motion. Absent disputed facts and exercising our discretion,
we grant her motion to disallow taxation of costs in this unique situation of a former graduate
student with no funds and, given her immigration status, no ability to earn money under her
expiring student visa to pay the costs.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(l), costs other than attorney's fees may be
awarded to the prevailing party. 6 Upon timely motion, we may review the Clerk's decision. 7
We "may consider the non-prevailing party's indigence (or inability to pay costs) in fashioning a
costs award" as a matter of equity. 8 We review the Clerk's determination of costs de nova,
considering previous and newly brought evidence as a whole because the Clerk's determination,
while "quasi-judicial" is "essentially ministerial."9 We may look to the evidence produced by
the losing party to determine if, within our discretion, the taxation of costs may be exempted as a
matter of equity. 1 Factors to determine the equitable nature of a cost award include either the
prevailing party's unclean hands or bad faith tactics or the losing party's "potential indigency or
inability to pay the full measure of a costs award." 11 Factors which should not be considered are
the "complexity or closeness of the underlying issues," "the losing parties' good faith," or "the
relative disparities in wealth between the parties." 12 We may exempt the losing party from costs
but must be able to articulate our reasons for doing so. 13 The losing party bears the burden of
demonstrating the inequitable nature of the costs. 14 The losing party is required to overcome the
"strong presumption that costs are to be awarded to the prevailing party." 15
A. Ms. Chatragadda demonstrated indigence and an inability to pay costs.
Ms. Chatragadda asks we vacate the University's costs charged against her because her
indigence and inability to pay. 16 We may exempt or reduce costs if we find, based on the
evidence, it would be inequitable for her to pay costs due to her indigence or ability to pay. In
considering the inequitable nature of taxing costs due to a party's indigence, we may look to the
amount of assets she owns, her earned income, and her living situation. 17 These factors are not
exhaustive and we may use our "common sense" to determine the exemption or reduction of
Ms. Chatragadda argues she has "no assets" and is "unemployable" due to the restrictions
of her student visa. 19 She had previously been a doctoral candidate and received a stipend for her
studies and graduate work. 20
The University expelled Ms. Chatragadda from the doctoral
program, discontinuing her stipend. 21 She is paid significantly less than before through sporadic
short-term part-time employment. 22
Ms. Chatragadda is dependent on "the generosity of
others" and "[borrowed] funds from family and friends. " 23 Ms. Chatragadda argues her financial
situation is so dire she can only return home to India as required under her expiring visa if family
and friends loan her the money for a plane ticket. 24
The losing party may not be exempt from costs merely because she is supported by the
goodwill and gifts of family and friends, but it may be a factor in the determination of inequity. 25
In Wesley v. Dombrowski, the court held a prisoner is not exempt from costs because the state
provided him with food and basic necessities and his family and friends regularly sent money. 26
The prisoner also failed to adduce evidence he could not work while in prison and earn part-time
income. 27 Unlike the prisoner in Wesley, Ms. Chatragadda has shown she cannot earn income
outside of the University where she attended graduate school due to the conditions of her student
visa. 28 She attempts to gain employment by the University, but is unable to obtain a lasting and
self-sufficient paying position despite her efforts. 29 While the prisoner in Wesley had his basic
needs paid for by the state, it is unclear Ms. Chatragadda has a fallback option outside of relying
upon relatives and friends.
While evidence is necessary to determine indigence for purposes of vacating costs, we
are also required to use our "common sense." 30 A variety of types of evidence is used to
determine indigence. Our court of appeals cited indigence sworn in affidavits in its seminal
guidance in In re Pao!i. 31 Courts usually require at least an affidavit to show indigence. 32 Ms.
Chatragadda did not proffer an affidavit or financial documents evidencing her indigence. Her
attorney filed a certification of her indigence and inability to pay for a plane ticket home upon
the expiration of her visa, let alone pay the taxed costs. 33 She testified previously to her lack of
financial means following her inability to remain as a University student under her visa. 34 This
situation requires our "common sense" determination because there are "no hard and fast rules
for assessing a losing party's indigency or inability to pay." 35
We hesitate to disallow costs to the party winning a jury trial. The University incurred
costs and should not be cavalierly denied reimbursement because its former student is unable to
presently pay the costs.
If so, a university would have a tough time with many students who
lack an income source. This case presents a unique situation given Ms. Chatragadda's expiring
visa and limited work options. We have no evidence of her ability to obtain funds. She is leaving
the United States on borrowed money or gifts.
Costs should be awarded to reimburse and not
punish the civil rights plaintiff. But common sense, especially in light of Ms. Chatragadda' s visa
requirements, compels us to find her unable to pay her costs taxed against her in this unique time
in her life. Ms. Chatragadda's dependence on the charity of others, lack of assets, and inability
to earn income given her visa requirements also lead us to consider her indigent.
notice, nothing in this decision should be read as precedent outside of Ms. Chatragadda's
showing of indigence at this time.
B. Ms. Chatragadda's costs are vacated as a matter of equity.
Ms. Chatragadda is indigent and is unable to pay the costs taxed against her. A finding of
indigence does not automatically exempt Ms. Chatragadda from costs taxed against her. 36 In
Hinterberger v. Iroquois School District, the court reduced a costs award when a losing party
claimed indigence. 37
The losing party could not show she could not pay costs. 38
Chatragadda's situation, particularly her forced exit from the United States by plane and her
previous employment restrictions under her visa, is distinguishable from Hinterberger. It is
inequitable for Ms. Chatragadda to pay costs when she cannot obtain employment to earn
income and she is forced to borrow funds to return home to India when her visa expires.
C. Ms. Chatragadda's objections to specific costs are denied.
Ms. Chatragadda's objections to specific costs are denied as moot. 39
In the accompanying Order, we exercise our discretion and, as a matter of equity, grant
Ms. Chatragadda's unopposed motion to disallow the taxation of costs as inequitable due to her
indigence and inability to pay them in this extraordinary fact situation.
ECF Doc. No. 157, ~ 1-4.
ECF Doc. No. 157, ~ 1-4.
ECF Doc. No. 160, p. 1.
ECF Doc. No. 163, p. 1-2.
Id. Ms. Chatragadda also objects to specific costs and asks us to reduce her costs. Because we
exempt her from costs as a matter of equity, we need not address her objections here.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(l) ("[unless preempted by federal statute, another Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure, or a court order], costs--other than attorney's fees-should be allowed to the
prevailing party ... The clerk may tax costs on 14 days' notice. On motion served within the next
7 days, the court may review the clerk's action.").
In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 221 F.3d 449, 453 (3d Cir. 2000) (discussing review of
Clerk's taxation of costs by district court).
In re Paoli, 221 F.3d at 453 (emphasis omitted); see also id. at 463 (citing to cases in sister
circuits which had held that the "losing party's indigency or inability to pay the full measure of a
costs award against it" is a consideration district courts may use to review the appropriateness of
costs to the losing party).
Id. at 461; see also id (citing Farmer v. Arabian Am Oil Co., 379 U.S. 227, 233 (1964)
(explaining de novo review in costs case may involve examining new evidence outside of the
In re Paoli, 221 F.3d at 464.
Id. at 463.
Id. at 468.
Id. at 462-63.
Id. at 462 (citing 10 MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE,§ 54.101, at 54-149).
ECF Doc. No. 164, 'ii 12.
See Mazzarella v. Brady, No. 14-5654, 2016 WL 7231894, at *3 (E.D. Pa., Dec. 14,
2016)(citing Yudenko v. Guarinni, No. 06-4161, 2010 WL 2490679, at *4 (E.D. Pa., June 15,
Paoli, 221 F.3d at 464 n. 5 ("[T]here are no hard and fast rules for assessing a losing
party's indigency or inability to pay; district courts should use their common sense in making this
ECF Doc. No. 164, 'i!'i! 5, 9.
ECF Doc. No. 1, 'ii 70.
Id. at 'i!'i! 70-72.
ECF Doc No. 164, 'i!'i! 3, 10, 11.
ECF Doc. No. 164 'ii 10.
See Wesley v. Dombrowski, No. 03-4137, 2008 WL 2609720, at *5 (E.D. Pa., June 26, 2008);
but see Sullivan v. Warminster, No. 07-4447, 2013 WL 1934532, at *3 (E.D. Pa., May 9, 2013)
(taking into account for determination of indigence plaintiff "has no income, she has no bank
account, and she survives off Government assistance and charity from her family. Clearly, to
force [plaintiff] to pay costs in this matter would be unduly burdensome both financially and
emotionally.")(intemal quotation marks omitted)(emphasis added).
ECF Doc. No. 164, 'ii 5.
Compare ECF Doc. No. 1, iii! 70-71 (showing sporadic and short-term part-time employment)
and ECF Doc. No. 164, iii! 6-11 (claiming failure to obtain self-sufficient employment).
Id. at 460.
See Sullivan, 2013 WL 1934532, at *3 (E.D. Pa., May 9, 2013); see also Daddio v. A.I duPont
Hosp. for Children of Nemours Foundation, No. 05-441, 2011 WL 3563671, at *5 (E.D.Pa.
Aug. 12, 20ll)(finding insufficient evidence for indigency merely based on allegations)("There
is nothing in the record, such as financial records, affidavits, or tax returns that establish it would
be inequitable to impose costs on the plaintiffs.").
ECF Doc. No. 164, Ex. 2.
ECF Doc. No. 63, pp. 23-24.
Paoli, 221 F.3d at 464 n. 5.
Hinter berger v. Iroquois School Dist., No. 08-317, 2014 WL 1451456 (W.D. Pa., Apr. 14,
2014) (citing Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Babayan, 253 F. App'x 205, 207 (3d Cir. 2007)).
Id. at 3.
ECF Doc. No. 162, if 5.
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