Ocean Beauty Seafoods LLC et al v. Pacific Seafood Group Acquisition Company, Inc.

Filing 71

ORDER denying plaintiffs' 63 Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs by Judge Ricardo S Martinez.(PM)

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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT SEATTLE 5 6 7 8 OCEAN BEAUTY SEAFOODS LLC, et al., Plaintiffs, 9 10 11 12 v. PACIFIC SEAFOOD GROUP ACQUISITION COMPANY INC., et al., 13 Defendants. 14 I. 15 16 ) ) CASE NO. C14-1072RSM ) ) ) ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFFS’ ) MOTION FOR ATTORNEY’S FEES ) ) ) ) ) ) ) INTRODUCTION This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs. 17 Dkt. #63. Plaintiffs argue that because they were the prevailing parties on Defendants’ prior 18 19 motions for preliminary injunction, and because there is a unilateral attorney’s fees clause 20 pertaining to legal actions to enforce covenant clauses in Plaintiff Michael Coulston’s former 21 employment agreement, Oregon law mandates that Defendants now pay Mr. Coulston’s 22 attorney’s fees and costs. Id. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs were not the “prevailing parties” 23 as intended under Oregon law, and therefore the request for fees and costs should be denied. 24 25 Dkt. #65. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court DENIES Plaintiffs’ motion. II. 26 27 28 DISCUSSION At issue on this motion is whether Plaintiffs are prevailing parties for purposes of an award of attorneys’ fees and costs, and whether they are entitled to receive an award of such ORDER PAGE - 1 1 fees under Oregon law. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs are precluded from such an award by 2 the law of the case doctrine and by judicial estoppel, primarily asserting that the Ninth Circuit 3 has already determined that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties under Oregon law. Dkt. #65 at 4 3-6. Specifically, Defendants assert that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because they have 5 not received a favorable judgment on their claim, and this Court may not reconsider that 6 7 assertion because it was decided by the Ninth Circuit when that court previously denied 8 Defendants’ request for attorneys’ fees after it successfully appealed the Court’s order on their 9 initial motion for preliminary injunction. Id. The Court now finds that Plaintiffs are not 10 prevailing parties at this juncture of the case, and therefore are not entitled to attorneys’ fees 11 and costs. 12 13 Both the United States Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have 14 discussed what is required to be considered a “prevailing party” on a claim: a party must 15 “succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties 16 sought in bringing suit.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 109, 113 S. Ct. 566, 121 L. Ed. 2d 17 18 494 (1992) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 19 (1983)); LSO, Ltd. v. Stroh, 205 F.3d 1146, 1160 (9th Cir. 2000). In other words, a party 20 “‘prevails’ when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship 21 between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the 22 plaintiff.” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111-12; UFO Chuting of Haw., Inc. v. Smith, 508 F.3d 1189, 23 24 1197 (9th Cir. 2007). “Relief ‘on the merits’ occurs when the material alteration of the parties’ 25 legal relationship is accompanied by ‘judicial imprimatur on the change.’” Higher Taste, Inc. 26 v. City of Tacoma, 717 F.3d 712, 715 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, 27 28 ORDER PAGE - 2 1 2 3 4 Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605, 121 S. Ct. 1835, 149 L. Ed. 2d 855 (2001)). Although the Supreme Court has held that “[n]o material alteration of the legal relationship between the parties occurs until the plaintiff becomes entitled to enforce a 5 judgment, consent decree, or settlement against the defendant,” Farrar, 506 U.S. at 113, the 6 7 Ninth Circuit has made clear that in certain circumstances, “prevailing party” status may be 8 accorded to those who obtain injunctive relief. See UFO, 508 F.3d at 1197 (defining prevailing 9 party as one who “achieves the objective of its suit by means of an injunction issued by the 10 district court”); Williams v. Alioto, 625 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1980) (per curiam) (holding that 11 a plaintiff who obtains a preliminary injunction prevails on at least some of the merits of its 12 13 claims); Harris v. McCarthy, 790 F.2d 753, 757 (9th Cir. 1986) (issuance of preliminary 14 injunction, without more, warranted an award of attorneys’ fees because the plaintiffs 15 succeeded on a significant issue in the litigation and achieved some of the benefit they sought 16 in bringing suit). “A preliminary injunction issued by a judge carries all the ‘judicial 17 18 19 imprimatur’ necessary to satisfy Buckhannon.” Watson v. Cnty. of Riverside, 300 F.3d 1092, 1096 (9th Cir. 2002). 20 In Higher Taste, supra, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that “[p]recisely 21 because the relief afforded by a preliminary injunction may be undone at the conclusion of the 22 case, some inquiry into events postdating the injunction’s issuance will generally be 23 24 necessary.” Higher Taste, 717 F.3d at 717. Indeed, if a party obtains a preliminary injunction 25 but loses on the merits after a case is litigated to final judgment, that party is not a prevailing 26 party. Id. By contrast, “when a plaintiff wins a preliminary injunction and the case is rendered 27 moot before final judgment, either by the passage of time or other circumstances beyond the 28 ORDER PAGE - 3 1 parties’ control, the plaintiff is a prevailing party eligible for a fee award.” Id. (citing Watson, 2 300 F.3d at 1096). The reasoning for this is that the plaintiff “received relief that was as 3 enduring as a permanent injunction would have been and, by virtue of the case’s mootness, that 4 relief was no longer subject to being ‘reversed, dissolved, or otherwise undone by the final 5 decision in the same case.” Id. (citations omitted) (emphasis added). 6 7 Applying these legal principles to the instant case, Plaintiffs cannot be deemed 8 prevailing parties at this time. As the parties and this Court are well-aware, this matter has 9 already been to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, wherein the Court’s denial of a preliminary 10 injunction was reversed. After remand, this Court again denied Defendants’ motion for 11 preliminary injunction, and that Order is now the subject of a Petition for Writ of Mandamus 12 13 and a separate appeal. Ninth Circuit Case Nos. 15-72008 and 15-35608. Importantly, also at 14 issue in Defendants’ Petition for the Writ of Mandamus is the Court’s decision that the one- 15 year non-compete term should not be equitably tolled. In these circumstances, the Court is 16 unable to ignore the potential for a reversal’s substantial effect upon the disposition of this 17 18 action. If the Ninth Circuit determines that Defendants should have received a preliminary 19 injunction, and that such injunction should be tolled, then any relief Plaintiffs enjoyed is a 20 nullity. In other words, had the preliminary injunction issued, Plaintiffs would not have 21 enjoyed any judicially-sanctioned relief. 22 A case out of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals articulates this rationale, albeit in 23 24 reverse (but analogous) circumstances. In Pottgen v. Missouri State High School Activities 25 Association, the plaintiff brought an action against the defendant because it refused to allow 26 him to participate in interscholastic athletics during the 1993-94 school year, citing By-Law 27 232, which prohibited students 19 years of age or older from participating in interscholastic 28 ORDER PAGE - 4 1 sports. 103 F.3d 720, 722 (8th Cir. 1997). The plaintiff obtained a preliminary injunction on 2 the merits, which allowed him to play baseball for his high school baseball team. 3 Defendant appealed. 4 Id. By the time the defendant’s appeal of the decision was heard, the baseball season had 5 ended. Id. The Eight Circuit nevertheless addressed the appeal because a live controversy 6 7 8 9 10 existed regarding a portion of the injunction. Id. It reversed the preliminary injunction and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with its holding. Id. Notwithstanding the reversal, its issuance of an order rescinding all injunctive relief, and its dismissal of the complaint with prejudice, the district court determined that the plaintiff 11 was a prevailing party and awarded him attorneys’ fees and expenses. Id. The Eighth Circuit 12 13 reversed the order awarding fees and costs, holding that “the only judgment upon which 14 Pottgen can base a claim of prevailing party status has been reversed, and hence nullified. That 15 judgment therefore does not constitute success on the merits for the purposes of awarding 16 attorney’s fees, and Pottgen is consequently not a prevailing party.” Id. at 724. The Pottgen 17 18 court further explained: While we recognize that Pottgen was able to play baseball, this opportunity was the result of an incorrect ruling by the district court. Had it not been for the passage of time between the district court’s grant of injunctive relief and this Court’s reversal of that relief, MSHSAA could have enforced its ByLaw 232 as written against Pottgen. In addition, MSHSAA has in no way been barred from future enforcement of By-Law 232 against any other student. Thus, Pottgen cannot be considered to be prevailing party in any meaningful sense. He got the chance to play baseball only because the district court erred in granting a TRO and preliminary injunctive relief. A victory of this sort – one due to an incorrect ruling by the district court – is not sufficient to support a finding of prevailing party status. 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 ORDER PAGE - 5 1 Id. at 724 n.14 (emphasis added). Other District Courts in this Circuit have followed this 2 reasoning. See, e.g., Korab v. Wong, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92125, *8-16 (D. Haw. July 15, 3 2015). 4 Much like the plaintiffs in Pottgen and Korab, any success enjoyed by Plaintiffs in this 5 action has been due solely to this Court’s multiple denials of a preliminary injunction, which 6 7 have been and are now currently the subject of a Petition and appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court 8 of Appeals. While the Court recognizes that in both Pottgen and Korab, the District Court had 9 already been reversed at the time of considering attorneys’ fees and costs, this Court finds that 10 difference insignificant. Given the procedural posture of the instant matter, the potential that 11 this Court may once again be reversed, and the principles discussed above, the Court finds that 12 13 Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties at this stage of the litigation and they are not yet entitled to 14 an award of fees and costs. Having reached this conclusion, the Court does not specifically 15 address Defendants’ arguments pertaining to “law of the case doctrine” and judicial estoppel. 16 III. CONCLUSION 17 18 Having reviewed Plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees and costs, the opposition thereto 19 and reply in support thereof, along with the remainder of the record, the Court hereby finds and 20 ORDERS that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Attorneys’ Fees (Dkt. #63) is DENIED. 21 DATED this 29 day of July 2015. 22 23 A 24 25 RICARDO S. MARTINEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 26 27 28 ORDER PAGE - 6

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