Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Harper v. City of Cleveland

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

January 10, 2020




         Before the Court is defendants' renewed motion for attorneys' fees (Doc. No. 46 [“Mot.”])[1]. Plaintiff filed his opposition (Doc. No. 48 [“Opp'n”]) and defendants filed their reply (Doc. No. 49 [“Reply”]). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 12, 2016, plaintiff Christopher Harper (“Harper” or “plaintiff”), an African-American and a former police officer for the City of Cleveland, Ohio, filed this lawsuit against defendants City of Cleveland, Ohio, Police Chief Calvin Williams, and Director of Public Safety Michael McGrath (collectively, the “City” or “defendants”) alleging generally that he suffered employment discrimination due to his race and in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights.

         Although Harper's claims were not set forth in separate counts, this Court construed the complaint as raising three claims: “(1) race discrimination in employment and (2) denial of equal protection (disparate treatment), both brought under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Ohio Rev. Code § 4112.01, et seq.; and (3) First Amendment retaliation, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” (Doc. No. 39, Memorandum Opinion [“Mem. Op.”] at 439.)

         On May 7, 2018, this Court dismissed the two individual defendants (sued only in their official capacities), granted summary judgment in favor of the City, and dismissed the action, concluding that Harper was unable “to establish a prima facie case under any of his legal theories, . . . [was unable] to show that the City's well-articulated and well-supported legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its disciplinary actions were not mere pretext for discrimination and/or retaliation[, ] [and failed] to show any causal connection between his ‘advocacy' and the City's disciplinary actions.” (Id. at 444, 446.)

         The Sixth Circuit affirmed the judgment on appeal, without oral argument, concluding that Harper “fail[ed] to establish a prima facie case of discrimination” and, in any event, “his claim would fail at the subsequent stages of the burden-shifting framework . . . [because] [t]he defendants identif[ied] a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the suspension and transfer—that Harper repeatedly neglected his duties as an employee and then lied to hide his misconduct.” Harper v. City of Cleveland, No. 18-3491, 2019 WL 2574980, at *5 (6th Cir. June 24, 2019). As for Harper's First Amendment retaliation claim, the court of appeals assumed that he had sufficiently alleged certain adverse actions by the City, but concluded that he “ultimately failed to establish the causal-connection element of the prima facie case.” Id. at *7.


         A. Applicable Law

         Generally, “in the absence of legislation providing otherwise, litigants must pay their own attorney's fees.” Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978). Of those statutes that make fee awards available, some permit an award to “the prevailing party, ” regardless of whether that is the plaintiff or the defendant, “and entrust[] the effectuation of the statutory policy to the discretion of the district courts.” Id. (footnote omitted). Section 1988(b) of Title 42, United States Code, is one such statute. It provides, in relevant part:

In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . .

         The Supreme Court has clarified that an award to a prevailing defendant “should be permitted ‘not routinely, not simply because he succeeds, but only where the action brought is found to be unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious.” Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421 (quoting Carrion v. Yeshiva Univ., 535 F.2d 722, 727 (2d Cir. 1976)); Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14-15, 101 S.Ct. 173, 66 L.Ed.2d 163 (1980) (holding that the Christiansburg standards apply to awards under § 1988); see also Wayne v. Vill. of Sebring, 36 F.3d 517, 530 (6th Cir. 1994) (“prevailing defendant should only recover upon a finding by the district court that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith[]”). But the district court should not presume that “because a plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have been unreasonable or without foundation.” Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422.

         “An award of attorney's fees against a losing plaintiff in a civil rights action is an extreme sanction, and must be limited to truly egregious cases of misconduct.” Jones v. Cont'l Corp., 789 F.2d 1225, 1232 (6th Cir. 1986). “Courts that have awarded fees to prevailing defendants have emphasized the lack of evidence of unconstitutional acts presented by the plaintiff.” Smith v. Smythe-Cramer Co., 754 F.2d 180, 184 (6th Cir. 1985) (collecting cases). The Sixth Circuit, when analyzing whether a district court has abused its discretion by awarding attorney's fees and costs to a prevailing defendant, considers the following factors: “(1) whether plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case; (2) whether defendant offered to settle the case; and (3) whether the trial court dismissed the case prior to trial or held a full-blown trial on the merits.” Balmer v. HCA, Inc., 423 F.3d 606, 616 (6th Cir. 2005), overruled on other grounds by Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 131 S.Ct. 2205, 180 L.Ed.2d 45 (2011).[2] Notably, however, mere failure to establish a prima facie case, by itself, is not dispositive. Garner v. Cuyahoga Cty. Juvenile Court, 554 F.3d 624, 637 (6th Cir. 2009).

         B. Discussion

         Defendants argue that this action clearly meets the standard articulated in Christiansburg.

There can be no better example of a groundless and meritless case where a [p]laintiff filed and maintained a case through the eve of trial knowing he had no admissible evidence to support the claims against the adverse parties. Plaintiff chose not to engage in any meaningful discovery, took no depositions, offered no witnesses (except his own self-serving and conclusory statements) in support of his position, and engaged in almost no written discovery. This is not a situation where the [p]laintiff hoped to find evidence about the parties through discovery. Instead, this is a case where [p]laintiff chose to do essentially nothing in the hopes of throwing the case to a jury for verdict. In doing so, he maintained his groundless claims against these parties knowing full well there was no competent evidence to support those claims.

(Mot. at 496.)

         Plaintiff makes no serious attempt to refute defendants' argument under Christiansburg that his claims were “unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious” from the start.[3] Instead, repeating his same groundless and unsupported “factual” assertions that he was unfairly “targeted” as “the leader of the airport police[]”—already rejected both by this Court and on appeal because it is not supported by the record—Harper repeatedly argues that there was no bad faith on his part and, therefore, an award of fees would be inappropriate. (Opp'n at 518-19.)[4]

         Harper also claims he “could not have been clairvoyant about the outcome[]” (id. at 525), and urges this Court, based on Christiansburg, to “‘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 ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.