ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civ. No. 78-0267)
Before Seitz, Chief Judge, Van Dusen, Circuit Judge, and Shapiro, District Judge.*fn**
The plaintiffs appeal from an order of the district court denying their request for attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
Plaintiffs are a class of indigents residing in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The defendants are district justices for the county (formerly known as district magistrates). District justices are elected judicial officials, and their jurisdiction includes mainly minor civil matters and petty and/or summary criminal matters. See Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. tit. 42, § 1515.
In March of 1978, the plaintiffs brought this action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the defendants in their official and individual capacities. Plaintiffs challenged the defendants' alleged practice of sending convicted indigents to jail for summary or petty offenses without first affording a right to counsel where Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 92 S. Ct. 2006, 32 L. Ed. 2d 530 (1972), so requires. After the action was filed, the plaintiffs' counsel had several meetings with defendants' counsel at the Beaver County court house. Although the record is not entirely clear on this point, it appears that the solicitor for the county court administrator and a representative from the state court administrator attended at least some of these meetings.
The plaintiffs' counsel testified without dispute that some time after the action was filed, the President Judge of the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas sent a letter to the defendants through the county court administrator's office instructing them to comply with Argersinger. There is no copy of this letter in the record. In addition, in an unrelated case in which an appeal was taken from a sentence imposed by one of the defendants, the common pleas court held that Argersinger had been violated.
While this action was pending, the defendants on the whole began to comply with Argersinger. Thereafter, the defendants moved to dismiss the case as moot. The plaintiffs did not oppose the motion, and the district court granted it.
The plaintiffs then moved for attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that although the plaintiffs were prevailing parties, the defendants, as judges, were entitled to an immunity defense both in their individual and official capacities. This appeal followed.
At the outset, the defendants challenge the district court's conclusion that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties within the meaning of § 1988. Although the district court was rather brief in this regard, we believe that, given the record in this case, its conclusion was correct. In this circuit, the test of whether a person is a prevailing party is whether he "essentially succeeds in obtaining the relief he seeks in his claims on the merits." Bagby v. Beal, 606 F.2d 411, 415 (3d Cir. 1979).
Here, the district court necessarily concluded that the defendants had been violating Argersinger prior to this action and stopped after the action was filed. Indeed, it was hard for the court to conclude otherwise. The only evidence of record on the point is that of plaintiffs' counsel, who testified that he had investigated the matter and found violations before the action was filed but few after. The defendants introduced no testimony to contradict this. The district court thus was not clearly erroneous in concluding that the defendants had been violating Argersinger prior to the institution of this action and stopped afterwards.
Because the defendants stopped violating Argersinger, the plaintiffs received precisely the relief they wanted. Moreover, the fact that the action was dismissed makes no difference. Under § 1988 the focus is on the relief received rather than any formal procedural labels. See Bagby, supra, 606 F.2d at 414-15; Ross v. Horn, 598 F.2d 1312, ...