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Latino Project Inc. v. City of Camden

decided: March 3, 1983.

LATINO PROJECT, INC., APPELLANT
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN, MELVIN PRIMAS, AND WILLIAM HANOWSKY, APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY.

Seitz, Chief Judge, Adams and Garth, Circuit Judges

Author: Seitz

Opinion OF THE COURT

SEITZ, Chief Judge.

Latino Project, Inc. appeals a judgment of the district court dismissing its complaint requesting attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1976).

I.

Appellant Latino Project is a private, non-profit corporation that provides legal services in the public interest through legal representation and litigation, counseling, and assistance to Hispanic and other individuals, groups and organizations. Appellees are the City of Camden, New Jersey; Melvin Primas, the Mayor of the City of Camden; and William Hanowsky, the Director of the City's Department of Community Development.

In 1980, Latino Project was retained by the Delaware Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (DVHCC) and Puerto Rican Unity for Progress (PRUP) in connection with their claims that the City of Camden discriminated against Hispanics in the allocation and distribution of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. In February of that year, DVHCC had submitted funding proposals of $174,599 and $81,881 to the City of Camden's Department of Community Development. PRUP had submitted a funding proposal of $200,019 at approximately the same time. The Department rejected the proposals of both groups by letter of April 7, 1980.

On May 29, 1980 Latino Project submitted an administrative complaint on behalf of DVHCC and PRUP to the Newark area office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The complaint alleged that appellees' failure to distribute CDBG funds to DVHCC and PRUP constituted discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as well as other specific program and statutory provisions. By letter of August 19, 1980 the supervisor of HUD's Newark area office advised DVHCC and PRUP of his finding that appellees had not discriminated against Hispanics in administering the CDBG program.

On December 11, 1980 the City of Camden approved a revised funding proposal of DVHCC in the amount of $136,000, for reasons about which the parties are in dispute. Based on this award, Latino Project filed a complaint in the district court seeking attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 as compensation for its efforts on behalf of DVHCC and PRUP.*fn1 The district court granted appellees' motion to dismiss the complaint. The court held inter alia that "a party who never filed suit at all may [not] obtain a fee award under section 1988." Latino Project, Inc. v. City of Camden, 534 F. Supp. 390, 393 (D.N.J. 1982). The court further held that "even if a party may obtain a fee award for administrative proceedings where the party never filed suit, Latino Project's work on behalf of DVHCC and PRUP did not rise even to the level of an administrative proceeding." Id. at 394. This appeal followed.

II.

This appeal concerns the proper interpretation of the words "civil action or proceeding" as used in 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The relevant portion of section 1988 provides:

In any civil action or proceeding to enforce a provision of Sections 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986 of Public Law 92-318, or Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court interpreted the words "civil action or proceeding" as designating only a civil lawsuit. Therefore, because Latino Project never filed a civil complaint asserting DVHCC's and PRUP's civil rights claims, the district court denied its request for attorney's fees under section 1988. Latino Project contends that in addition to civil lawsuits, section 1988 authorizes an award of attorney's fees to plaintiffs, such as ...


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