The opinion of the court was delivered by: KELLY
Presently before this court is defendant Local 1598, District Council 88, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO's (AFSCME) motion for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
Before addressing the fee award issue a review of the procedural and factual history of this case is necessary. Ms. Sellers is a township employee and a member of the local AFSCME union which operates under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the township. The plaintiff was suspended without pay for chronic lateness but she alleged that the suspension for "cause" was merely a pretext for the township's disparate treatment of her because she is a vocal political opponent of the township supervisors. Ms. Sellers was a registered member of the same party that controlled the local board of supervisors, however, she supported another faction within her party.
The CBA provides that an employee may appeal the suspension. The appeal process has four stages to it and Ms. Sellers had unsatisfactorily completed the first two stages. A step three hearing was to be held in front of the Board of Supervisors, which is composed of five (5) members, three Republican and two Democrats. Plaintiff believed that because of political animosity, she would be unable to receive an impartial hearing. Ms. Sellers commenced suit in this court seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the hearing from taking place. The TRO was denied. The basis of her claim was that the hearing as structured violated her procedural due process rights under the fourteenth amendment. Thereafter, Ms. Sellers amended her complaint appending civil rights claims against the union and the township as well as state pendent law claims.
In Count III Ms. Sellers claimed that she was entitled to a pre-suspension hearing. I noted that plaintiff had cited no case law for that proposition, nevertheless, I undertook an examination of her private interests, the risk of erroneous deprivation of her property rights and the government's interest and found that a pre-suspension hearing was not warranted by the fourteenth amendment. Id. at 1211. Count VI of the complaint stated that the defendants conspired to deny her equal protection of the law because of her right wing political affiliation. 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). In dismissing this count, the court held that § 1985(3) does not cover non-racial politically motivated conspiracy. Id. at 1212. Since no federal causes of action remained, the court declined to exercise jurisdiction solely over the pendent claims.
AFSCME contends that the basis for Ms. Sellers' suit was frivolous, unreasonable and without factual foundation and since they are the "prevailing party" they are entitled to reasonable attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
The Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1988 provides the district court with discretionary power to award reasonable attorney's fees to a prevailing party in any action under §§ 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986.
The Supreme Court, in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 54 L. Ed. 2d 648, 98 S. Ct. 694 (1978) set forth the standard lower courts shall apply in determining whether awards should be made. The award of an attorney's fee should only be made to the successful defendant where the action brought is found to be unreasonable frivolous, meritless or vexatious. Id. at 421.
The Court went on to expound upon the meaning of these terms by underscoring the point that meritless is synonymous with groundless and/or without foundation. It is never meant to imply that because plaintiff failed to prevail on the merits the cause of action was "groundless". Lastly, a showing of the plaintiff's subjective bad faith was not a prerequisite to a finding that the suit was motivated by the vexatious feelings of plaintiff towards defendant.
"In sum, a district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant . . . upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation even though not brought in subjective bad faith." Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421.
The defendant can be said to have prevailed on two of the six causes of action stated in the complaint. This court, after close inspection, found no legal merit in Ms. Sellers' claims that a presuspension hearing was warranted under the fourteenth amendment or that § 1985(3) was intended to ...