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Dotzel v. Ashbridge

December 14, 2007

NORBERT J. DOTZEL, JR., D/B/A DOTZEL TRUCKING, AND JOANNE DOTZEL, D/B/A DOTZEL TRUCKING, PLAINTIFFS
v.
ERNEST ASHBRIDGE, JOHN R. BOWER, DARREN CRISPIN, AND SALEM TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James M. Munley United States District Court

(Judge Munley)

MEMORANDUM

Before the court is defendants' motion for attorney fees. Having been briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.

Background

Plaintiffs' filed the instant matter in August 2003. The case centered around defendants' refusal to provide plaintiffs with a permit for a quarry they hoped to locate on their property within the Township. The plaintiffs alleged that defendants' refusal to provide them with a permit was motivated by self dealing, and that zoning officials improperly required the plaintiffs to meet conditions unnecessary under state and local law. The Luzerene County Court of Common Pleas eventually reversed the Township's decision. After prevailing in state court, plaintiffs filed the instant action, raising various First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. After considering defendants' motion, this court dismissed all of plaintiffs claims except for a substantive due process claim and a Monell claim for municipal liability. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with this court on most aspects of that decision, but concluded we had erred in finding that members of the Township Planning Commission were not entitled to absolute immunity for their individual acts.

The Third Circuit remanded the case to this court, and the parties undertook discovery. When the discovery period ended, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. On November 15, 2007, we filed our memorandum and order granting the defendants' motion. We concluded a plaintiff had to demonstrate that the defendants engaged in behavior which shocked the conscience to prevail on a due process claim related to a zoning decision. Though the plaintiffs had made allegations of improper motivation and corrupt dealing by the defendants, we found that they had not advanced evidence by which a jury could conclude that such behavior had occurred. We accordingly granted defendants' motion and closed the case.

Defendants then filed the instant motion (Doc. 59) seeking attorneys fees and costs from the plaintiffs. In addition to filing documents in response to defendants' motion for attorneys fees, plaintiffs also filed a notice of appeal for our decision on summary judgment, bringing the case to its present posture.

Jurisdiction

Since plaintiffs filed their original complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.").

Legal Standard

Section 1988 of Chapter 42 of the United States Code provides in relevant part that "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of" section 1983 "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(b). While "[t]he 'prevailing party' can be either the plaintiff or the defendant[,] . . . the standard for awarding attorney's fees to prevailing defendants is more stringent than for awarding fees to prevailing plaintiffs." Barnes Found. v. Twp. of Lower Merion, 242 F.3d 151, 157-58 (3d Cir. 2001). The Supreme Court has concluded that "a plaintiff should not be assessed his opponent's attorney's fees unless a court finds that his claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so . . . if a plaintiff is found to have brought or continued such a claim in bad faith, there will be an even stronger basis for charging him with the attorney's fees incurred by the defense." Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978). In determining whether attorney's fees for the defendant are justified, courts must "'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 unreasonable or without foundation.'" Id. (quoting Christianburg, 434 U.S. at 421-22). Accordingly,"'attorney's fees [to a prevailing Title VII defendant] are not routine, but are to be only sparingly awarded.'" EEOC v. L.B. Foster Co., 123 F.3d 746, 751 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 503 (3d Cir. 1991).

Defendants argue that plaintiffs should be liable for attorneys fees and costs in part because defendants "have been successful at every stage of the proceeding."*fn1

(Affidavit supporting plaintiff's motion for attorney fees and costs (Doc. 60) at ΒΆ 27). Defendants also assert that "in an effort to overstate their case or to bludgeon the Township into submission, Plaintiffs asserted factual allegations that they could not prove, legal contentions ...


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