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Bear v. County of Jackson

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division

January 4, 2017

THOMAS POOR BEAR, DON DOYLE, CHERYL D. BETTELYOUN, and JAMES RED WILLOW, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE COUNTY OF JACKSON, a political subdivision and public corporation organized under the laws of the State of South Dakota; THE BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR THE COUNTY OF JACKSON, a political subdivision and public corporation organized under the laws of the State of South Dakota; VICKI WILSON, in her official capacity as the Jackson County Auditor GLEN BENNETT, in his official capacity as Jackson County Commissioner; LARRY DENKE, in his official capacity as Jackson County Commissioner; LARRY JOHNSTON, in his official capacity as Jackson County Commissioner; JIM STILWELL, in his official capacity as Jackson County Commissioner; and RON TWISS, in his official capacity as Jackson County Commissioner, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS

          KAREN E. SCHREIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs seek attorney fees and costs under section 14(e) of the Voting Rights Act, codified at 52 U.S.C. § 20510(c). Docket 96. Defendants oppose the motion. Docket 100. On July 11, 2016, this court granted plaintiffs' motion to limit its motion for attorney fees to address only the issue of entitlement to attorney fees and costs. Docket 95. For the reasons that follow, the court denies plaintiffs' motion for attorney fees and costs.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in southwestern South Dakota and encompasses the southern half of Jackson County and all of Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota. Plaintiffs are enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who reside in Jackson County, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Defendants are entities and individuals responsible for managing elections in Jackson County.

         Plaintiffs filed this action on September 18, 2014, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief that would require defendants to establish a satellite office for voter registration and in-person absentee voting in the town of Wanblee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. On October 15, 2014, the parties participated in a settlement conference before United States Magistrate Judge Veronica Duffy. After the settlement conference, Jackson County agreed to fund a satellite office for the remaining time period leading up to the 2014 general election.

         On November 13, 2015, the Jackson County Commission formed an agreement with the South Dakota Secretary of State's Office under which all funds necessary to operate a satellite office in Wanblee would be provided during all federal primary and general elections through January 1, 2023. With funding in place for the satellite office, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds of ripeness. Docket 45. Defendants' motion to dismiss on ripeness grounds was granted on June 17, 2016. Docket 92.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard for Award of Attorney Fees

         “ ‘In the United States, parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees-the prevailing party is not entitled to collect from the loser.' ” Doe v. Nixon, 716 F.3d 1041, 1048 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 602 (2001)). “An exception to this general rule applies when Congress has provided explicit statutory authority for awarding fees to a prevailing party.” Id. One such exception is found in the Voting Rights Act, which provides that a “court may allow the prevailing party (other than the United States) reasonable attorney fees, including litigation expenses, and costs.” 52 U.S.C. § 20510(c).

         In Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604-05, the Supreme Court set forth a two-part test for determining whether a party is considered a prevailing party when there is no final judgment on the merits of the case.[2] The first step requires a party to demonstrate a “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.” Id. at 604 (quoting Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792-93 (1989)). The second step requires that the relief be “judicially sanctioned.” Id. at 605. Only when both steps of this analysis are satisfied, can a party be deemed a prevailing party. See Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Ctr. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 589 F.3d 1027, 1030 (9th Cir. 2009) (“The material alteration and the judicial sanction are two separate requirements.”); see also Coates v. Powell, 639 F.3d 471, 474 (8th Cir. 2011) (“A ‘prevailing party' is one that obtains a judicially sanctioned, material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.”).

         Through its Buckhannon decision, “the Supreme Court rejected the ‘catalyst theory' then prevailing in the circuit courts, which permitted a plaintiff to recover fees if the lawsuit achieved the desired result through a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct.” N. Cheyenne Tribe v. Jackson, 433 F.3d 1083, 1085 (8th Cir. 2006). The Supreme Court “determined that a legal change, rather than a voluntary change, in the relationship of the parties is required [to confer prevailing party status].” Christina A. v. Bloomberg, 315 F.3d 990, 992 (8th Cir. 2003). Thus, “[a] defendant's voluntary change in conduct, although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change.” Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605. In determining what actions provide the necessary judicial imprimatur to bestow prevailing party status, the Eighth Circuit has observed that “a mere private settlement does not qualify, because ‘[p]rivate settlements do not entail the judicial approval and oversight involved in consent decrees.' ” Bill M. v. Neb. Dep't of Health & Human Servs. & Fin. Support, 570 F.3d 1001, 1003 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604 n.7); see also Buckhannon, 532 U.S.at 604 n.7 (observing that “federal jurisdiction to enforce a private contractual settlement will often be lacking unless the terms of the agreement are incorporated into the order of dismissal”).

         II. Whether Plaintiffs were a Prevailing Party

         Plaintiffs did not obtain a final judgment because the court dismissed as moot plaintiff's case. See Docket 92. Thus, for plaintiffs to be considered the prevailing party thereby allowing plaintiffs to recover attorney fees under the Voting Rights Act, they must meet both steps of Buckhannon's two-part test as described above. See Loudner v. United States, 379 F.Supp.2d 1048, 1051 (D.S.D. 2005) (describing how the relief obtained by a prevailing party must “ ‘materially alter[] the legal relationship between the parties' ” and that “ ...


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