United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division
THOMAS POOR BEAR, DON DOYLE, CHERYL D. BETTELYOUN, and JAMES RED WILLOW, Plaintiffs,
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
E. SCHREIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. 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.”).
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
Whether Plaintiffs were a Prevailing Party
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