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Christianson v. Markquart

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 19, 2018

ERIK DANIEL CHRISTIANSON Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFREY MARKQUART, in his official capacity as Martin County Sheriff Defendant.

          Bradford W. Colbert, LEGAL ASSISTANCE TO MINNESOTA PRISONERS, MITCHELL HAMLINE SCHOOL OF LAW, for plaintiff.

          Andrew Allen Wolf and Jason M. Hiveley, IVERSON REUVERS CONDON, for defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART ATTORNEY FEES

          JOHN R. TUNHEIM CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Erik Christianson brought this action against Martin County Sheriff Jeffrey Markquart for assessing pay-for-stay costs against Christianson during his stay at the Martin County Jail without considering whether Christian qualifies for a waiver of payment of the costs.[1] Christianson argued that Markquart violated Minn. Stat. § 641.12, subd. 3(b), and the Due Process Clauses of the United States and Minnesota Constitutions. The Court entered summary judgment for Christianson because Markquart failed to consider whether Christianson qualified for a waiver pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 641.12, subd. 3(b). Christianson v. Markquart, No. 16-1034, 2018 WL 461134, at *5 (D. Minn. Jan. 17, 2018). The Court did not reach the constitutional issues.

         Now, Christianson moves for attorney fees in the amount of $17, 300. (Mot., January 31, 2018, Docket No. 45.) The Court will grant in part and deny in part Christianson's motion, awarding Christianson $6, 075.00 in attorney fees.

         DISCUSSION

         A prevailing plaintiff who brings an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 may be awarded “a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). “Prevailing plaintiffs should ordinarily recover fees unless special circumstances would make such an award unjust.” Jenkins ex rel. Jenkins v. Missouri, 127 F.3d 709, 716 (8thCir. 1997).

         I. PREVAILING PARTY

         The Court must decide whether Christianson is a “prevailing plaintiff.” A plaintiff prevails if he or she “succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

         Under Sections 1983 and 1988, courts are “not limited to awarding fees only when a constitutional or civil rights claim is actually decided.” Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 132 (1980). “[W]hen a district court ‘grants relief on a state-law claim in order to avoid a constitutional issue, it may award attorney's fees if the constitutional claim was “substantial” and both the constitutional and the state-law claims arose out of a “common nucleus of operative fact.”'” D.C., Inc. v. Missouri, 627 F.3d 698, 700 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Skokos v. Rhoades, 440 F.3d 957, 962 (8th Cir. 2006)). The “substantiality” element turns on whether the allegations of the complaint raised a substantial constitutional claim sufficient to confer jurisdiction. See Rogers Grp., Inc. v. City of Fayetteville, 683 F.3d 903, 912 (8th Cir. 2012). The “common nucleus of operative fact” element asks whether the plaintiff's claims are aimed at achieving the same result based on the same facts or legal theories. St. Louis Effort for AIDS v. Lindley-Myers, 877 F.3d 1069, 1073 (8th Cir. 2017).

         The Court will conclude that Christianson is a prevailing party entitled to reasonable attorney fees.

         A. Substantial Constitutional Claim

         First, the Court must consider whether the allegations in the Complaint raised a substantial constitutional claim to confer pendent jurisdiction. In his Section 1983 claim, Christianson alleged that Markquart violated the Due Process Clause and deprived him of a property interest by failing to assess whether Christianson was entitled to a waiver before assessing pay-for-stay costs against him. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-20, Apr. 20, 2016, Docket No. 1-1.); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court had original, federal-question jurisdiction over Christianson's Section 1983 claim because Markquart was acting under the color of Minnesota law as sheriff of Martin County. 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3). Christianson's due-process claim was not “frivolous, ” Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 539 (1974), or “so patently without merit” to go beyond the Court's jurisdiction, id. at 543 (quoting Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 683 (1946)); Davis v. Reagen, 630 F.2d 1299, 1301 n.6 (8th Cir. 1980). The Court had pendent jurisdiction over Christianson's state-law claim because the state-law claim was “so related” to the Due Process Clause claim that it “form[s] part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution.” 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Markquart argues that the Court was required to assess whether Christianson actually has a property interest for due-process purposes to determine whether Christianson has standing.[2] (Opp'n Mem. at 7, Feb. 14, 2018, Docket No. 54.) Markquart is mistaken. “The standing inquiry is not . . . an assessment of the merits of a plaintiff's claim.” Red River Freethinkers v. City of Fargo, 679 F.3d 1015, 1023 (8th Cir. 2012). Whether Christianson's alleged property interest is sufficient to state a due-process claim is a merits question and not one of jurisdiction. See Hughes v. City of Cedar Rapids, 840 F.3d 987, 993-94 (8th Cir. 2016) (reversing district court's standing determination where court considered adequacy of process). Rather, the Court finds that Christianson suffered a concrete, imminent harm by Markquart's inaction. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016); Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 573 n.8 (1992). Minn. Stat. § 641.12 is designed to protect the monetary interests of individuals who cannot afford pay-for-stay costs, and Markquart's violation subjected Christianson to collection attempts and the risk of future garnishment of his tax return. The Court concludes that Christianson had standing, the Court had jurisdiction, and, therefore, Christianson's due-process claim was substantial.

         B. Common Nucleus ...


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